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Shortly after I started collecting insulators in the mid-'80s, I noticed an old power line was being dismantled not far from where I lived. A friend and I went over to take a look and saw the linemen removing yellow U-503 porcelain cables from the crossarms. When we asked the linemen for a few they gruffly said, "No, you can't have any!" We knew it was useless to press further, so we left.
For a while after that, I searched the local antique shops for any U-503's. I finally found one (and it was mint), but I left it there when I saw he wanted $22.50 for it. He also had a blue porcelain signal for $17.50, which I thought was too rich for my blood. After that, I simply gave up on getting a yellow U-503 for my collection.
In April 1990, an instructor at the technical school I was attending asked me if I had seen the auction notices in the Sunday paper, and said one mentioned insulators. When I got home, I fished the Sunday paper out of the trash can (who wouldn't?) and scanned the auction notices. I found the notice I was told to look for, and I thought I was dreaming when the auction notice said "...1,000 assorted insulators ..." I immediately realized I had to get my butt out there and check this out! When I got out there the next day, I asked the owner about the insulators, and he told me there were some in the barn and more out on the "back 40". In the barn, none of the glass in the barn was worth a second look (they were all common Hemingrays and Brookfields), though I came across about 8 unused pins for the CD 100 Surge. (those pins are harder to find than the insulator!)
When I got over the hill, I saw the barrels, and could not believe my eyes as there were about 8 barrels and a shipping crate full of porcelain insulators! I thought I was in heaven when I saw about 1 yellow U-503 for every five brown cables. It seems he picked up these insulators from Sioux Falls Light & Power as they upgraded their lines to the U-737 Pinco. Not knowing if I would be able to make it to the auction, I bought one yellow U-503 and a U-42 (porcelain CD 102). That evening, I called my friends, Hank and Evonne Jonker of Orange City, Iowa and told them of this upcoming auction. When I found out they were planning to go to the auction anyway, we made plans to go to the auction together.
When we arrived on Saturday morning, there was already a crowd at the auction site. After we got our bidding number, we went to look in the barn. We agreed the glass was worthless, but those Surge pins were nowhere to be found!! We went out back, stopping to look in some boxes along the way. When I showed the barrels to the Jonkers, they were amazed at the sheer quantity of insulators in the barrels!
We quickly agreed that the barrels were too heavy to move, let alone put in the pickup if we bought a barrel. While we were figuring out what to do next, we noticed some milkcrates on a pallet nearby that were already full of insulators. A quick check of the crates turned up some nice pieces, including a NM+ CD 196 H.G.Co. in light aqua! After some brief discussion, we decided to look through the barrels and switch the nice stuff we found with the more common stuff in the milk crates. While we were switching the insulators, some people looked at us, but nobody seemed to care about what we were doing.
For the most part, it was fun digging through the barrels. Not only did we pull out many yellow U-503s, we also found a couple blue U-268 porcelain signals. Evonne even found a signal with a weird glaze- it had orange stripes running through a black glaze! But it was not all fun. When I was reaching down to the bottom of a barrel for a Macomb signal that looked like the rare U-244A, I brushed against a broken U-502 Westinghouse cable. I immediately pulled my hand back and saw a very fresh cut on one of my fingers. I headed straight to the owner's house to get this minor emergency taken care of. When I got back, I saw Evonne putting the last insulators back in that barrel so she could start on the next one. I immediately decided I wasn't going to take the chance of coming across that damn U-502 again, and helped Evonne go through the next barrel. (The U-502s accounted for half of the total group of insulators!)
When we were satisfied with what we had, we walked around and looked at some other items that were for sale. When the auctioneer worked his way over to the rows of items piled on pallets, we went over and waited by the insulators. When the auctioneer got to the insulators, he opened bidding at $5, to which we were the only bidders. 7 crates of about 30 insulators each for $5- that's a good deal. After the Jonkers bought a couple other antiques, we loaded up the truck and headed for my house to split the insulators.
After the Jonkers had taken their share, I still had the CD 196, about 70 U-503's, a U-460 Cook cable, and at least 70 side-tie porcelain signals. The signals were the most varied of the bunch. There were U-244 Macombs, U-272 G.P.Co's, U-243 & U-239A Pittsburgs, one unmarked blue U-268, and many common brown signals (marked and unmarked). I kept the nicer stuff for my collection and trading stock. The real common stuff soon wound up in the trash can as I could not find anyone who wanted the common ones.
A few months later, the Jonkers stopped by my house and asked me if the U-503's were still there. When I said "I don't know", they decided to go back to see if the barrels were still there, while they were in town. That afternoon, they brought back about 60 more U-503's for me! The new owner didn't seem to care about the insulators and said they were free for the taking. Within a week, I went up with a friend and got permission to get some insulators. After a few trips, we had brought back almost 200 more porcelain, of which 100 were the yellow U-503's.
I managed to call the dealer after he moved out west, and he does still have those barrels, but the fact he lives across the state and having no time to go out there, I haven't been able to see how many more U-503's are in his barrels yet!
April 1997: The dealer is no longer listed in the phone book, so he either has moved again, or is out of the antiques business.
Note: This article appeared in the June 1992 issue of Crown Jewels (pages 22 and 23), but this is an updated copy (there were some omissions and inaccuracies in the copy I sent to CJ).
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Last updated Tuesday, November 14, 1995