Mr. Donald R. Briel - B.S., Comp Sci, 1983; M.A., Business Admin, ‘90
The glass menagerie
Providence man shows off colorful insulator collection
Photos by Eli Lucero Text by Kevin Opsahl
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
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. “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 and
realized he was not alone in his fascination. He could buy, sell and trade insulators with 5,900
members from the U.S., Canada, Germany, Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and The
Netherlands (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
“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 show that Briel and his wife traveled to was held in February in Yuma, Ariz. The next
NIA show is one of the biggest, held in June, in Kansas City, Mo.
Briel probably adds about 30 insulators to his collection a year.
Insulators can sell 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 websites like craigslist. com and eBay, he
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.”