Disappearing bits of multicolored Americana once crowned telephone poles

Disappearing bits of multicolored Americana once crowned telephone poles

March 6th, 2014 by Susan Pierce in Life Entertainment

Rich hues increase an insulator's worth. The purple insulator, front left, is valued at $1,400.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

Bill Haley scouts back roads, woods and fields in search of glass insulators such as these on an old phone pole. Collectors from as many as 10 Southeastern states will be in Soddy-Daisy on Saturday for a public swap meet.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

What: Insulator Swap Meet.

When: 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Daisy United Methodist Church, 9508 Old Dayton Pike, Soddy-Daisy.

Admission: Free.

Information: email wgh@tnaqua.org.

Bill Haley discovered glass insulators when he was a middle-school kid in the '60s, exploring the woods of Soddy-Daisy.

"A telephone line had been dismantled and, in those days, there weren't rules about what happened to the debris, so they just threw the insulators into the woods," he recalls. "We used to get those glass insulators and smash them against the rocks.

Those boyish high jinks faded by his junior year of high school after he noticed that not all insulators were created equal. Although their standard color was aqua, they could be found in a rainbow of colors, from warm ambers to emerald green to vivid cobalt blue. He began toting them home and displaying them in windows of his room like sun catchers.

"At that time, I didn't realize that there were other people around who collected those things," Haley says.

Now he is president of the Dixie Jewels Insulator Club, whose members represent 10 Southern states. Many of them will be in Chattanooga on Saturday when the Dixie Jewels host a swap meet at Daisy United Methodist Church in Soddy-Daisy.

"We'll have one table of free insulators that are common pieces and, hopefully, they may interest someone to start collecting. There will be insulators for sale anywhere from $1 to $1,000," Haley says. "Anybody who wants to bring in insulators they've found can have them appraised there also."

The Dixie Jewels Club is one of 19 insulator clubs in the United State and Canada, according to Dudley Ellis of Stockbridge, Ga., who was president of the National Insulator Association from 2004-2006. He will be in town for this weekend's event.

Glass insulators were created to prevent electric current from leaking from power poles into the ground. They were commonly found on the cross arms of telegraph, telephone and railroad poles shielding the power lines. According to the Glass Insulators website, the earliest glass insulators were insulators that protected lightning rods in the 1840s. Their use expanded to telegraph, telephone, railroad lines and, by the turn of the 20th century, millions of insulators were in use on lines criss-crossing the country.

"If you look at old photos of downtown Chattanooga, you can see poles with six to eight cross arms with insulators on them," says Haley.

In the early 1970s, glass insulators began being replaced by porcelain, which has since evolved into plastic and composition insulators made from a mixture of components. The massive replacement of glass insulators with new materials launched the world of insulator collecting in the 1960s.

When North Carolina glass expert Dean Six was in Chattanooga three weeks ago for the Houston Museum Antiques Show and Sale, he cited glass insulators as the fastest-growing collectible among glass collectors. One reason, both Six and Haley say, is that they represent a piece of America's history that is rapidly disappearing.

"There is a lot of historic value to insulators. Some of these were first made before the Civil War and were in use for more than 100 years until the 1970s and 1980s," says Haley.

Others collect for their value. Haley says the traditional aqua insulators start at $1, but a green or purple piece might bring $300 to $1,000. Value is determined by scarcity and color.

Creative artists also are repurposing the larger, bell-shaped glass pieces into pendant lighting, which fits right into the popular Modern Industrial decor trend.

"I hate for somebody to take a piece of history and damage it," says Ellis of the remodeled insulators, "but there are some insulators that are more common than others because they were made by the thousands. Those are easy to find and make into lights.

"I've also seen people color insulators with glass paint and use them for craft projects."

He has several thousand pieces in his collection, Ellis says, which fills 13 windows around the sunroom of his home. He started collecting in the early 1960s.

"I was responsible for road maintenance in the Atlanta area for the state of Georgia. I found a cross arm stopping up a drainage structure. I pulled it out and it had insulators on it. I kept them and left the cross arm behind," he says.

While president of the National Insulator Association, one of Ellis' objectives was to educate the public on insulators' roles in history. He says he frequently brings less-expensive insulators to shows like the ones in Soddy-Daisy and will hand them out to children "to bring the young into the hobby so our organization will continue."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.