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Let There Be Light

Before the first power lines were strung, a wondrous invention—the Delco generator—brightened rural Texans’ nights

In the 1930s, my grandfather was considered a successful East Texas farmer in northwest Sabine County. In addition to a smartly arranged six-room house with front and back porches, my grandparents had a large barn, an efficient blacksmith shop, a car shed, smokehouse, woodshed, potato shed and the required outhouse. Since their home was my El Dorado, I still clearly remember every structure.

The hayloft and the trough that fed eight mules at the same time were the two main attractions of the large barn. On countless occasions, I shucked 64 ears of corn, scattered them along the length of the trough and watched eight mules (all mares) eat together in harmony with impeccable manners. The bright red coals in the forge at the center of the blacksmith shop immediately grabbed my attention, but at the same time flashed a heads-up to my bare feet. The car shed, with its dirt floor, had a powerful smell of gasoline, kerosene, inner tubes and fresh earth. With its rock-lined fire pit in the center of the floor, the smokehouse was pitch-black once the door slammed shut. Prior use had blackened all surfaces.

The woodshed was an open structure that smelled of seasoned oak and rich pine. Six feet by 8 feet and only 4 feet high, the potato shed was deeply padded with dried pine needles and housed both sweet potatoes and Irish potatoes. The outhouse requires no description and was known as the final destination of all Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward catalogs.

That leaves one other building, a 10-by-10-foot structure with one door and two hinged wooden windows—the Delco house, which held something called a Delco-Light Plant: a gasoline-powered electric generator made by the Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company (DELCO) in Dayton, Ohio. The generators proved invaluable for rural Texans, most of whom did not have electricity service in the early 1930s.

The building felt mystical, a challenge to my reasoning, an escape route for my imagination. And I was under strict orders not to enter it except in the presence of my grandfather. Because he entered the building only once a day, an hour before dark, I worked out my afternoon schedule around the Delco.

There were two dozen different Delco models built in the Dayton plant. My grandfather’s Delco unit had three major components: an integrated gasoline engine and generator, a bank of 12 batteries and an electrical lightbulb system inside my grandparents’ house. By charging the batteries each afternoon, we had a few hours of electricity for lights at night.

At Delco time, my grandfather would swing the door open, serving two purposes: It allowed for the quick release of gasoline and kerosene fumes and let in the day’s remaining rays of sunlight to help him see. Inserting a key that sounded the password of admittance, he punched a button to start the single-cylinder, air-cooled engine directly connected to a direct-current generator running on gasoline. As soon as the engine heated, it switched over and ran on kerosene, a cheaper fuel.

The engine powered the generator, and the generator recharged the 12 batteries. When the charge was complete, the unit shut itself off. The batteries, then fully charged, provided several hours of 32-volt DC power to operate the house lights and a smattering of small appliances.

The gasoline engine/generator was bolted to a foot-high concrete block in the center of the wooden shed. A 11/4-inch steel pipe, connected directly to the engine, extended horizontally through the north wall for 6 inches and was capped with a round muffler about 6 inches in diameter.

The muffler’s characteristic sound grabbed my fancy and never relinquished it. The engine, as already mentioned, had only one cylinder giving the harsh running sound of “POP … POP … POP … POP … POP …” Rather than muting the sound, the muffler merely softened it to a gentle “puff … puff … puff … puff … puff …” The exhaust sound carried as far, but with a kiss-like softness that caressed the eardrums.

Watching every move my grandfather made in the Delco house, it wasn’t long before I knew every start-up tactic by heart and was begging him to let me take over the responsibility of charging the batteries every evening. He refused, probably because he personally held the Delco in respect, treating routine procedures with caution. He continued to stand firm on his rejection, and I never got to run the generator. But no matter where I was, I ran for the Delco house when I heard that “puff … puff … puff …”

As the late 1930s marched across our calendars, bringing a world of progress and change, Grandfather’s little Delco lost its position as an obedient power source. Deep East Texas Electric Cooperative, established in 1938, spread through the backwoods and country roads, offering tremendous progress in electricity, and my grandfather signed up. The Delco went idle, and I never got to hear a “puff … puff … puff …” again.

Harry Noble, frequent contribu