Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Glass Insulator

We have weather!  In southern New Mexico, this is an event worth shouting about.  Usually, we are noted for the absence of weather, at least as most people would understand it.  We have summer for about 7 months, almost a whole month of very mild winter, and then the rest of the year is taken up by a totally unpredictable, but generally mild, season that could either be spring or fall.  The only real difference between the two seasons is whether plants are dying or coming back from the dead.    Right now, several desiccated plants seem to be turning green, so it must be spring.

In the last week, we have had hot weather, a violent dust storm, the thermostat dropping below freezing, a fair sunny sunrise, and a brief hail storm (well, one side of the town had hail, the other side had snow, so let’s compromise and say it was snailing).  The other six days were fairly normal.  I drive to work with the car’s heater turned on and drive home while enjoying the car’s air conditioner. 

The dust storm was spectacular.  At one point, it got so bad that the highway patrol shut down the interstate to California.  (And the town rejoiced!)  Visibility was reduced to about 150 feet and it seemed as if all of Arizona was flying over to Texas.   I have heard stories about topsoil blowing away my whole life, but I never hear about anyone receiving anything but dust—red dust.  Where does the topsoil get blown?

Several years ago, a dust storm did bring me a treasure, or at least something shiny.  I was hiking in the desert outside of Alamogordo when a dust storm blew up.  I decided immediately to cut the hike short and headed downwind.  While this direction was longer, it would take me to the highway, which I could easily follow back to my truck.  Trust me, you don’t want to hike in a dust storm unless you are damn sure which way you are heading, and you never want to head into the wind.  My route was going to add a couple of miles to my hike, but there was no possibility of missing the highway.

Before I found the highway, I found something else: about half an acre of glass insulators.  You know what I am talking about: the heavy glass gumdrop thimble doohickeys that used to be on top of every telephone and electrical pole.  There had to be more than a gazillion of them:  Clear ones, white ones, green glass ones.  Some were in crates, but most were just piled on the ground.  One huge mound of them was over forty feet long and over twenty feet high.  Many of the wooden crates bore dates back to the early 1950’s.

This elephant’s graveyard for glass insulators was not that far from the highway, but the lay of the land prevented anyone from seeing it from the road.  Once I got back to town, it didn’t take too long asking questions of the locals to find the man who owned the land and the insulators.  It seems that at one point in the early 1950’s, a massive increase in size and operations was proposed for White Sands.  Hundreds of miles of electrical lines were planned.  Then the project was cancelled right about the same time that the technology of transmission lines was improved.  The insulators were simply left in the desert and mostly forgotten.

The man who owned the property had exhausted all possibilities of disposing of the insulators and for a small fee, sold me the “mining rights” to the entire collection.  For about a year, I was in the insulator business.
It turned out that the market was truly limited.  When I showed one of them to the manager of a glass recycling plant, he all but chased me off the property with a stick.  The glass was heavily leaded.  Nor was any utility company interested in buying forty year old technology. 

But there were lots of people who actually collected these things.  Searching around the mounds, I had about a dozen different types and colors.  I loaded up the truck and started making the rounds of antique stores, flea markets, and souvenir stores all over the south half of the state.  It was surprising how many of the silly things I sold.  And anybody who didn’t want to buy any still got a case to sell on consignment.  And if they wouldn’t accept that, I gave them a few, told them to try and sell them with my compliments.  If they needed more, they had my card.  I must have moved a ton of them. 

There is a lot of talk this week about market prices of oil—whether the price is set on the international market, the effect of increased production, etc.  The price of something is set by the perception, not the reality of supply and demand.  Consider a hypothetical case.  You enter a room filled with 30 hungry people and announce that you have a bag with hamburgers in it, but you do not have enough for everyone.  Trust me--- you’re going to make a profit as you sell your hamburgers.

But as you are selling them, you recount your burgers and discover that instead of 29 burgers, you have 31.  Without telling the group the actual numbers, you announce that you have made a mistake and have more than enough for everyone.  Since you have created the perception of a surplus, you will be lucky to sell half your burgers—you will probably lose money.  While the reality is that supply increased only 7%, the perception will have a far more dramatic impact on the price.

After about six months, that is the way it was with the insulators.  I totally saturated my market and distribution fell dramatically.  When people thought they were scarce, they were collectable and valuable.  When people thought they were common, nobody wanted them at all.  I was out of the insulator business.  While I had made a tidy profit, there was no repeat business.

It has been twenty years, and I still regularly see those things all over town.  The History Department secretary had one as a paperweight until just recently.  She had no idea what it was or where it came from. One day, she decided it was ugly and shoved the highly valuable antique in the closet!  I still have one in my backyard, myself.

My mining rights have expired and it has been about twenty years.  If someone wants to start up the enterprise, for a small fee, I can furnish a map and the real name of the town.


  1. How many people are you furnishing this information to?
    Do you know for sure if this "elephant’s graveyard for glass insulators" still exists?

  2. Still there? Are you afraid they dissolved in the rain? I have had little motivation to go hiking in that neck of the dessert, but sincerely doubt that there has been any material shrinkage of the inventory.

  3. Paul MatulavichMay 2, 2012 at 5:51 AM

    Hi Mark:
    Stumbled upon your fascinating story while looking for Santa Fe Railroad insulators. I'm a train buff, but I found your insulator adventure quite intriguing.
    Wife and I would like to retire to sunny Mountainair, NM and leave gray Ohio behind. Freight trains roll all day and night across the beautiful landscape. While I am not interested in knowing where your treasue is, I thank you for sharing your discovery with us. If you ever come across insulators embossed with the Santa Fe cross, let me know.

  4. Send me an email and I'll steer you towards them. You might want to wait until the spring winds die down, for the last couple of days we have had dust storms so thick you can look at the sun without sunglasses. Evidently, Arizona is going to Texas for a visit.

    1. What's the statute of limitations on replies? Apologies, but I lost yours to me.
      I'm in Alamogordo through tomorrow and ready to hunt.

  5. Sure. I will buy the map. Send me an email to

  6. Amazing!
    I like also this one light made from russian insulator by EdisonLightGlobes