The glass menagerie: Providence man shows off colorful insulator collection | Features |

2022-07-30 03:30:19 By : Mr. Jery Huai

Don Briel poses in front of his collection of glass insulators at his home in Providence. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Glass insulators from Don Briel's collection. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Glass insulators from Don Briel's collection. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Glass insulators from Don Briel's collection. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Don Briel poses in front of his collection of glass insulators at his home in Providence. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Glass insulators from Don Briel's collection. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Glass insulators from Don Briel's collection. (Eli Lucero/Herald Journal)

Off a narrow dirt road in Providence, Don Briel’s residence is a spawling hideaway, complete with a two-story home, a few gardens and sheds in between.

A winding cement pathway leads up to his home, completed in the late 1960s or early 1970s, around the time that the now 65-year-old Briel arrived in Cache Valley from a small town in New Jersey. Situated on a little hill, it provides a decent view of the mountains, still covered in snow, off in the distance.

But downstairs is where his real oasis is.

When Briel opens the door to the room and flicks on the light, visitors are taken aback — most rooms aren’t lighted wall to wall with sharp white lighting. But even more unique is what’s filling the walls of more than half the room: Colored glass objects in a variety of shapes. Those are close to 700 glass insulators, once used to contain electricity, and Briel is one of thousands of people from all over the world who collect them.

“I can’t pick just one; I like them all,” Briel said.

He said he spends a great deal of time in this room relaxing.

“It’s my hiding place,” Briel said, laughing about the room that he built himself. “(The lighting) is like daylight. People come in here for the first time and they don’t even realize there’s no windows in here.”

Briel also has a number of road signs and other antiques, including a wooden rail from the first transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.

The need for the insulator arose out of the discovery of electricity in the mid 1800s. Also, as railroads began crisscrossing the continent, there came the need for signal devices. Electricity had to be moved economically from one place to another to meet the increasing demands generated by new inventions like the railroad. So insulators were developed, with its primary function to support or separate electrical conductors without allowing current through themselves.

Insulators are still used on all of the power poles you see today, except instead of glass they are made of porcelain. Only on really old power line poles are glass insulators still present. Newer lines are well insulated themselves, or the insulators and lines are buried underground, said Briel.

But in the mid 1960s a few people began collecting these antiques. Insulator clubs, local and national shows, and good reference books now are available. Briel became interested in glass insulators in the mid 1970s, shortly after he moved to Cache Valley.

“I remember going into one of the antique stores (in Cache Valley) and thinking, ‘hey, these are kind of neat and they are also disappearing.’ I was intrigued by the shape and the color,” Briel said in one of the big leather chairs in the small room containing the insulators. “And, around that time, as I started doing more research, I found that the history behind them was fascinating.”

But the interest “really grew” when Briel found the National Insulators Association — it was then he realized he was not alone in his fascination. He could buy, sell and trade his insulators with 5,900 members from the U.S. and Canada and foreign nations, including Germany, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Czechoslovakia and The Netherlands (today, Briel is the NIA’s membership director).

And it “probably didn’t hurt” that Briel’s first job was with Bell Telephone company. An engineer by trade, he helped found start-up computer company in Logan with several partners. Later, he would work at Utah State University, and most recently, Cache County, where he was the IT coordinator.

The insulators doesn’t really interest him from a historical aspect as much as from a technology standpoint.

“If you stop and think about all of our communication and our electrical transmission today, this was the beginning of it,” Briel said. “In this case (I collect them) to preserve a piece of history because they’re rapidly disappearing.”

The last insulator show that Briel and his wife traveled to was held in February in Yuma, Ariz. The next show is one of the biggest in the country, organized by the NIA, held from June 22-24, in Kansas City, Mo.

Briel probably adds about 30 insulators to his collection a year.

When it comes to buying and trading, insulators can go for as little as a few cents up to $20,000-plus, Briel said. The price range is based on “desirability and how rare are they.” He finds his insulators the way any other collector would: Going to trade shows, antique stores, buying from someone else or online.

When asked if he goes for the most expensive insulators, Briel chuckles, “I’m not that serious.”

Anyone interested in buying insulators can go to popular websites like and eBay, he said.

Briel said some people’s insulator collections are very “specialized” in terms of the type of insulator they collect. He said his first priority is the shape, second is embossing — as insulators usually include the name of the individual maker or the company that made them, and the exact date — and his last priority is color.

“I like the variety (in the shapes), and I like to think about that shape and what was the purpose behind it,” Briel said.

“You see the whole spectrum; you see people who are 80 years old and you see people in their teens; a lot of older collectors, when they see young folks they give them a free insulator. I tend to give them a free price guide.”

Briel is not worried about the insulator industry.

“Like anything else that is collectable and rare, there is a potential for them to disappear, but I have a feeling the trading of insulators will go well past my lifetime.”

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