At one time, you may have stopped and asked yourself: Have I ever seen a telegraph insulator? If not, stop by the Hammells’ home in Galloway Township. They have 10,000 of them.
“About 15 to 20 years ago, this railroad out here was discontinued for about five or six years,” said Stanley Hammell. “They just pushed all the poles down and let them lay. So I helped myself.”
A visitor to the Hammells’ yard enters a kind of glass menagerie, with thousands of the small, bell-shaped insulators perched on every platform imaginable, from a storybook well to a tree stump to a laundry line.
But by far the largest platforms are the tops of telegraph poles, sprouting out of the ground like stunted, angled trees — all covered in dozens upon dozens of insulators.
The question remains, of course: what exactly is an insulator? The tiny glass sculptures were essentially the first electrical accessories, used as a way to keep telegraph wires separate from the often wet, damp poles from which they were stretched.
“There were thousands of ovens that made glass and made insulators,” Stanley said. “But nobody knows about it. They came and went, and they disappeared.”
Insulator manufacturing even had a local connection, said Hammell’s wife, Dorothy.
“Over in Millville, a glass plant over there used to make them,” she said. “And they’re all different colors because of the different sand they used to make them.”
There must be many different kinds of sand, because the insulators in and around the Hammell house come in a kaleidoscope of colors, from black to light beige to red to blue — not counting the most numerous color, dark green.
The Hammells even have several cabinets backlit with florescent light, causing the insulators to glow like magical gumdrops.
And then there’s the shapes. Some insulators are pretty much ridged bells, while others look more like lanterns or bullets. A few even have what can only be described as large, upturned ears, like a surprised elephant.
“All different kinds, from all different poles, from all different countries,” Dorothy said.
The Hammells even have a clear insulator — “For an electric fence,” Stanley said — as well as a rare one which was planned for use in an ambitious, world-spanning scheme.
“From California, they were going to go up to Alaska and then over to Russia,” Stanley said, holding an insulator with a flat top and circled by two ridges. “They were going to use this type of insulator. But something came up, the discovery of something else or something.”
Now, to the uninitiated, insulator collecting may seem like a niche hobby. They would be wrong.
“You think I got ’em?” Stanley asked. “You should see other people! It’s bigger than anyone realizes.”
There’s a monthly magazine that tracks the latest in insulator news, there’s minutely detailed websites, and then there’s the practically weekly list of conventions and gatherings.
This summer alone featured events in Oregon, Ohio, Nevada, Minnesota, West Virginia, Washington, South Carolina and the Czech Republic. One event this past weekend was scheduled for the “Footloose Caboose Lodge” in Edmonton, Canada.
“Once you get into it, then you realize how big it is,” Stanley said. “But a lot of people just store them in the garage or cellar and they never show them. I thought I’d put them out here so everyone can see them.”
The future, however, is as murky as the majority of the Hammells’ insulators.
“Sooner or later,” Dorothy said, “the kids are going to have to get rid of them.”
In the meantime, though, is Stanley adding to his collection? Will the yard of 10,000 insulators continue to grow beyond all count?
“I think I have enough,” Stanley said.
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