Gurnee man passionate about insulators
Some might call it an obsession. Rick Soller calls it a serious hobby. The Gurnee man collects insulators.
You know, those small porcelain things on the tops of telephone poles and power lines? Yes, those.
Soller says confused looks are common when he mentions his hobby. Jaws really drop when they hear he has 40,000 insulators in his basement.
Soller, 52, said his interest in insulators sparked in the late 1960s growing up in Zanesville, Ohio.
"There were abandoned phone lines near my uncle's house," Soller said. "I'd go hunting for them along the railroad tracks."
Of all the collectibles in the world, why insulators?
"I love the shapes, colors, inventiveness, designs and materials," he said. "I also love the historical piece. I spent about 12 hours in the library at the University of Chicago doing research on these recently."
The use of insulators dates from the 1840s, Soller said. They were used on telegraph, phone and electric lines over the years. Commonly made from glass and porcelain, the devices are nonconductors used to separate the lines from cross arms as they run along utility poles and other points of contact.
Insulator collection took off in the early 1970s. As technology changed, older-style insulators were being replaced with improved versions made of different materials. Like anything else, rarity increases value.
A college student in the 1980s, Soller's interest moved from curiosity to passion.
"I went to Northern Illinois University and would go hunting for insulators along the tracks near campus," he said. "My collection was growing."
He estimates the value of his current cache at about $150,000. Many of his insulators would be in the $10 range, but he has others that would fetch at least $1,000.
"I have Civil War-era insulators," Soller said. "They were made by slaves in the Confederate states and have historic value."
People have paid as much as $30,000 for the most rare insulators, Soller said.
There's no shortage of types of insulators. You've got your pintypes, knobs, spools, cleats, beehives, big mouths, Johnny Balls and blob tops, among others. Colors? How about purple, cobalt, amber, clear, green, brown, yellow or root beer?
Soller said his offbeat interest was validated once he subscribed to the "Crown Jewels of the Wire." The monthly magazine is considered one of the most authoritative resources for insulator collectors.
Not only is Soller one of the 2,000 members of the National Association of Insulators, he is the group's historian. He also edits the newsletter for the Greater Chicago Insulator Club.
When he's not lost in the world of insulators, Soller teaches public speaking at the College of Lake County.
Having seemingly exhausted the domestic market, Soller will travel to Europe next year in search of foreign insulators. England and Germany are his next hunting grounds.
He's still adding to his collection but has slowed the pace in recent years.
"I'm at about my limit, spacewise. I'm not sure how they'll get rid of these after I die. It would take about three weeks just to get all of them out of the basement," he smiled.