"Five Decades of Insulator Collecting"
by (Part 4)
LITERARY CONTRIBUTIONS AND COLLECTING THROUGH THE 1980s
Since its inception in June 1968, I had been a dedicated reader and regular contributor to the late Frances Terrill's monthly insulator column in Old Bottle Magazine. I was constantly letting writing letters to her rejoicing what my latest, hottest finds were and my news was included within her columns. I also enjoyed doing a few research articles in Western Collector, supplementing writings Mrs. McClellan was contributing to the magazine's "Insulator Hot Line" section. These articles continued through 1971.
I really enjoyed corresponding with Frances, and back issues of Old Bottle Magazine (commonly referred to as "OBX" -- Old Bottle Exchange, the monthly's original name) will attest to the fact that I contributed a lot of new discovery reports and well as research material. In mid-1973 Frances retired as the magazine's insulator editor and OBX's publisher began looking around for someone to assume this post of the famous "Insulator By-Lines" column. During May 1974 he contacted me and inquired if I would be interested in reinstating it, which had gone nearly a year without an insulator editor in charge. My prompt response was an overwhelming, assertive and enthusiastic "yes, I do!"
Starting with the July 1974 issue I got "Insulator By-Lines" off to a new, refreshed beginning, introducing myself and featuring a detailed write-up about Pennycuick insulators. Resurrecting the column's former momentum was a bit of a challenge because some collectors had thought once Frances left that the column had bit the dust. A number of insulator collector readers let their subscriptions lapse. Eventually, but not overnight, word got around that "Insulator By-Lines" was again alive and well. My insulator writing for OBX continued for the next seven years. This was indeed quite a pleasurable, rewarding and personally exciting experience. During that time I had the opportunity to correspond with more collectors than I had ever dreamed possible. In addition, updated, research information and reports of new finds were enthusiastically written about, keeping readers up-to-date with the latest info. My format generally included a feature article each month focused upon a specific insulator style, manufacturer or color(s). This was supplemented by my close-up insulator photographs and charts I personally drew that provided detailed, specific variations with estimated values for each insulator type discussed within my features. Questions and answers about insulators and go-withs also complemented my written material and assembling this material all together was a lot of fun, too! Looking back, contributing as Old Bottle Magazine's insulator editor was a challenging experience and responsibility, and remains among the fondest highlights of my insulator collecting career.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s the insulator hobby was undergoing somewhat of a change. The hobby was growing and the availability of desirable insulators on open-wire lines and sitting untouched for years in utility company backrooms was not quite like it was during the 1960s. However, the good finds remained out there; you simply had to look harder! For instance, during February 1988 I was startled when I saw something on an old pole that I thought I'd never see again...a deep amber T-H.E. Co. insulator! This discovery was only a few miles from home and was inconspicuously hidden on a two-pin crossarm on a very lightly traveled residential side street that I did not even know existed. The insulator was out of service, so I wasted no time in retrieving it! What a delightful sight it was to see the insulator's simmering orange wooden pin glow as the bright winter sunshine glimmered through the insulator's richly colored glass! Upon closer inspection, the insulator had a cute, little, pointed cone of snow symmetrically configured atop the insulator's crown from the flurries the night before. My new acquisition was as clean and mint as the day it was made. I'll never forget it's peaceful beauty, though, as it sat on its pin just before it made its way into my hands! Although I thoroughly searched the area for more, none have come to light since my 1988 find. However, the pursuit still continues!
As I mentioned, as the 1980s progressed, it remained without doubt that the good insulators were still out there waiting to be found... the mere fact is that you just had investigate possible leads and look for them with more earnest effort. Around late spring 1987 the Boston Globe printed a special and lengthy article in their Sunday newspaper magazine that was dedicated to the city's "Orange Line" or elevated railway in the western part of Boston. This monumental, historically rich symbol of urban transportation was completed in 1899 and extended several miles westward from downtown Boston. The first few miles of track were underground (and still is); the remaining continued to its terminus in Roxbury, extending on sturdy structures about 40 feet above city streets. All of the stations that were above ground were accessible by lengthy, wide stairways.
The Boston Globe report indicated that the elevated section of the Orange Line was scheduled for removal starting in early 1988, replaced by a newly built surface rail line paralleling it about a mile or so away. This was particularly exciting news to me because I knew that all of the known CD #267.5 N.E.G.M. Co. and the majority of CD #267 insulators (N.E.G.M. Co., No. 4 Cable and unmarked ones) known in the hobby had originated from that line. (Upwards of several hundred were outright removed from service while they were still in use by a few rather well known "collectors" during escapades in 1974 and 1975 without the consent of the transit authority.) The insulators were mounted on creosote cross-timbers directly beneath a catwalk that ran between the inbound and outbound rails. This walkway consisted of heavy, short sections of planks inserted perpendicular to the tracks with the cables suspended directly beneath. Due to the extreme weight of the copper stranded cable, which ranged from one to one and a half-inch in diameter, each span was only 10 or 15 feet. The four 600 volt direct current conductors simply stayed in place and rested in each insulator's saddle groove without the necessity of a tie-wire. This transit system's line construction was unique. Undoubtedly the CD #267.5 style was specifically designed for this installation. Many sections employed large, white porcelain "cleat" style insulators while some others were devoid of any insulators at all, with the live cables lying directly on their cross-timbers. The latter undoubtedly were the result of covert raids during prior years. So, the remaining glass ones were scattered here and there. In some places they were nicely silhouetted in plain view from the street below where daylight happened to pass through openings in the catwalk.
Despite concerted efforts in behalf of others in prior years, I was certain that a good many large cable style glass insulators still remained as of 1987. My mission was to inquire about obtaining whatever was left, from the demolition contractor as they began to disassemble the railway structures in early 1988.
Having gotten the "run around" I finally located the contractor's head supervisor who oversaw the project of removing the decommissioned railway. He operated his office from a conventional worksite trailer at the end of the Orange Line. I was eventually able to meet with him in person and when I did I explained that I was an insulator collector very much interested in obtaining those "old, dirty glass cable supports" that the copper wire was suspended upon. He knew exactly what I was talking about and upon my inquiry he responded that the insulators would be available... but "for a price." The quote he gave me seemed a bit steep but it was agreed that the insulators obtained would be free from chunks missing, etc., so at least the availability was certain. His concern was that it would involve an extra step for his labor to individually and separately remove the insulators, making them an alleged pricey step in his operation. I did not argue with his quote and I responded that I would take any or all insulators that appeared unbroken, so we shook hands, striking a deal. Due to the rather overwhelming expense of this and wanting to share the adventure, I got a couple good collector friends in on the excitement. As sections of the line came down, the contractor would give me a call, since I was the "contact person". On two or three Saturdays my two friends and I met with the contractor at a specific time at his trailer, and lo and behold, there were dozens of cable insulators in a barrel waiting for us during each visit. The contractor insisted upon being paid in cash, which we did. Since the insulators had nearly 90 years of soot caked on them we were unable to determine if any were cracked or bruised. However, for the most part, the bunch each time looked pretty much undamaged each time, so the contractor handled his end of the deal appropriately. We even got a few of the short, stubby pins these insulators were mounted upon. These were set into their cross-timbers that were about three inches thick, to the point where many of these insulators sat directly upon the wood. An interesting note is that on some insulators you can actually decipher the wood grains upon their base rims! And, on some, distinct cable strand marks from the massive conductors (the cloth insulation having long since worn off) were imbedded into the insulators' saddle grooves from the many years of vibration and weathering. Indeed, these insulators had a harsh life, particularly those supporting the heaviest gauge cables and others where the conductor had to make a slight bend. Undoubtedly, many were damaged while in service due to these conditions through the years, making surviving near mint to mint specimens today quite difficult to obtain, especially the N.E.G.M. Co. ones which seem to have been made with more delicate glass than the No. 4 Cable and unembossed (CD #267) ones.
After having taken a serious soaking in a quantity of oxalic and muriatic acid, we had an interesting grouping of neat cable insulators that were split among the three of us. There was some diverse variety among these that we had not known about due to their original sootiness, including numerous CD 267 N.E.G.M.s in aqua, bright blue and shades of green ranging from light lettuce to near olive. Also found were unmarked and No.4 Cable lettered ones in light and dark aqua; and CD 267.5 N.E.G.M. Co.'s in various intensities of aqua and green. The most entertaining piece was a CD #267.5 that had a one-inch diameter brass button embedded in its glass! Apparently a worker had lost this piece of clothing during the glassmaking process. We discovered that about half of our booty had some sort of damage, primarily base bruises and cracks to various degrees from the many years of severe duty bestowed upon them.
After our grouping was dispersed I began a specialty collection of CD #267 and 267.5 N.E.G.M. Co. insulators which got rather spread out in following years as I purchased and traded for variations that appeared different from those we acquired from the demolition contractor. My favorites were and still are the CD #267.5 variants with "whittled" mold surfaces that appear considerably cruder than their smooth textured counterparts. Other desired specimens include those with neat swirls and unusual bubbles. Having accumulated quite a specialty "string" of these cable styles during the ensuing 10 years, I have been thinning out numerous pieces that are similar in appearance, no longer "splitting hairs" among them. At present the best of my CD #267 and 267.5 array remains as part of my collection, representing a precious piece of Boston transit history!
Having always been a collector of porcelain as well as glass insulators (as you will remember, my first one was porcelain) an opportunity to hunt and acquire numerous interesting multipart porcelain styles from an abandoned line in central New England was among the highlights of my insulator collecting thrills during the following year, 1989.
This line was discovered by my good collector friend, Jeff, initially upon spotting a beautiful CD #331 Pyrex-701 (the largest, one-piece glass pintype insulator ever made) that remained perched upon one of the abandoned poles. At the time he was not all that fascinated by the attractive three and four-piece multipart porcelain insulators that also charmed the entire length of this old line; however that soon changed.
There were three insulators per pole and originally this former 69,000-volt line (known as the "B" line) was built in 1912. It extended for about eight miles through a beautiful section of rural New England countryside and although all of the original four-piece Victor insulators were replaced by somewhat later vintage insulators dating from the teens through the late 1940s, all of the insulators were super clean, like new and free from damage.
The copper wire had been removed at some time previously and Jeff found out that the poles were eventually going to be cut down and carted away. So, he approached the person in charge inquiring quite enthusiastically about the insulators. Since Jeff was a competent and skilled lineman, he got the necessary OK without much resistance from the owner with the stipulation that the company would not be liable for any injury. So, the quest for multipart porcelain insulators began in earnest, and Jeff cordially invited a few other collectors (and me) to share this adventure by early 1989.
Since I was his "assistant" and never having been too keen about climbing 40-foot wooden poles (I hadn't the permission, anyway), all of the "linework" was performed very skillfully and carefully by Jeff. Upon his ascent to the big multipart insulators above, he lifted off and lowered each one down via a sturdy rope, with my job on the receiving end, untying the goodies. The "B-line" was about a mile or further from the nearest roadway and this meant personally carrying each piece, weighing 35 to 40 pounds, back to the car. This was a very tedious procedure and most enduring one, especially on hot, summer days! However, realizing the beauty of our new finds, it was quickly recognized by us that our hard work was well worth the effort. Our excursions there continued to 1993 (when its owner officially dismantled the line). Most of our acquisitions were obtained during many the weekends we met there from 1989 to 1991. Even though there were no other big Pyrex-701s, all of the porcelain insulators we lugged back were truly beautiful. Many had mottled glazes with individual character such as glaze drips and others consisting of different colored shells. Just about all of these were pieces made by Ohio Brass and Locke.
Jeff had already became a multipart porcelain insulator specialty collector owing to his retrievals from the "B-line" and I soon became hooked on multiparts as well, and started a mini-collection of my own, seeking any vintage multi's that I happened to find attractive in my travels. My favorites have been Locke varieties in reddish-orange and orange speckled glazes. Locke multiparts were not commonplace along the "B-line". However I cherished every one I brought home. Ones from that line were three and four-part styles (like the rest), some stamped with the month and year of manufacture on the unglazed firing rest on top of the insulators' crowns. Most of these dates were from the mid- to late 1920s. Due to their "beefy" size, most of my "B-line" insulators are displayed outdoors in my "porcelain garden" that is within my streetlighting and "go-with" outdoor museum.
Insulators made in, and principally native to the Boston area and New England have always fascinated me. There is so much history behind them! Having collected and discovered many fine pieces representative of this rich heritage has kept me most curious regarding their origins and background. Therefore, supplementing my collecting activities has been some intense research activity pertinent to these interesting insulators. Some of my observations and findings about Boston area and New England insulators have been printed in insulator collectors' publications on occasion from the late 1960s through the 1980s. Although I had always wanted to consolidate all of my findings and data into a published book of my own, I never found the time to do so. I am quite glad about this because a wonderful invitation and opportunity came my way.
During June 1989 John and Carol McDougald, publishers of the insulator hobby's currently sole publication "Crown Jewels of the Wire" sent me a letter describing the content of a glass insulator research book they were planning and asked me if I would be willing to contribute information and background about insulators from this part of the country and of any others I was quite familiar with. Needless to say, my response was immediately "affirmative!" After six months of pulling my researched "loose ends" together and nearly 500 hours of writing and re-writing, I was proud to finalize my manuscript as their book was almost ready for printing in 1990. Supplementing the information I compiled about Boston and New England glass insulators was some interesting material I included which focused upon glass insulators from other portions of the United States as well. All of this changed the initial direction of the book, with my contribution to the research volume attributing to nearly one-third of the published text. The collectors and researchers who helped me complete this task and successfully fulfill this responsibility were my most important single asset.
FINALLY, MY OWN BACKYARD.... AND DISPLAYS!
From September 1967 through the subsequent eleven years I lived in rented locations, so I no longer had a backyard to arrange pole-lines, streetlights and so forth. My interest in streetlights actually began to diminish somewhat about then because I only had just enough space to store my personal belongings and spread out my insulator collection. My collection of fixtures and other "go-withs" were gradually tossed out due to these space restrictions. So, my energies became more focused upon insulators: finding them, letter writing, publishing research info, etc., as I've described earlier. Supplementing my insulator affliction and making lots of friends in the hobby were some of the usual pursuits that a late teens/early 20's young male would normally entertain, such as chasing girls, spending time indulging in pop/rock music, tooling around in sporty cars, etc. I did all of that by the time I graduated from college with a Bachelors Degree in Business Administration in 1974. Despite the good times had, I was becoming more and more tired of being stuck living within the confining four white walls of a modern apartment. A couple years after graduation I was hired as a residential energy conservation auditor/program manager for our local Cooperative Extension Service and saved every penny I could for a home of my own. I even sold some pristine insulators from my collection to attain this goal. In 1977 my sister who lived in an apartment elsewhere had a similar aspiration, so by early 1978 we had enough capital between us for a good-sized down payment. During that September we had located an older two-family in our price range that needed some work, so we jointly purchased it then, with the agreement that I would contribute my share of what had to be replaced or repaired. No problem here! I was born as sort of a handyman and having some home improvement training that accompanied my job, I happily set forth with the restoration of our 200-year-old house as soon as we moved in. Required projects soon became hobbies of their own and through the years I have resurrected most aspects of the house (where I still reside) back to its original, antique colonial charm to the point where our local historical society recognizes it as a landmark.
Among the first things that needed attention was addressing the pitch-black back yard. That bothered my sister, so off I went to K-Mart and purchased a 175-watt mercury vapor security yard light. It kind of resembled a streetlight and I powered it via an outdoor spotlight plug and ran two separate wires 30 feet to the tree directly behind our house where the fixture was installed. Not long thereafter, I put up a few more lights around our half-acre yard that I got from our local electric company. This was accomplished by stringing more wire and nailing 2 by 3's to trees with insulator pins set into them, very much like I did 15 years before! I really enjoyed making these "home improvements!" During following years my tree-mounted linework was gradually replaced by actual poles, about 15 feet high and five or six inches in diameter. Additional streetlights, mostly low wattage varieties, were added to my up-and- coming display with actual crossarms carrying the necessary wires. These exhibitions substantially were expanded and have become much more perfected to the present, as I currently have about ten poles that extend around the perimeter of my rather secluded backyard, accompanied by old-time streetlights and colorful glass insulators placed on my crossarms. A couple telephone receptacles enclosed within weatherproof, vintage police call boxes mounted at two locations in my backyard provide "extended" telephone service there, as well as other "services" as a stereo speaker extension, line-in-use indicator, and answering machine speaker monitor. These communications are provided and connected via 10 and 12-gauge insulated copper open-wire strung along about 200 feet of pole line. Eight pairs or 16 separate wires accomplish these functions, strung on poles designed like the lines of the past that I so fondly remember. Inexpensive, colorful glass insulators such as those in purple, amber and vibrant greens, etc., purchased in damaged, specimen condition adorn my pole line architecture from end to end. At their mounting heights, the insulators display very well! In addition, vintage insulator brackets and other accessories perched upon my crossarms and poles add functionality and realism. I entertain myself my changing and adding things to this exhibit periodically. Some photos of my pole line display and accompanying backyard "go-with" and streetlighting museum can be viewed within my streetlight website. It's great being a kid again!
This page is only a summary of the highlights that I have experienced and enjoyed as I have pursued my interest in insulators during the past five decades. It would take a book length feature to share all of the adventures I'd otherwise have to tell! Perhaps in the coming future I will share more of these stories with you within this page and/or other insulator-related websites.
Having accumulated a rather respectful variety of rare and colorful glass insulators from the late 1960s through the late 1980s while they were a lot more affordable than they presently are has brought me to the point where I have decided I am quite content with what I now possess upon my insulator shelves. The majority of insulators that I had always wanted to own are mostly well out of my budget, so my activity and visibility within the hobby has subsided somewhat during the past few years. The time has come to sit back, relax and enjoy my treasured acquisitions. Believing that I have made ample and adequate literary contributions as well as other significant donations to the insulator community that has fostered its growth through the many years has made me want to gradually step back from these activities and let the newcomers and others in the hobby have a chance to share their contributions. Current pursuits are much more focused within the "new" and emerging streetlighting hobby. There is so much ground to cover within this frontier both in respect to collecting the fixtures and related accessories manufactured, including their historical background. Contributions on my behalf have only just begun and my involvement here has and continues to be exciting, just like insulators were to me back in the 1960's.
My casual interest in and love for insulators will always remain, though...so don't be too surprised if you see me poking through a bunch of them at your local insulator show or flea market!
This page is based and expands upon a four part series written by the author titled "40 Years of Collecting...Those Were The Years, My Friend" which was included within the January, February, June and July 1995 issues of Crown Jewels of the Wire Magazine.
I would like to thank fellow insulator collector and streetlighting enthusiast Marvin Suggs of Richmond, Texas for his professional assistance in designing this website and for the time kindly donated in inserting text, arranging this website's format and for all of the other work necessary in making this page a reality. Also, thanks to fellow insulator enthusiast and watthour meter collector, David Dahle for further development and maintenance of this website (David's website is located at www.watthourmeters.com). Bill Meier also deserves thanks for his assistance in finding a new home and name for this website after it was discontinued by GeoCities (Bill's website The Glass and Porcealin Insulator Reference site is located at www.insulators.info).
Many thanks extends to the generous and compassionate individuals employed by electric utility equipment manufacturers; numerous utilities and town governments whom I have been in contact with for their generosity and willingness to assist with my collecting ventures.
(c) Copyright 1999 by Joe Maurath, Jr.
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