Getting a Charge out of Delco Generators

Delco generators powered farms before rural electrification

Don Wiley with his display of Delco generators

Don Wiley with his display of Delco generators at this summer's Brighton, Ill., show

G. Wayne Walker Jr.

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The next time you reach to turn on a light, stop yourself. Ask whether you really need the light, whether the generator's charged, whether you can do without. Then you'll have an idea of what it was like to live on a farm before rural electrification. 

Now, of course, an entire generation regards electricity as a basic birthright.

"Today, you talk to somebody under 40, they don't even know what a cream separator is, or what an outdoor toilet is," said Don Wiley, Sparta, III. Chances are equally good that they've never heard of a Delco generator. But in times past, the farmer who owned one was living high on the hog

"Only the wealthy farmer could afford a Delco," Don said.

At the close of the 20th century, a Delco generator is regarded as little more than a curiosity from another time. Although the compact units once generated power for such basics as lights, radio, refrigerator and iron, they turn up now mostly on junk heaps ... unless you're a collector, like Don.

Don and his brother-in-law, between them, have a collection of 30 to 40 Delco generators. The company's production of generators peaked between 1916 and 1946.

"During that time, Delco built 70 different models of generators," Don said. "We'll never have them all, but we have 10 different models."

Don's involvement with Delcos is tied up in family connections. Years ago, his father-in-law had a part-time job installing Delcos. A brother-in-law collected gas engines. Don leaned that way at first -picking up four or five along the way -- but didn't exactly fall in love with the relics. Then he reconsidered the Delco.

"I had studied industrial electronics," he said. "You don't see Delcos a lot. Nobody really understands the electrical part, and if you don't get that right, it won't run right. So I decided to narrow it down to Delcos."

Most Delco generators were used to recharge batteries.

"There'd be banks of batteries in an adjoining shed or basement," he said. "They had 16 jars, a row of eight on one shelf, and another row of eight on the next. Each tube had a hydrometer ball. When the battery started to work, the ball would drop, because the liquid was less dense. As that ball dropped, it gave the homeowner an indication that the battery was getting weak. Then they'd go to the generator, mainly to recharge the battery.

"People that remember using these things say they would just run the generator once a week, about two hours, to recharge it, and they'd run on the battery until it needed to be recharged."

Homeowners were reluctant to overuse the generators.

"When I talk to people at the shows," he said, "people who grew up with these, they'll remember dad saying 'Don't turn that light on, you're going to start the generator.'"

A generator represented a major purchase for most farmers.

"In 1941, a set of 16 glass batteries cost $310," Don said. "That was quite a lot of money."

But in most cases, it was a one-time purchase.

"If it was properly cared for, a generator would last a lifetime," he said.

Don does all of his own restoration.

"I use a wire brush a lot," he said, "and I use lacquer thinner to get the old grease and dirt off." Then it's a regimen of automotive paint with a catalyst hardener. Sometimes, the best answer to a tough subject is time.

"I bought a four-cylinder air-cooled unit that had been taken all apart," he recalled. "Before I got it, somebody got the idea of fixing it, got it all apart, and then gave up. The cover over the armature was laying there separate, the wires were loose, the armature looked like it had laid in the ground for about 20 years ... it was pretty rough. It was shorted through to the shaft. I didn't know if I'd ever get that working again or not. So I left it in the garage over the winter. In the spring, I checked it, and it had cleared up. I bead-blasted everything on it, and now it's one of the nicest pieces I've got."

Don also collects Delco memorabilia ("Anything I can get my hands on," he said). He has a rare five-gallon oil can with Delco lettering on it ("I haven't seen but two of those"), and cranks that go with the generators. Company literature is a great asset, he said, both as a collectible and as a resource.

"My brother-in-law got an original shop manual for the 750," he said. "If we hadn't had that, we would never have got that thing running." He also scours old farm publications in hopes of finding advertisements for new units. Don didn't grow up with a Delco in the house. His closest connection to the company was a wire reel sold at his father's estate sale.

"It was on a frame, and it had a crank so you could roll up electrical wire, and there was an outlet on the end," he said. "After dad died, we sold it in the sale. Later it turned out it was a Delco product, used to demonstrate Delcos. They'd take the generator out of the back of a Model A Ford, take the wire wheel to the house, and run the wire out for a demonstration."

By the time that discovery was made, though, the reel was long gone.

A self-employed remodeling contractor, Don is "retired but still working." His interests are varied. He's restored an old Bell sawmill for his own use. He's a wood carver, hangs wallpaper, works in stained glass, and is a bluegrass performer. Years ago, he was an active competitor in muzzle loading rifle contests. These days, though, he's happiest working with the Delcos.

"I never got into drugs," he said, "but I get the greatest highs in the world when I'm in the garage, working on those engines."FC 

For more information: Don C. Wiley, RR 1, Box 356, Sparta, III., 62286; (618) 443-2079.