Yankee Pole Cats swap glass insulators

By Merja H. Lehtinen - ReminderNews
East Hampton - posted Mon., Sep. 30, 2013
Larry Emmons (below the poles) enjoys talking about his collection of ceramic and glass insulators. Photos by Merja H. Lehtinen.
Larry Emmons (below the poles) enjoys talking about his collection of ceramic and glass insulators. Photos by Merja H. Lehtinen.

Dozens of collectors gathered on Saturday, Sept. 21, to buy and trade glistening insulators that once graced the top of telephone and electrical lines, mostly during the early- and mid-20th century.

Yankee Pole Cat Insulator Club is a unique group. Many of its members were former linemen who worked on poles that were once home to the glass insulators of the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s. They were among the first who saw glistening works of art lying in the grass at the bottom of the poles. A company's trash turned into another century's collectibles.

You can still see insulators on the top of phone and electric poles, but they are all the same now, and no longer collectibles or artisan-created works. Today, insulators are mass-produced, but a half a century ago, they were made from artisan glass left over from bottle-making or other artistic pursuits. As a result, each and every insulator was fairly unique, as they were made by glass makers in their spare time with leftover glass between much larger more lucrative orders for bottles.

Eventually, however, as utility poles proliferated, so did the mass-produced, more efficient insulators. Many of today's unique "collectibles" were tossed off the top of poles as they were replaced by better, more hardened, if less unique material. The collectors who were buying and trading insulators know that rare glass, such a deep cobalt blue, may have greater value. But more often than not, the pieces were chipped when tossed down from a pole. So their value is more intrinsic "in the eye of the beholder." None-the-less, rare finds in perfect condition made of unique colors by a verifiable producer might demand large amounts at auction. It is always a collector's dream to find that one worth $100 or even over $1,000 at auction.

In East Hampton every year, lifelong friends gather on the grounds of Larry Emmons's home. There, Emmons and his family have created the perfect place for a picnic around a small pond, with silhouettes of characters leaning on poles, fishing, or waving a flag. It is folk art in every sense, and the collectors fit right in as they visit and enjoy a barbecue among the hundreds of small glass objects.

This year, Emmons - who has hosted the meet since 1986 - was happy to educate a young new collector, Andrew Hudson, 19, of Harwington, Conn., who said he mostly collects photos he takes of unique insulators which he in turn provides to the utility companies.
"I am happy some young people are joining the hunt," said Emmons. As the original collectors are mostly retired linemen who heard about the glass objects from the generations who worked the poles and lines before them, the collectors are dwindling in numbers as more time elapses from when people would have actually worked and seen the older insulators on the poles.

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