May 18, 2014 in City
Rare insulators trigger more than just a hobby
• Started trading insulators: 1978
All over U.S., Canada
• Niche: Early, threaded telegraph, telephone insulators
• Event: Hosts annual Memorial Day weekend swap
Bill Burger remembers the day he fell in love with glass insulators.
It was in the late ’60s. Burger was 4 when his brother came home from kindergarten with a tale about an amazing object a classmate brought for show and tell.
“Somehow my brother’s excitement rolled off on me, even though I had no idea what an insulator was,” Burger recalled. “All I knew was that it had something to do with telephone poles.”
The next day, Burger and his mom noticed a telephone employee working on a junction box across the street from the family’s Bellevue home. “So I walk over and ask if he has any insulators. He pulls two out of his van, gives them to me, and says if I’m going to be there tomorrow, he’ll bring me some good ones.”
As promised, he brought Burger four beautiful emerald green insulators, “and my brother and I were hooked.”
By his teens, Burger and his buddies were playing hooky and heading north to pick insulators along the Canadian Pacific Railway, careful to dodge grizzlies feasting on Frazier River salmon and railroad “speeder crews” watching for rock slides.
One of his first vacations with his future wife, Darcy, was spent hiking a long-abandoned telegraph right-of-way in Wyoming, searching for buried glass treasure.
Burger moved to Spokane in 1996, planning to focus entirely on antique glass and vintage vehicles. Those hobbies remain his passion, but Burger’s weekday job is selling steel at Cd’A Metals on East Broadway Avenue.
In 1997, he and Darcy began hosting a Memorial Day weekend insulator swap that draws collectors from throughout the Northwest and as far away as Tennessee and Ohio.
During a recent interview, Burger discussed insulators’ allure, their value, and the right and wrong reasons to collect them.
S-R: When did you sell your first insulator?
Burger: My dad was never interested in insulators, and when I was 10, he insisted my brother and I get rid of the horde we’d amassed. So we went to a swap meet, set out our insulators and priced them at 50 cents each. Pretty soon a kid came along and told us our insulators were worth a lot more than 50 cents. It turned out we had one worth hundreds of dollars at the time, and we had no idea.
S-R: What was your first big sale?
Burger: When I was in junior high, some guy called, interested in a couple of insulators. Soon this man my dad’s age knocks on the door, looks at our collection and buys two for almost $900.
S-R: Was there a golden age of insulator hunting?
Burger: The hobby boomed in the 1970s, when hippies scavenged insulators that were still in the air – on telephone poles – and sold them for pot money.
S-R: Were you out there too?
Burger: Yeah, back in my late teens, early 20s, four or five friends and I would go out hound-dogging for insulators. Sometimes we’d hop freight trains and watch poles as we rolled by, then spend three or four days hiking the tracks to find insulators.
S-R: Defunct insulators?
Burger: Not necessarily. But we’d replace them. We wouldn’t do any damage.
S-R: Did you keep those or sell them?
Burger: If we happened upon a rare insulator, we might find another 50 with it. So we’d keep a few for our collections and sell or trade the rest.
S-R: Are insulators still out there to be found?
Burger: They’re definitely out there, but not in the air. They’re in the ground. They either got dumped somewhere or they’re buried along a right of way.
S-R: How much are insulators worth today?
Burger: A lot are barely worth giving away, and a few go for as much as $50,000 or $60,000. When you go to a show, most of the insulators there sell for $30 to $800.
S-R: Do high prices invite counterfeiting?
Burger: That happens all the time. It’s gotten so lucrative that people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars making their own tanks and molds to reproduce rare insulators. Serious collectors can tell the difference, but worrying about fakes can drain the joy out of a hobby. I used to collect fruit jars, and I quit because I couldn’t tell a fake from a real one.
S-R: What makes you passionate about insulators?
Burger: Some of them are incredible pieces of art. They come in every color of the rainbow, and can have amazing histories. It’s like they were made to be collected.
S-R: Why so many colors for such an industrial item?
Burger: Often it was almost by accident. For instance, back in the 1880s, Hemingray Glass Co. made a popular amber Globe fruit jar. And for some reason they needed to make a run of insulators, so they made them out of that golden glass. The Great Northern only used them from Sandpoint to Wenatchee, just sprinkled here and there.
S-R: How does a novice learn about insulators?
Burger: By going to shows. There’s one national show a year (this year’s is July 3-6 in Farmington, New Mexico) plus western and eastern regional shows. And there are a lot on the Internet. The Insulator Collectors on the Net site ( www.insulators.info/icon/) is popular.
S-R: Who’s attracted to this hobby?
Burger: There’s the typical nerdy collector, but a lot who aren’t. Most collectors are men. Some are extremely rich, which pushes up prices at the high end. But of all the things I collect, this hobby has the best people.
S-R: Have you had any “holy grail” moments?
Burger: Lots. We used to follow the First Transcontinental Railroad, built in the 1860s. The early telegraph lines were abandoned, and when the insulators fell, acids in the soil would eat away at the glass. But searching in Wyoming, Darcy and I happened to come across one of the rarest insulators we’ve ever found. It came out of the ground in almost perfect condition and in one of the best colors. We took pictures before we touched it.
S-R: Could you make a living doing this full time?
Burger: I know people who do.
S-R: Is interest in the hobby growing or fading?
Burger: There’s a monthly magazine – Crown Jewels of the Wire – and the publisher told me he’s getting new subscribers all the time. And the National Insulator Association has more members than ever. I keep expecting interest to drop off, but it never does.
S-R: How do you relax?
Burger: Getting out in the country and looking for insulators. It’s hard work – you sweat and break your back – but I love it.
Spokane freelance writer Michael Guilfoil can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.