Stanley Hammell's Insulator Forest
Galloway, New Jersey
There's a forest of stumpy telephone poles in the yard of the late Stanley Hammell. Sunlight refracts through thousands of bell-shaped, colored glass insulators, once essential to the world's communications networks. These poles are all dead -- no messages, no transmissions -- except perhaps a persistent signal to passing travelers to pull over and investigate.
Glass insulators were first manufactured in quantity in the 1850s, providing a thick, non-conductive cone or dome to attach unshielded copper wire for telegraph lines (and later, telephone and electrical lines). Along a railroad right-of-way, there might be 30 poles per mile with an array of insulators.
After a century of wide use, glass was eventually replaced by ceramic models. But a huge quantity of the old insulators were left behind -- orphaned poles treated to withstand weather, glass crafted for endurance. Mid-20th century kids hiking old railroad tracks would come across these cryptic objects littered on embankments, or still screwed onto sagging crossbeams.
Serious insulator collectors emerged in the 1960s, and the passion continues today. The insulators are not all the same -- far from it. Manufacturers cranked out hundreds of different patented shapes and colors, now carefully categorized by enthusiasts with a design numbering schema, though often referred to by their nicknames (such as "Beehive," "Blob Top," "Coolie Hat," "Mushroom," "Teapot," and "Pilgrim Hat").
Stanley Hammell caught the bug soon after he retired from a career as a union carpenter. He started gathering insulators around 1987, and became a more manic collector by 1991. He spent years seeking them at yard sales and glass shows, or by walking miles of abandoned railroad track between Atlantic City and Philadelphia.
Hammell admitted his collection was more about the quantity and the beauty of mass display rather than individual rarity or resale value. He'd built his home on a sandy lot of scrub pines he bought in 1960, but he couldn't have known that he'd fill the front, side, and back yards with a peculiar outdoor gallery. He erected at least 42 poles -- like something you might see at a telecom training facility, along with other structures artfully employing his insulators in lines of green, blue, aqua, clear, mixed, etc.
At its peak, Stanley's collection may have included up to 10,000 insulators, according to Stanley's daughter Trudy Hammell Festa, with several thousand in the yard. Though theft incidents were minimal, Stanley secured insulators closest to the highway with cables, and would quickly fill in gaps with his backup horde. In later years, after suffering a stroke, Stanley continued to appreciate visitors, and loved showing them around the property. He died in November, 2012.
We visited in late March 2017, relieved to see the yard still filled with poles and insulators. Trudy invited us to park in the driveway. She brought out a few plastic bags and encouraged gathering of a few insulators as mementos. We had a friend along who revealed he'd been an avid collector as a boy. He quickly advised avoiding the "clear glass" insulators -- ubiquitous and thus worthless. We asked him to hand-select a few pleasingly hued winners.
Trudy said after her dad passed away, she and her husband moved into the house to care for her mother, Dorothy Hammell. Some of Stanley's more fanciful displays have been disassembled, and sharp-eyed collectors have carted off the most collectible models. Each day there will be fewer insulators. Dorothy passed away right after our visit, and Trudy let us know: "We are not certain how long we will own the property at this point. Of course, the insulator display will have to be removed. It may be here for a couple of years or not!"
For now, this strange environment is worth a look, especially if you'd appreciate taking home a glass paperweight.