"Five Decades of Insulator Collecting"
by (Part 3)
THE ELUSIVE "PONY" INSULATOR PURSUIT
Looking back, it is amazing what neat insulators were still in use on poles in the late 1960's. I will never forget how excited I got when I first saw a CD #102 So. Mass. Tel. Co. embossed pony style insulator. That was during the early part of the summer of 1969. I actually forget who owned the piece but the collector who did said that he definitely was not interested in parting with it. This little aqua insulator really tantalized me and I simply had to get one for myself! This was a previously unknown and unreported marking and I was determined to find a So. Mass. Tel. Co. insulator of my own, especially since I lived in southeastern Massachusetts where the company had existed.
During that August my family and I were driving past an old, abandoned railway crossing about 40 miles from home that I had never known about. Unfamiliar with the area, I readily made note of the location since it looked very interesting, particularly because some old poles were within plain view during the few seconds we crossed the railroad. I immediately made plans to visit the site for a closer look at my first opportunity. I returned a couple days later and noticed that the rails and ties had long since been removed, leaving only an obscure path. A crude line with two side pins on each pole with wire and insulators followed this most interesting pathway. I parked alongside the road and was most anxious to investigate this line further. I remember the song "Come Together" by the Youngbloods was playing on the car radio. I got out, arranged the necessary tools for the venture and began my walk. Upon examination I readily noted that all of the aged cedar telephone poles in sight were about 15 feet high and they continued in each direction from where I was standing what looked like and turned out to be a substantial distance. The short poles made it easy to decipher exactly what type each insulator was, right down to the lettering. I do not think I walked in more than five pole spans from where I parked when I spotted an insulator on the next pole that really looked odd. "What the heck is this?" I asked myself. "A clear CD #102 pony? No, it can't be, I've never heard of such a thing!" Well, I started to lose my composure when I got close to the pole and looked straight up and saw that the clear insulator had "So. Mass. Tel. Co." lettering staring right at me! "WOW!" I exclaimed with passion. I thought I was dreaming for sure! The So. Mass. Tel. Co. insulator the other collector had was aqua and there I was drooling over a clear one, no more than ten feet from my reach. Without wasting a second, I climbed up that skinny pole for a face-to-face look. I simply could not believe my eyes upon touching it. Even though the insulator had a nickel-sized dome bruise, a voice from somewhere said, "Take me!" I had a replacement insulator right with me, so I carefully unwrapped the insulator's tie wire and neatly secured its new "upgrade".
Upon this return trip I came prepared with gloves, safety belt, climbing hooks and of course, a quantity of replacement insulators. I remember putting a slightly damaged, common CD #106 Dominion - 9 in light straw onto the side pin where my beloved So. Mass. Tel. Co. insulator had perched. It was about two years later when a new collector from that area happened to find and search that line. I had already covered it thoroughly by then (all eight miles of it) and that collector was mystified how in the world a Canadian insulator wound up on a phone line in southern Massachusetts. That collector was scratching his head about this for a few years until he told me about his most unusual discovery. I explained to him how I had canvassed that line some time back and the Dominion insulator was no more than an inexpensive replacement I had put there in place of my big find. To this day we get a good chuckle when we speak of his elusive Dominion encounter.
After doing the right thing by replacing the insulator, I proceeded down the pathway and carefully checked every pole for whatever glass gems might be on them. After several field trips were conducted, I concluded that about every tenth or twelfth pole had a So. Mass. Tel. Co. insulator on it; approximately one in six of these insulators were clear and the remaining aqua. What an adventure! Other insulators encountered were CD #102 and 121 Brookfields, CD #106 Hemingray No. 9s, and CD #104 and 121 New Eng. Tel. & Tel. Co. insulators. All the desirable insulators were replaced with common ones. Later, I found out that this was an active, private telephone line and was constructed many years earlier by whatever materials were available; hence, the diversity of insulators along its path. I invited a couple other collectors to participate in this treasure hunting experience and can confidently say that the majority of So. Mass. Tel. Co. insulators in the hobby today were liberated from that old line, which was in the heart of where that small telephone company operated. I became so intrigued about these insulators that I wrote the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company's headquarters in Boston and they replied with much historical documentation about their operation, which commenced about 1880 and continued to 1938 when Southern Massachusetts Telephone Company's service territory was completely bought out by New England Telephone.
MORE VINTAGE LINES IN 1969
In addition to the So. Mass. Tel. Co. insulators, many quality pieces were still in use on local fire alarm telegraph open-wire lines. The oldest insulators were probably used several or more times over since first installed before the turn of the century. Since the majority of these iron-wire lines were slated for upgrading, whatever was taken down usually was free for the asking. Desirable insulators on other similar lines that looked like they were going to remain in service a while were substituted by me personally, or by a good friend who was a lineman/collector with whom I split the booty with at the end of the day.
One town I happened upon was more than happy for me to cart away about 100 insulators recently retired from service, put in a barrel headed for the dump. That was during mid-1969, when I got my driver's license, so there was practically no limit to the quantity of insulators I could bring home in one trip, not to mention the reprieve from tiring bicycle-pedaling effort! On that day I managed to score about a dozen CD #196 H.G. Co. No. 51s in deep aqua that were in excellent condition; several CD #116 Brookfields; and lots of aqua CD #134 T-H.E. Co.'s and old mold line over the dome Brookfield signals. Like my other sizable windfalls of relatively impressive insulators that I discovered, I kept the best and added the remainder to my regularly published and advertised trading lists and to my for sale ads in insulator periodicals of the time.
So, being behind the wheel by the middle of 1969 (when the family car was available!) was the dawn of new insulator hunting frontiers for me. It was as thrilling to me as stepping onto the moon was for the astronauts who had just landed there.
I carefully canvassed and surveyed old fire alarm telegraph lines for many miles around. Since I had few collectors to compete with, unusual insulators spotted ended up in my hands if I could get them down from service. I had pretty good luck with linemen who were cooperative in replacing insulators for me. And, as lines got upgraded, special items spotted typically were waiting for me, set aside among the old crossarms and wire that had been retired from service. On abandoned and dead lines that looked like their days were numbered and on a few active, low-voltage fire alarm circuits I continued to share the wealth with an experienced lineman/collector who lived about an hour away and was instrumental in retrieving insulators that I would have otherwise not been able to acquire. All I had to do is identify where the goodies were and after obtaining the proper consent, where applicable, we proceeded to retrieve some exotic jewels, many of these native only to this portion of New England.
What were the pieces we were going for, you might ask? Well, one day in 1970 we retrieved about 15 Fall River Police Signals; ten City Fire Alarm insulators; two CD #160.7 American Insulator Co.'s; and a super opalescent CD #134 Diamond-P. On other expeditions we were able to liberate several deep amber CD #134 T-H.E. Co.'s; a few dozen CD #138.2 and 157.5 Standards; two CD #144.5 Patent 1890 style in aqua; a few CD #138.2 Nationals and lots of other nice glass.
During May 1969 I discovered a maze of old electric and telephone lines in a large wooded area nearby which had just become a state park. This tract of land once was a government-owned munitions depot during World War II and the Korean War, and had all sorts of roads crisscrossing through it; many of which still had utility poles along them. All of the wire had been removed, however most of the insulators remained in place. It was apparent that the state parks personnel were gearing up to cut down most of these poles, so getting to the insulators before they did was most critical!
Most of my expeditions there were shared with one of my cousins who also had quite an interest in looking for insulators at the time and accompanied me on these and a number of other memorable expeditions in our area through the early 1970s. Although the majority of the insulators lugged home from this newly discovered location were clear Hemingray - 43s, they were a neat style and we had lots of fun fetching them. Most were only up 15 or 20 feet and the poles without steps got some use of my new pair of Klein climbing hooks that I had saved up and sent away for. Since the family car was unavailable for these adventures, tried-and-true, good old bicycle power was used, with bagfuls of insulators toted back with us every time.
About a month before graduating from Weymouth High School in 1969, many of my fellow classmates were preparing for the traditional "Senior Skip Day". The plan was to take the bus to school in the usual manner and meet up with a bunch of other kids in the parking lot who had cars and then head to the Cape Cod vicinity for some kind of "outing". I did not want to join in with their plans but I liked the idea of taking the bus to school and having a "free" day off. The night before I quietly made covert arrangements with my cousin on the phone to secretly meet up with him near his house, which was about a 45-minute walk beyond my high school. There was a discontinued line in his area and we were eager to check it out. Before doing so we needed consent from the owner, who only was available on weekdays. All went as planned: I took the bus to school, I walked in the front door and took the liberty of going right out the back door up to a side street that quickly got me out to the main road. When we met that morning, we went after some the unusual insulators we had spotted. We got the needed permission from the owner of the dead lines on his company's property and climbed for about 20 or 25 CD #252 No. 2 Cable insulators in a nice, deep olive green. Despite the rain that arrived later, we had a great time going after these goodies. By mid- afternoon it was time for me to head back. Unfortunately I had no car, bike or any other means of transportation to accomplish this; so, with a heavy double- bagged assortment of great insulators, I had to hitchhike my way back home. My cousin had an easy walk, but I lived 10 miles away. After less than a half-hour with my thumb out my youngest uncle (a couple years older than me) pulled over in his MG Midget. I do not know what he was doing in that neck of the woods at that time and being absolutely puzzled, he immediately asked me the same thing. I forget what I gave him for an excuse, but he was cool about not telling my parents or anyone else about finding me in the strangest of places when I should have just been leaving school for the day. That was on a Friday and the next Monday the school principal assembled the "missing" students for a preaching...there were so many of us, in fact, it nearly took the entire auditorium to accomplish this. We were told to bring in written excuses the next day from our parents and I fondly remember how he told us that we were the worst class he ever had in his long-standing school administration career. I forged my note, got away with it and pursued to enjoy and make some neat trades from my share of the gorgeous No.2 Cable insulators captured. Some even swaps were for amber and cobalt blue Hemingray and H.G. Co. insulators midwestern collectors had, so I made many nice additions with this popular trading stock.
During 1969 I had the opportunity to meet one of the first insulator collectors I had been corresponding with, the late Margaret "Mike" Oveson. She was one of the very first members of our region's insulator group: The Yankee Polecat Insulator Club. She dedicated a significant amount of time and energy in establishing this organization, which formally began during November 1971 (the first and oldest insulator club in the hobby).
Mike organized and hosted the first three insulator get-togethers held in New England. These took place on the Grafton (Massachusetts) State Hospital grounds where she worked as an occupational therapist. Our first meet was during the early summer of 1969 was followed by two more, each in the summers of 1970 and 1971. These events were well attended and significantly contributed to organizing insulator collectors in New England and neighboring states, leading to the beginnings of the Yankee Polecat Insulator Club. The 1969 event is believed to have been the insulator hobby's third formally recognized show!
Mike was an intense, strong-minded, very logical individual and these traits certainly must have been instrumental in helping her patients recover and overcome their illnesses. She paid very much attention to detail. It was not unusual for her to stay up nights, with a minimum of sleep, analyzing every aspect and printed word within an insulator book, magazine, etc. She did the same with insulator colors, mold-lines, embossings, etc., and was known for rational, detailed conclusions about whatever she was researching or "putting a fine toothed comb" through.
I first got to know her some time in early 1969 and we continued our friendship for many years. Our introduction was initiated by the late Mrs. William Cook, who also lived in central Massachusetts, an hour or two away. Mrs. Cook and Mike enjoyed treasure hunting rocks, minerals and insulators for prior to when I met Mrs. Cook. The latter was during late 1968 and I believe she was the first insulator collector I had ever personally met. I enjoyed periodic visits with the Cooks and viewing they collection. It apparently was not too long thereafter when I was introduced to Mike. One of Mike's pet peeves was Mr. Cook's witty humor, very especially when he would purposely pronounce Whitall Tatum as "White Hall Tatum" and making sure that she heard "West Brookfield" while he observed a W. Brookfield insulator. Mike saw absolutely no sense of humor in such "careless" interpretations and pronunciations, while I looked on trying to bite my smile. Mike employed the English language exactly as was meant to be, with seriousness and correctness. Observing this quality in an admirable manner, as an impressionable young man I encouraged myself to write and express myself as well as she did. I'm hopeful some of these traits actually did "rub off", becoming part of my style through the years.
Insulator hunting expeditions for us were a regular thing from mid-1969 through the early 1970s. Either she or I would spot something good in our travels and later we would return and retrieve whatever insulator goodies were out there waiting for us. Among the insulator hunting excursions we shared were a few visits to the aforementioned So. Mass. Tel. Co. telephone line. A section of railroad line near her residence had many CD #162 Brookfields ranging from clear to light-medium purple. She spotted that line, and like all our other insulator hunting adventures, Mike was most considerate and generous when it came to splitting up all the loot at the end of the day. There were numerous other hunts we pursued, snagging a good insulator here and there. For instance, I brought to her attention that we should check out the insulators upon an abandoned, old, iron-wire fire alarm telegraph or telephone line in a rural, wooded area right near where she lived. It apparently was constructed way back when with a hodge-podge of surplus insulators from different places, since we found numerous interesting varieties such as a few CD #134 C.E.L. Co. and CD #112 embossed and unembossed S.B.T.& T. Co. specimens. Mike was a person of fine integrity and upon my mother readily observing this quality, Mike was duly trusted as we traveled long distances, always arriving safely home after I had climbed numbers of poles.
Mike and I had a lot in common. Among these similarities was my ability to sniff out the good insulators very readily wherever I traveled. I absolutely amazed her (which was difficult for anyone to do!) when I spotted several dark aqua "Santa Ana" (CD #178) insulators out of the corner of my eye several hundred feet away from the road up along a heavily wooded path. She practically refused to believe that I could identify these insulators on that line at such a distance; only known then as an insulator style used exclusively on the West Coast. Contributing to her amazement, she knew she had to have been driving at least 50 miles per hour. The following day she went back for a closer look for herself and discovered that the insulators were indeed CD #178s! They eventually were identified as having been manufactured by the Brookfield Glass Company, in New Jersey.
On some other dead lines and others reaching retirement age I independently rescued some goodies such as a CD #134 Diamond-P insulator in cobalt blue; one in light green, fully saturated with snow and bubbles; another in delft blue and even a few more in exciting colors such as light green and Vaseline-like glass. Purple and amber insulators certainly stood out while perched on their crossarms and perhaps my greatest find of my own was an unembossed CD #134 with Oakman-style threads in medium orange amber during March 1971. I also managed to personally acquire several nicely colored purple CD #134 B.G.M. Co.'s and two CD #162 W. Brookfields in medium purple that I took out of service and "upgraded" to more modern pintypes in my area.
THE "BIG" JUMBO DISCOVERY
Among my many thrilling moments of insulator collecting was the day in 1974 when I discovered three CD #140 Jumbos on an old, abandoned brick building ready to be razed in an urban renewal area in a city not too far north of Boston. I discovered them purely by accident since my purpose that day was checking fire alarm lines in that vicinity that I had not inspected before. The three insulators were up about 25 feet sitting on a huge 6 by 10-inch crossarm that protruded from the building without any wires attached. "So close and yet so far!" I frantically exclaimed to myself. I went crazy wondering how in the world I was going to retrieve those awesome looking beauties before the wrecking ball got to them.
Quickly running out of ideas, (although returning with a ladder was not out of the question) I decided to head back home and give the matter some serious thought. As soon as I got a few blocks away, I took notice of an electric utility bucket truck parked by the side of the road. The crew was having their lunch and evidently were removing some poles and wire in the immediate area. Since I always traveled (and still do, just in case!) with various snapshots of my insulator collection in the car's glove box (not knowing when they could be unexpectedly handy and convincing), I went for the photos and put them into my pocket as I pulled up behind the utility truck. I got out and asked to speak to the boss, who seemed quite polite. I proceeded to introduce myself and my affliction for collecting insulators in a very impromptu but well-worded manner. He and the other crewmembers were quite interested in my discussion, particularly with the photos I showed them that got passed around and some close inspection. The boss stated that he didn't think they had anything different that I would want, but I was welcome to dig through the junk in the back of the truck and to take anything I wanted. Sensing his friendliness and receptiveness, I got up the courage to pop the big question. "You know, a few streets over there are three old insulators on a building ready to be torn down. I don't think I have any of those and I was wondering if it would be possible for one of your men to retrieve them in your bucket truck for me. They really do look interesting and I would be shameful for the wrecking crew to break them, anyway." The crew leader paused for a moment, giving what I said some thought. He replied, "Oh, yes, I know where you mean. I know which insulators you are talking about; they caught my eye the other day when we were working along that street. I guess it will be OK."
Boy, did I breathe a deep sigh of relief! About ten minutes later, before resuming their work, the crew pulled up in front of the building where the Jumbos were. Up went the lineman in the bucket. He had to make a long reach since the bucket barely extended alongside the building to the point where he could unscrew the big insulators from their mammoth pins. After a little tugging and apparent resistance he had the third one off and down in the bucket came the hard working, gracious lineman as the boss casually watched, puffing on his half lit cigar. I could not believe the size of these insulators as they were handed to me. The boss agreed they were something he up close hadn't seen before. "Those will probably look nice after you clean them" he said, adding "that one you've got there has some chips but that doesn't matter, does it?" "Nah!" I replied. The insulators were heavily sooted with many layers of building paint caked on them, so you could not tell at the time what color they were. I thanked these gentlemen over and over again. They told me they felt good that they were able to add something worthwhile to my collection and concluded that it was time to return to work. So we shook hands and I drove straight home.
I wasted no time in getting my new acquisitions into the kitchen sink for a serious bath. Washing and scrubbing those three impressive insulators was an unexpected delight I will never forget. The first one turned out to be light aqua after nearly an hour of constant toiling with lots of cleanser and SOS pads. Additional elbow grease was required to get all the hardened soot off its base, which revealed Oakman lettering. I was very happy about that! The other two Jumbos were still soaking away in warm water as I completed soaking the Oakman. As I started on the second one, which had the base chipping, I noted that the piece had a darker color to it. While half cleaned, I held it up to the kitchen light and was excited to see that it was dark lime green in color! It turned out good looking and spectacularly colored, indeed! Despite the chewed up base on one side, it displayed very well from the other. Upon final detailing through its cleanup, I found no lettering on this one. However, the insulator's gorgeous color made up for everything else. About two and a half hours had elapsed before I got to scrubbing Jumbo number three. It had soaked well and I initially decided to let this one wait until last because it had a pretty good sized chunk out of its skirt, immediately below the wire groove. It was a clean break, sort of triangular in shape, about one and a half inches at its widest, so it really was not too badly injured.
Having made a great color discovery with the second Jumbo, I was rather curious what color my third one was. It was getting late in the evening but I decided to make a go of it since my curiosity was getting at the better part of me. At first I thought the insulator was light aqua, since I could see through the skirt somewhat before I started to clean the piece. However, about ten or fifteen minutes into its scrubbing operation the wild adventure truly went into overdrive! Not believing my eyes and certain I was dreaming, I held the partially cleaned insulator up to the light and saw that it was PURPLE! I nearly fainted due to the excitement! I just couldn't believe my eyes! Words cannot describe the euphoria I felt and the incredible rush of excitement of my thrilling, new acquisition! I revealed that the insulator had no other defects than the chip as described and that the color was medium purple with a neat milky swirl extending from close to its base to its crown, displaying best from its undamaged side. No markings were evident anywhere on the insulator.
Not long after the Yankee Polecat Insulator Club held their spring show in Connecticut, and having already reserved a display table for other nice insulators I intended to exhibit, the purple and lime green Jumbos really stole the show as onlookers pored over my display. From the moment I spotted my three CD 140s on that building through displaying them for the first time are among my happiest, most elusive collecting memories. To this day these three insulators have a very special place in my collection!