Published on June 1, 2021

How Grandpa Ruffo lit up the house

By Roy Edwards
The Bulletin

Grandpa Ruffo built his house outside Tennessee Colony, Texas, in the late 1880s. The original lighting for the house was kerosene lamps. The walls all around the house held sconces for these “hurricane lamps.” The kitchen, dining and living rooms also had lamps hanging from the ceilings.

They hung from a pulley system so they could be raised and lowered. The lamps had to be raised out of the way of foot traffic and to spread more light. They were lowered to light, refilled with fuel, cleaned and have the wicks trimmed and were very decorative. The sconces had polished round slightly concave metal reflectors so that they would distribute more light and reflect heat away from the wall they were mounted to.

Kerosene back then was different from what’s on the market today. Demand for gasoline was very low because there were no automobiles and very few internal combustion engines in use. The refineries that produced kerosene made a much purer high-grade fuel with a lower flash point (ignition temperature). Basically, it was high-grade jet fuel.

Old western movies show somebody breaking a kerosene lamp and burning down half the town - that actually happened. My dad said that after Ruffo bought his first Ford Model T, they’d go to Tennessee Colony and buy half a tank of gasoline (15 cents a gallon) and fill the rest of the tank with kerosene (5 cents a gallon). By adjusting the spark lever mounted on the steering column, you could retard the electricity going to the spark plugs, and the little flat-head 4-cylinder engine would run just fine.

When Ruffo bought his first tractor, it had two fuel tanks. A two-gallon gas tank and a 20-gallon kerosene tank. To start the tractor, you opened the valve from the gas tank to fill the carbonator with gasoline. Then you spun the engine crank or the side-mounted fly wheel until the engine started. There was no battery or electric starter back then. Once the engine heated up to operating temperature, you shut off the valve to the gas tank, opened the valve to the kerosene tank, and you were ready to start plowing.

When you were through with the tractor for the day, you would shut off the kerosene valve and let the carbonator run out of fuel. If you forgot to do this, you had to take the fuel bowl off the carbonator and empty out the kerosene. It was next to impossible to start a cold motor on kerosene.

Kerosene was a dangerous fuel. Most times the lamps had a glass fuel tank so you could see when it needed to be refilled. Glass breaks. Many a structure was burned to the ground, and many lives were lost in the resulting fires.

Grandpa Ruffo knew the dangers of kerosene lighting. So, when a traveling salesman came by and told him that there was a safer way of lighting up the house, Ruffo gave him an audience. The new system was carbide gas.

Ruffo bought the system. My Dad said that the workers dug a pit next to the house. Then they installed a circular steel tank about 6 feet deep by eight feet across. Carbide chips were dumped into the tank. A water pipe was put into the bottom of the tank. Then, a slightly domed lid with a thick rubber gasket was lowered into the tank.

A reinforced, flexible hose was attached to the lid. The work crew then ran copper supply lines throughout the house and installed the light fixtures where Grandma Ruby wanted them. The copper supply lines were attached to the hose in the top of the tank.

The system worked. As water was introduced into the carbide storage tank, it produced a clean- burning gas. As the gas was produced, the pressure floated the airtight lid/gasket and caused the gas to flow throughout the house to the light fixtures. But, the system had some drawbacks.

First, there was a six-foot by eight-foot potentially explosive gas bomb just outside the house. Second, carbide gas produced a light with a yellowish tint. Third, each fixture had an open flame. Fourth, If the flame was blown out instead of being shut off with a valve, the house would be slowly filled with an explosive gas. Fifth, in a closed house, the gas could suffocate the occupants, and sixth, the removal of the spent carbide chips and recharging of the system was expensive, time consuming, and could not be done by the homeowner.


(Write Roy in care of The Bulletin. Email: john.bulletin@gmail.com. Snail mail: The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton TX, 77516.)