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Stalking the Wily and Elusive
Insulator in it's Native Habitat

by Jeff Tracy

In January of this year (1997), a friend of mine and I were talking and somehow got off onto the subject of insulators. I believe that we had started with antique bottles, but insulators were where we wound up.

Wayne and I were speculating about whether these things had any value when Wayne announced that he knew where we could get all of the insulators that we wanted. I knew that some of them could be worth a few dollars, and so we decided to go see what we could find.

It was a couple of weeks into February before we both had a day off at the same time and the weather was cooperating. We drove about 40 miles northwest from Nashville Arkansas, deep into the Southwest Arkansas wilderness, winding up at the end of a two-rut logging road about 100 yards from a railroad track.

I imagine that most of the people reading this would consider all of Southwest Arkansas to be out in the sticks anyway, but even those of us who live here consider locations like the one we wound up in to be pretty well out there. We were about ten miles from paved roads, and down into some fairly swampy river bottom areas. Wayne had been in this area for some reason back in the late 70's, and had seen many insulators. All of the telegraph poles on both sides of the tracks had been cut down, and left laying where they fell. The insulators, of course, remained with them.

Early spring (or late winter to you unfortunate folks in more northern areas) is the rainy season in this area, and we had to wade ankle deep a couple of times to get to the tracks from the road. Our first expedition covered about five or six miles of the tracks, and we found all of the insulators that we wanted to carry. Having no idea of how common any of these things may be, we were operating on the older-is better theory. This caused us to collect up about fifty green or blue-green Hemingray 40's and 42's, along with a few AT&T's and Whitall-Tatum #1's. We found that at about a pound and a half per insulator, you can get selective pretty quickly. A couple of fairly sedentary guys in their early 40's found a lot more insulators than they wanted to carry in about an hour and a half.

We had to do some excavating to recover some of the insulators. In the thirty or so years since the poles were cut down, there have been several floods through the area. Many of the poles were washed away or partially buried. We were finding insulators, cleaning them off well enough to determine whether they were intact, and then moving on to the next pole. Once we were sufficiently loaded down, we headed back to the car. We were also happy to note that it was still cool enough that the snakes and alligators were not yet out. (Yes, we have 'gators here.)

Being pleased with our finds on the first trip, we decided that another expedition was in order. In early March, we set off again, this time going the opposite direction down the tracks. This time, the snakes were a lot more active. The temperature was up to around 70 degrees, and they were out sunning themselves.

Neither Wayne or I are phobic about snakes, but you tend to be careful. When you are four or five miles from your transportation, and another ten from pavement, and ten or fifteen more to the nearest medical facility, you really do not want to tangle with a four or five foot Cottonmouth. While we were chasing one about that size off in order to get at a couple of insulators, Wayne commented that "He probably wouldn't kill you, but you'd be one sick puppy by the time you got to the doctor." We each had cut a fairly healthy walking stick, and were using them to poke and prod liberally in any area where we planned to put our hands.

A little further down the track, we found the mother-lode. In most of this area, the poles were cut so that they fell away from the tracks, and toward or into the swamp. Occasionally, one would fall toward the tracks, which are about 20 to 25 feet above ground level, with banks sloping about 45 degrees. These poles were more likely to be intact, since they were above most of the flooding. This particular pole had four intact crossbars on it, of the five that were initially there, and we unscrewed 22 unbroken insulators from it. We about wore ourselves out carrying all of this back, since we had a pretty full load when we found this one.

We did a little studying of the general layout on this trip. It turns out that there have been three sets of lines along this track. The first was on the west side of the tracks, and consisted of single crossbar poles, which are almost fully rotted away by now. The insulators from these poles are scarce, since even on the poles which are still present, the crossbars have rotted. These insulators have fallen off and either been buried or overgrown. Very few of these insulators are still around to be found.

The second line, also on the west side, produced the five crossbar poles which were responsible for all of the green glass we were finding. On the east side of the track there is a third set of poles, which was the final above ground line. This line was insulated with several types of ceramic insulators, Hemingray 660's, and even some plastic insulators. According to a metal sign on one of the poles, this was a Bell System line. Up to this time, we were basically ignoring this side of the track, since these were newer, and probably not worth the trouble.

After our second expedition, we decided that we needed to do some research into exactly what we were finding. Given the volume of insulators that we were turning up, we were unable to carry it all back, and had no idea whether we were leaving the good stuff. A little research on the net led me to Mr. Bill Meier's web site. His response to my questions indicated that we probably had been leaving the least common ones in place.

This at least partially prompted our third foray into the wilderness. In the process of cleaning the ones we had found, I was getting hooked on them. The colors are nice, and the shapes are esthetically pleasing. They don't rust, or rot, or require any special protection from the sun or humidity. My dog won't chew on them and damage them. There are a lot worse things to collect.

Armed with a little more knowledge, we set out again. We now knew that unless a Hemingray-40 or -42 is either a very unusual color or has a smooth bottom, (no drip points) the only reason to keep it was if we wanted it ourselves. We also knew that the Hemingray-660's which we had been leaving in place because there were so many of them were possibly the only thing of any value that we were finding. Therefore, we set out to get some 660's.

This trip was a little more of an adventure than the last two had been. The Saturday before Easter was warmer, up to about 80 degrees, and the snakes were quite active. They don't climb into the middle of the tracks, but most of the insulators are down along the edge of the swamps, and the snakes think the swamp is their territory. The mosquitoes were now out, in force, and neither Wayne or I had thought to bring insect repellent.

The wildlife was all more active. We saw a fox, and a bobcat. (That was only the second one I've ever seen in the wild, so that in itself was something pretty nifty.) There were several deer around. There were wood ducks in the Cypress swamp, as well as hawks and all sorts of other birds. We may have seen a gator on out in the swamp, but couldn't be sure.

The possible gator sighting is worthy of further comment. We continued down the track, looking for poles and speculating about the probability of there being two ten foot alligators out in the swamp watching us go by. Our theory developed that they were thinking that we looked tasty, but that we were too far up on the tracks to chase after. Another hundred yards down, we spotted a pole. It was lying about half in and half out of the water. We climbed down the bank and unscrewed a 660 from one side of the crossbar. The other half of the crossbar was under water. Wayne poked and prodded with his stick, and announced that there was another 660 down there. The water was murky enough that you couldn't see more than an inch down, and this was a foot or more deep.

I suggested that, first of all, he'd have to be pretty good to tell that it was a 660 by poking at it with a stick. Secondly, even if it was, it would probably keep just fine right were it was, unless he was interested in feeding the gators. He told me that if I saw anything moving to let him know, and proceeded to stick his arm into the water well past his elbow and unscrew the insulator. It was a 660. I did concede that he was getting pretty good at telling what they were.

A little further on, we came to a bridge about 100 yards long. We'd only found about a dozen 660's up to this point, so we continued on across it. This led to some discussion of the scene in "Stand By Me" of the train coming while they were crossing the bridge. Let me note at this point that this is an active railroad line. The trains are doing anywhere up to 50 or so miles an hour when they come by, and show up anywhere from fifteen minutes to a half hour apart. The bridge is located between two fairly sharp curves, so that you can only see about 500 yards of track past either end. Once we were about halfway across, I informed Wayne that we obviously were lacking in good sense, but no train appeared while we were crossing, either going or coming back.

We finished the day with about fifty 660's plus one WT#1 in immaculate condition that I added to my personal collection. Another good load.

That has been the extent of our expeditions to date, but we checked out a couple other sections of track briefly, and have concluded that there are other good areas available for the picking. We will be going back out.

For anyone planning on stalking Insulators, I will now offer some of the things that we have so far learned in our expeditions. This list is subject to amendments as we learn more, but the current conventional wisdom is:

That's the story of our great Insulator hunts to date. As is probably obvious, Wayne and I are having a great time doing this. However, we really have very little idea of what we are finding, relative to how common it may all be, or how uncommon. Bill MeierView Icon Profile has been quite helpful, but I hesitate to take too much of his time with all of my doofus questions.

We don't even know what CD numbers we may have. I do know that a Hemingray-660 with the saddle groove running from the Hemingray-660 to the north and south is a CD 218, and that one with the saddle groove running east to west is a CD 219, (Thanks, Bill.) Other than that, I'm lost. I'm going to have to break down and buy a catalog.

We have a whole bunch of the CD 218 type Hemingray 660's which we would be glad to sell or trade for some that we do not have. We also have or can get numerous other types, including a large variety of ceramic Insulators, and even some plastic ones, although most of those I've seen have been in pretty poor condition. The elements have not been kind to them. If anyone is looking for anything in particular, I'd be glad to add it to the list of things we are particularly searching for.

My lack of knowledge is part of what this is about. In addition to being an attempt to provide some entertainment, particularly for those of you in urban areas who do not acquire their insulator collection directly from the poles out in the swamps, I'd love to get some information. Any suggestions, comments, or anything else is solicited.

I can be reached at:

For surface mail:
Jeff Tracy
117 County Road 1225
Nashville, AR 71852

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Last updated Friday, April 25, 1997