"Five Decades of Insulator Collecting"
by (Part 2)
FIELD TRIPS, DISCOVERING NEW COLLECTORS AND MORE FINDS
Old railway rights-of-way in my area were diligently scoured for many miles around; as far as my bicycle would take me. Particular emphasis was given to an old Western Union telegraph line that ran through the center of my hometown of Brockton and extended in each direction for many miles. The line paralleled a railroad right-of-way and was dismantled in early 1967 upon my startling discovery of what seemed like an utter, overnight transition to semi-naked poles. The linemen had just got through removing the solid copper open wire and threw the crossarms onto the ground, with the insulators remaining on their pins. There were three crossarms on the upper section of each pole that supported the former Western Union wires with two additional ten-pin crossarms immediately below which remained in service for railway telephone and signaling purposes. Even though the majority of my finds were common CD #145 "B" beehives, Hemingray-40s, 42s, and Whitall Tatum No.1s, I brought most intact specimens home. An occasional CD #147 "spiral groove", dome dated W. Brookfield or Whitall Tatum No. 1 in purple sure did make my day! The dismantling project must have been done very quickly since the linemen often left the cut piece of line and tie wire on the insulators. An added bonus to these adventures was collecting these copper discards, traded for monetary delight at the end of the day at the local scrap dealer.
Searching for insulators and adding them to my collection became an almost insatiable addiction being fueled by all of these finds! Instead of becoming involved with school sports and other "normal" activities, spare time after school and during weekends was spent looking for insulators and writing to the few collectors that were out there all about my finds. I lived, breathed and dreamed about insulators! While some other young people my age were experimenting with LSD and other drugs, my thing was doing insulators; and let me tell you the "high" I got was truly wonderful! Having always been an avid pop/rock music lover, I remember the songs "Light My Fire" by the Doors and "Society's Child" were topping the charts right at that time on my favorite radio station.
My first contact with another insulator collector indeed was a surprise. Up until this introduction I never realized that anyone else in the world ever collected such things. However, I awoke to that mistaken notion during March 1967 when I received a letter from a collector like myself, who was from the Seattle, Washington area. He was given my name and address by one of my friends at the Ohio Brass Company. Apparently, this young man wrote the company inquiring about the insulators they made and my contact person there was delighted to introduce the other fellow to me since we had insulator collecting in common. We exchanged a few letters describing our collections for a short time. I do not remember who this collector was or whatever became of our correspondence, but it was an exciting encounter having then realized there was someone out there like myself who had virtually identical interests. This introduction and correspondence led the way to numerous more with others already established in the hobby in subsequent months.
Thanks to one of the public relations staff people whom I had been pen pals with at the Western Electric Company headquarters in New York City, I was thrilled to find out about my first known book about insulators. This book was authored by Mr. N.R. Woodward and titled "The Glass Insulator in America, 1965 Progress Report". I immediately sent away for it and soon learned afterward there were a couple insulator articles that had just been printed in an antiques magazine, "Western Collector". So, I wasted no time ordering the May and June 1967 issues of this publication, which featured a two-part background story about the history of glass insulators, authored by the late Claire McClellan. These were the first two research articles published relative to insulator collecting.
This early, pioneer material contained well written descriptive information about insulators, their purpose of differing designs, patents and manufacturers. Reading this fascinating literature opened a magical door that thrilled me about insulator collecting to what I thought had no end! Previously I had known nothing about the history of insulator manufacturers, patents, etc., or anything about the enticing colors, styles and markings described in the literature I had just received. It was upon this learning adventure when insulator collecting had much more meaning to me. As a result I was hot to acquire as many variations as I humanly could, knowing they were out there waiting to be had.
Not long after my first real insulator correspondence began, which was with Mrs. McClellan and regular correspondence soon started with Mr. N.R. Woodward. I continued to maintain contact with my correspondents at Ohio Brass and General Electric's Insulator Department. Every word Mr. Woodward and Mrs. McClellan told me describing their collections, insulator hunting expeditions and the insulators they knew about fascinated me beyond belief. It was quite a discovery, for example, when Mrs. McClellan wrote: "I know that some Brookfield insulators have been located with the 1865 patent date and Cauvet name lettered on them." Not having anything even closely resembling that stimulated a lot of excitement, giving me one more "exotic" insulator type to look for.
In initial correspondence with Mr. Woodward concerning my curiosity and inquiry about some of the insulator styles that were new and intriguing to me (such as the "Liquid Insulator" illustrated and described in Mrs. McClellan's Western Collector insulator column), Mr. Woodward responded with this comment representative of his years of experience and wisdom: "Most of the insulators you described are unusual and rare. However, they will eventually be found, and in the most unexpected places." Upon reading this I took Mr. Woodward's words of experience and wisdom quite seriously, and my earnest quest for elusive insulators in odd designs and unusual colors began at once. As I look back upon my 35-plus years of involvement in the insulator hobby, I have found that truer words have never been written!
It was not long after I realized that Mr. Woodward's advice was real, for sure. During July 1967 I wrote the Armstrong Cork Company in Millville, New Jersey describing my hobby and I stated that I would like to add any out of the ordinary production samples to my collection. They kindly responded that other than the common, clear pintypes they were manufacturing then, the only items they could help me with were a few clear, "earlier, obsolete" insulators that were stashed away in their archives that they were willing to part with. They said I could have them for free if I wanted them. I promptly replied stating that I was most interested! A couple weeks later a package arrived. Mailed from the Armstrong people came two somewhat differing insulators. These were CD #240.2s in clear, one having a brass covered saddle groove and brass lined pinhole and the other only has the brass pinhole with an all glass crown. I was most excited about my two new acquisitions! It was not until the 1970's when I realized how rare these two pieces really were. During their trip to Millville in the mid 1970s, insulator book authors, the late Marion and Evelyn Milholland were given one of these insulators and they were told by a knowledgeable company representative that less than 200 of this design were produced, many years before. A limited amount of information is known about these insulators. I suspect that these brass crown/pinhole combinations were prototypes for reducing power line interference on account of the location of their electrical conducting surfaces on the insulators' glass.
Having Mr. Woodward's book and the two Western Collector columns almost memorized, I started scouting for additional collectors to correspond with as much as for all of the insulator variations I had so very much enjoyed reading about and seeing in Mrs. McClellan's photographs. I established regular letter writing with Mr. Woodward and Mrs. McClellan by the early part of the summer of 1967 and this enjoyment continued for quite a long time. Added delight was derived from occasional trades. I will never forget the indescribable, awesome thrill I experienced when I received my first deep purple insulator, which was a W.G.M. Co. "toll". It was from an exchange Mrs. McClellan and I had agreed upon. I could not believe an insulator could be so deep, beautiful and spectacularly colored! My heart throbbed with amazement as I unwrapped the insulator! This was my first insulator swap, which took place about August 1967. To this day this insulator has a very special place in my collection. Mrs. McClellan was quite impressed with my collecting spirit and we traded several other nice insulators in subsequent months, happily adding them to our collections. Two years later, in 1969, she invited me to be guest columnist in her regular monthly column in Western Collector, titled "Insulator Hot Line". It was an honor in the March 1969 issue when she wrote an interesting article titled "A Youthful Insulator Collector" which gave some detailed background describing my insulator collecting endeavors and discoveries during my preceding years.
Leads via Mrs. McClellan and others I had come in contact with helped me to discover others with like interests, exchanging letters and insulators with enthusiasts like myself from all over the country. By late 1967, letter writing was a regular thing for this lad and continued to be for numerous years to come. Insulator books by John C. Tibbitts and Marion Milholland which had recently been published gave me many more variations and colors to add to my want list. As a result, insulator trading flourished.
Starting to have a particular fancy and desire for color, I started to take specific note and a closer look at the glass and porcelain insulators that were on the poles in my home town and in neighboring communities. I was discovering that the realm of porcelain insulators extended well beyond the usual brown and white ones and that glass insulators went far beyond the typical aquas and clears. In 1967 I was only fifteen and my primary mode of transportation for insulator expeditions was via bicycle. Beyond requesting that family trips be rerouted so I could visit insulator companies, I did not push my luck too much further in obtaining insulators near home by asking that they drive me to my "insulator gold mines". So, I equipped my two-wheeled express with a pair of carrying baskets in the rear. Designed for light duty use like carrying newspapers or the like, I reinforced these satchels with pieces of solid wire for added integrity. To this day I don't know how I ever managed to pack up to twenty pounds of insulators in each steel-wired basket and ride my bike back home, sometimes taking two to four hours for the round trip. Pedaling uphill was always a feat, so I typically walked my bike with all the goodies until I got to the hill's crest. From there going downhill required much care, physical balance and good brakes on account of the significant momentum bundled behind me. However, I completed these trips safely every time. Hardly any insulators ever got chipped or damaged since I carefully wrapped each one before heading back, putting them into a large paper grocery bag, inconspicuously lining my carrying baskets. Despite many long bicycle journeys I always safely and successfully accomplished each mission, with determination being my number one motivating force. Before leaving home I mentioned to my parents I was going out "looking for insulators" in vagueness, not necessarily revealing where and how far I had to travel. Despite the time involved, I always got back home about the time I said I'd arrive, typically by suppertime. Luck had to have been on my side since my most dreaded thought during those excursions was an unrepairable breakdown or, worse yet, a flat tire at significant distance from home. Very fortunately neither ever happened when I was so far away on so many occasions!
By late 1967 I continued to make more and more field trips. These took place during afternoons when I got home from school, on weekends and during school vacations. The latter was when the longer treks took place. Our family relocated to our grandparents' home in September 1967, which was about 15 miles or so away and this gave me new frontiers to explore. I no longer had the luxury of setting up backyard displays there like I formerly did, so I had more time on my hands to do additional scouting around in my new territory. There were different rail lines to check out and the electric utilities that had some of the more interesting glass were closer to my new residence. Insulators were plentiful then and I continued to have very good cooperation from the people I got to know at area utilities. I always carried a copy of the Ohio Brass Company article (in Electrical World magazine) that described my visit with them and my insulator collecting pursuits, as well as a photo or two of my collection. These materials were often instrumental in convincing utility people who I was just starting to know that I was a bona-fide collector of such things. Thus, questions like "What do you do with all of them?" and head scratching by utility staff I had come in contact with was kept to a minimum. This really helped me get into some fantastic areas like backrooms that had barrels of insulators that had not seen the light of day in decades. Most of the utilities and fire alarm signal departments who hoarded retired insulators through the years were happy to help me out and usually permitted me to look through these old barrels, allowing me to take any I wanted. Having insulator books and information gathered from other knowledgeable collectors gave me specific types to look for. I could then identify and read about the backgrounds of my historic finds when I got home. I was very entertained!
There were and still are numerous smaller municipally owned electric utilities in my area, plus many older towns which had lots of vintage open-wire fire alarm lines. So, within a reasonable bike riding distance I had more than ample sources for neat insulators during the mid- to late 1960s. And there was quite a variation of insulators out there to be had. For instance, one town used yellow U-292 porcelain uniparts by the hundreds to identify their street lighting wires. A one and a half-hour bike trip to their municipal light department's storage barn yielded a couple dozen of these unusually glazed insulators in October 1966 and the people there were more than happy to give them away. Another municipal utility employed golden to vivid orange CD #233 Pyrex-661s on their primary circuits. My excursion to this particular town took place on a hot day in the summer of 1968 and was two hours away by bicycle. The utility people there were very cooperative and invited me to their storage shed located in the rear of their main building. To my delight there were at least two dozen, if not more, of these beautiful carnival glass insulators, ranging from light golden to rich orange. I was determined not to leave any of these spectacular pieces behind, so I packed them into my bicycle carrying baskets to overflowing proportions. One of the office workers there noted the incredible weight bestowed upon my bike as it sagged in the rear to the point the rear tire was half flattened out. She was further concerned that I lived nearly 20 miles away and that transporting the apparent critical mass of all of my weighty booty by pedal power would have been nearly physically impossible, not to mention dangerous. She happened to live about five miles from home and gracefully offered to stash my bicycle and insulators in the rear of her station wagon when their office closed for the day giving me a ride to where she resided. The location where she dropped me off was right on my way back and I remember her asking, "Are you still going to make it home okay?" I assured her that I was going to and heartily thanked her for the much needed ride. It was a tough haul, just the same, due to the afternoon heat and the weight of all the insulators. I really wonder to this day if I could have successfully tackled the entire return trip back without her help...which would have certainly taken a lot longer than the two hours to arrive at the utility's headquarters, possessing a 50 pound payload to lug back home! Indeed, the Pyrex-661 carnivals were nice additions to my collection and the duplicates enabled me to trade for and add some desired insulators from enthusiastic collectors desiring to trade good stuff for them.
A seashore community nearby that had its own electric department had lots of "hat" style low voltage porcelain insulators on their primary and secondary lines which ranged from very pale light powder blue to deep royal blue. To this day the old timers who worked there affirm that they used blue insulators atop their poles solely for aesthetics and not for the typical wire or circuit identification purposes, as these specially colored insulators generally were intended for by other electric companies. In addition, there were some rather interesting and unique streetlights in service in that town, such as a few early 1950s-era 100 watt mercury fixtures employing porcelain-enameled "half-moon" reflectors with T-10 admedium base lamps. These were utilized in Wheeler "round head" fixtures that had a remote photocontrol but the ballast was built within the head. Other interesting vintage streetlighting fixtures that caught my eye in service there back in the 1960s there were the 400 watt mercury single-walled (earlier version) and later cast aluminum Westinghouse OV-20s. Since these had become obsolete styles to the utility by then, they did not reuse these luminaries so they were available for the taking, making neat additions to my early day streetlight fixture collection. Of the various streetlights I set up in my backyard from 1964, I operated an OV-20 in 1966 using a 100-watt mercury lamp within the fixture. The ballast was mounted near my bedroom window and the lamp load was wired from there, through an adjacent tree to the luminarie mounted on a four-foot pipe arm attached to my eight-foot high pole. I thought it was so "cool" to have a "cobra" style fixture then, since practically all others I had accumulated were incandescents of older types. Although the fixtures I obtained from this municipal utility back then are long gone, several unusual mercury lamps and two original 100 watt mercury lamp ballasts complete with their admedium sockets survive to this day in my collection despite several moves I have experienced during the past 35 years.
This small municipality was a good source for fixtures, lamps and parts and their headquarters was a short walk from one of the oceanside beaches our family used to frequent. Instead of frolicking in the sand, sun and water like everybody else, I preferred to make regular trips to their office and yard on weekdays and other times when they were still open which was sometimes after their usual regular business hours. I was a most welcome visitor there. I first approached this utility in 1964 and instantaneously made a nice friendship with their storekeeper, who was an elder gentleman having worked there since the 1930s. He was very casual and always gave me the full run of the place every time I happened by. Excursions to their facility also took place from my grandparents' house, which was only a half-hour bike ride away. So, streetlights and other bulkier things were manageable to return with. Since this would have otherwise would have been a two-hour (one-way) trip from where I lived in Brockton (which I undertook several times!) I typically spent the better portions of my school vacations at my grandparents' (until late 1967 when we moved there), making certain that my bicycle got included with the things necessary for each several-day visit!
Local fire alarm departments used all sorts of glass insulator pintypes, many differing from town to town, most having one or two in their storage barrels that was well out of the ordinary. Several of these acquisitions remain unique in the hobby to this day! The reception I received from these city and town-owned fire alarm divisions enabled me to add further variety to my insulator collection during the late 1960s. Among my most memorable finds were no less than six CD #134 deep amber T-H.E. insulators and a rich yellow-green CD #138 Postal Tel. Co. with unusually large Postal lettering. These were given to me as I dug through an old insulator barrel in a fire alarm department back room in October 1967. Having seen these deeply colored T-H.E. Co. insulators on their and lines in neighboring towns, I originally thought and felt for sure they were the amber Armstrong insulators I had been reading about in Mr. N.R. Woodward's book. However that assumption certainly proved indeed incorrect! I was totally surprised when I discovered that the deep amber insulators I had been eyeballing on poles had T-H.E. Co. markings and so was Mr. Woodward when I told him about this fantastic and my other unusual finds! The Postal is the only one I have ever seen with such large lettering and vivid color and it remains among my favorite pieces. Although there were no other CD #138 Postals on that department's lines, remaining in service were no less than a dozen deep amber T-H.E. Co. insulators by late 1967. What a beautiful sight it was to see these insulators on their crossarms! On a cloudy day you could not tell the difference between one of these and a typical brown "hat" style porcelain insulator unless you looked very closely. However, the thrill was on a sunny day when you could readily see the insulator's pin glow a dark but distinct rich orange as the sunlight passed through the insulator's deep, richly colored glass. These insulators were used only in two or three towns in my area. Less than about 35 or 40 of them in various states of condition are known to be in captivity; the vast majority of them having passed through my hands. An experienced lineman-friend who also was a collector swapped out most of these insulators for me. I personally exchanged several of these by myself in the less obvious, easier to get locations. By 1972, most of these had been taken down and I made some good trades with my duplicates through the years, enhancing my collection with some equally rare specimens.
Among the old lines with interesting glass on them was an ancient two-wire iron wire fire alarm circuit that was strung along a mile or so of pole line that extended through a portion of a state park. I had always been rather intrigued by this line since it appeared to have all sorts of old and different looking insulators on it, some in shapes I had not seen in service before. The line was set back from the street at a short distance, paralleling the busy roadway. It followed a paved walkway that principally was used as a walking, jogging or bicycle path and pretty much was out of view of any onlookers who might be driving by.
During October 1968 I decided to set forth and do some investigation before the foliage was lost from the trees. The line was cut clear on both ends and every pole had pole steps, so getting up to the four-pin crossarm on each was an easy task. I covered most of this circuit during the course of about three or four Saturdays. There definitely was some old glass insulators upon it since all were aqua, many of which were CD #133 and CD #134 signal styles that dated prior to 1900. Among my finds were a couple CD #134 C.E.L. Co.'s; unmarked CD #134 Pennycuicks; T-H.E. Co.'s; a couple CD #138.2 Nationals and other vintage insulators that once supported the old, rusty wire upon their aged crossarms. Most of these insulators became new additions to my collection. My expeditions there were a lot of fun and the most "thrilling" find and time I had there waited until the very end.
An odd, slim looking insulator that appeared obscure and definitely different than anything I had ever seen before in service was on one of the last poles along the stretch. The pole was not visible from the roadway like most of the others that traversed the narrow, seldom used walkway. Typically, upon making my climbing maneuvers, I stashed my bike somewhere near the base of the pole, made my climbs swiftly and wasted no time moving on from there. When I went to pursue my odd-looking goodie, as usual nobody was in sight so I put my ten-speed adjacent to the pole and up I went. As I reached the crossarm two things happened about simultaneously that could not have been in more emotionally opposite extremes. Upon reaching my "destination" the insulator surely was an odd-ball... it was a CD #112 New Eng. Tel. & Tel. Co. "keg", which had been a previously unreported piece up until then. In addition, I had never found or seen a CD #112 on a pole before. I was so excited! At the same time I heard footsteps clunking below from behind me. At first thought I thought it was just some other kids so I did not give it any more thought, so no problem. However, I turned around and looked down, just the same. Upon doing so there was a fully uniformed policeman sitting on a big brown horse! Apparently he was doing some routine patrolling and was mystified by sighting a lone, apparently abandoned bicycle in the woods. He stopped his horse and carefully looked around as I froze to the pole directly 20 feet above, not making a solitary sound or move! He remained there stopped for a couple minutes (it seemed like forever) surveying the vicinity, VERY fortunately NOT looking up! During that short time horrible, devastating thoughts about being arrested and brought to the station frantically were racing through my mind. I was so scared! If my parents EVER found out! Not noticing anything and remaining mounted on his horse; the policeman ever so slowly proceeded forward ahead, still looking for clues. When he approached a bend in the path a hundred or so feet ahead, I untied the insulator, got down the pole in an instant and hopped on my bike, taking off in the other direction for home in record-breaking speed! I remember it surprised me how fast my ten-speed could travel!