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Cochrane Bell Suspensions

Written by Dwayne AnthonyView Icon Profile

I’ve been meaning for some time to write down and document this information on the Cochrane Bell Suspensions.

During the fall of 2005 I was invited to an estate sale in Needles, CA. (show map) In this desert town bordering Arizona and the Colorado River sat a rock shop from at least the 1950s. The final shop owner had passed away, so all the contents of the shop, the many outbuildings and everything on the several acres of property were being sold off. About 80% of the available material was rock, gem and mineral related, but a fairly sizable quantity of antique bottles and insulators were also scattered about here and there, or stored away in boxes.

I first viewed a room full of pin-type insulators, but no more than a dozen were of true collector quality. Out in the back forty a small pile of broken CD 130 Cal Elec Works were found lying on the ground, evidently collected from a nearby line many years prior. One fairly nice specimen was acquired from a house window ledge where a family member was still living on the property.

Of most interest were the Cochrane bells (more infrequently referred to as Montana bells). After scouring the property and outbuildings for nearly a full day, several sets of Cochrane bells were located, anywhere from good condition to heavily damaged. A small number of single bells, as well as some lone metal caps and wooden “sticks” were found strewn about, some in very odd places. At least 15 sets of Cochrane bells were accounted for, plus the excess parts. A total of 13 complete sets were created after disassembly and reassembly of usable parts. As mentioned, a few of the bells were damaged, some so much so that they were not salvageable. Even though the wooden sticks were originally saturated with paraffin, at least two were rotted away at one end, so they were replaced with two of the extra sticks that were found.

Cochrane Bell Suspensions

One of the more interesting aspects of this acquisition involved the variety of shades found in the bells. One set was noticeably darker than the average medium purple shades that we are more accustomed to seeing. But the true shocker came when I viewed a small number of the sets in much, much lighter shades. These were a light pink tint, to an off-clear straw with a slight hint of pink! I had only known of one set in a very light shade of SCA (sun colored amethyst) prior to viewing these.

Several of the units also included the cable “shoe” still attached to the bottom cap. These shoes were evidently removed from most of the previously existing Cochrane bells in the hobby, so it was certainly a bonus to acquire a small number them, since they were part of the original hardware.

Pondering over the off-clear and pink tint glass found in some of the bells, it was first thought that their possible manganese content might harbor the potential to turn a darker shade of SCA after longer exposure to the sun’s UV rays. However, the hardware and wooden sticks on these units definitely displayed signs of weathering, so wouldn’t one surmise that they had already been well exposed to the sun for many years? Could it be that they were later replacements and were removed very shortly after installation when the line was upgraded or dismantled, thus not seeing a long enough exposure to the sun to turn them SCA? Maybe they were never installed, stored away somewhere with shelter from the sun, yet were exposed to other elements that caused the weathering of the hardware? I decided to conduct an experiment that has been ongoing now for two years. I placed one of the damaged off-clear bells out in direct, full-day sunlight. We know that clear glass containing manganese will usually turn some shade of purple with a few months of sun exposure. Surprisingly, after almost two full years, there has not been any discernible change of color in the sample bell. This now leads me to believe these are stable, manufactured colors that will not deepen in color with additional sun exposure.

Another observation I’d like to point out is the relatively common damage found on the inner skirts. A good number of bells, both in this group and those previously known in the hobby, suffer from one single chip to the inner skirt. It is my theory that these single chips occurred when the units were originally assembled, and it’s also quite possible this was done in the field. When assembling a Cochrane bell unit, it only seems logical that the process would involve resting the bottom of the stick assembly on a stable surface for support, hold it at a 45 degree angle and slide the bells on one at a time (at least this is what came natural to me when reassembling those in my possession). At this angle, the inner skirt of each bell will initially make contact with the top “stem” of the bell below it, and quite harshly if not being very careful when sliding them over the stick and letting them drop! Even though a cork washer was installed between each bell, the outer sharp edge of the upper stem is still exposed enough to allow glass-to-glass contact, at least if assembled using the assumed technique outlined above.

As with my procedure of mixing and matching, I believe the early collectors that gathered these units in quantities of more than one also switched out bells from one unit to another to create complete sets in mint condition. Most sets in the hobby that I have seen appear to have been disassembled, sometimes maybe to replace the original decayed cork washers, but more than likely to switch out bells, as well. I have seen numerous sets that contain anywhere from one to all six of the bells exhibiting inner skirt chips, usually one chip to each. Interestingly enough, it is rather uncommon to find a single bell with damage elsewhere than the inner skirt. By the way, there are two distinctively different inner skirts that you will find on the bells. One is straight and the other has a convex curve to it. You will often find both styles on one Cochrane bell unit, a possible indicator that some of the bells had been switched out.

Cork washers have always been present on all of the original, non reassembled sets that I have handled. Of the 25+ sets that have gone through my hands over the years, I have only seen maybe 4-5 that contained rubber or handmade paper washers that were clearly installed as replacements by collectors. I personally replaced the crumbling cork washers with rubber washers when rebuilding a few of the more recent sets purchased in Needles, CA.

I have found as many as six original cork washers placed adjacent to the metal caps at each end, plus those between the bells. When I had several of the bare wooden sticks lying side-by-side during the reconstruction of the more recent sets, I noted that some varied slightly in length. The length of exterior threading (number of turns) at each end also varied from stick to stick, as well. Some metal caps bottomed out with additional threads showing, some stopped against the termination of the final thread. So, I'm assuming these variances in length and threading resulted in the use of additional washers under the end caps as bushings for a snug fit.

It appears that the Cochrane bells were used exclusively in Montana. There is strong substantiation that those I recovered from the Needles rock shop were collected from Montana, as well. A family member indicated that numerous trips were made many years ago to Montana to dig for bottles. This was confirmed when viewing the bottles on the property. At least 50 percent of the embossed pharmacy, blob top and Hutchinson soda bottles were from various towns in Montana.

As for numbers of complete Cochrane bell units known in the hobby? I know I’ve had at least 25 go through my hands over the years, including consignments to our auctions. If I were to throw out a guess…I’d estimate somewhere in the vicinity of 50 total. Value? Anywhere from $300 for the damaged ones to $1,000+ for the mint sets. About 5 years ago we sold an unusually deeper purple unit in our Open-Wire auction for $1,815.

Sorry for the long post...if you made it this far you are a true insulator collector and I have to thank you for your interest and attention!

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Written Thursday, November 29, 2007