Linemen flipped through a book of antique photographs and examined tools from the yesteryear at the 2007 International Lineman's Rodeo Expo in October. Jason Townsend, the man behind the memorabilia, is not only an avid collector, but he's also a journeyman lineman.
The former groundman for Trench It, who has also worked for Aldridge Electric, Henkels & McCoy, MJ Electric and L.E. Myers, began his collection seven years ago with the $10 purchase of an old amp-stick tool at a North Carolina antique shop. Today, his collection has grown to include 400 pieces of lineman memorabilia. Valued at about $20,000, his collection ranges from antique insulators to wire splices.
As a journeyman lineman for IBEW Local Union 196 in Elgin, Illinois, Townsend started his collection to help preserve the history of the trade. “I've heard so many horror stories about guys cutting up old hot sticks,” he says. “Sooner or later, we're not going to have anything lying around. I think it's important for the young guys to see what the old guys had to put up with. We have it easy now, but back then, it was really hard work, and the fatality rate was very high.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has made linemen's jobs safer and, over the years, the tools have gotten much lighter and less cumbersome, Townsend notes. For example, linemen once had to rely on a glass phasing set and wood tools, and now many of the tools are made of fiberglass.
By collecting the historical linemen tools, Townsend is able to see how the industry has changed from decade to decade. He owns 200 wood hot sticks from 1912 to the present, as well as 2000 insulators. He specializes in collecting “weird” cutouts, hot sticks, lineman photos and insulators.
One of the most popular elements of Townsend's collection is a book of 400 black-and-white postcard-sized lineman photographs. He buys the photos from eBay and from retired linemen.
Many of the photos are from 1905 to 1920 during the telegraph boom. The photos depict linemen sitting next to each other wearing top hats or felt hats, since hard hats had not yet been invented. Also, linemen of the past didn't have the luxury of driving a truck to job sites. All the work was done by horse-drawn carriages.
“All the linemen love the photos,” Townsend says. “I would love to have more of them.”
Show on the Road
Townsend's garage is filled to the brim with memorabilia. To show his collection off to other linemen, he packs the prized pieces from his collection into a hot stick trailer from 1939. The Association of Electric Cooperatives donated the trailer to him, and he invested $1500 to refurbish it, sandblast it and transform it from brown and rusty to canary yellow.
He has hauled his trailer not only to the International Lineman's Rodeo and Expo, but also to local and regional rodeos as well as local union halls, picnics and parties. “I try to show this stuff to as many people as I can,” he says.
Future of the Collection
Townsend is now on the hunt for a 1920 model hot stick trailer, more photos and old power company signs. Outside of the Lineman Museum in Shelby, North Carolina, he has one of the largest personal collections of lineman memorabilia. He has become good friends with the owners of the museum and has written into his will that his entire collection will go to the museum once he passes on. If he has any duplicate items, he also donates those to the museum.
Many linemen have asked him when he is going to open his own museum in Chicago. With no grant money behind him, he says he's satisfied for now building his personal collection, storing the memorabilia in his garage and trailer, and touring the country. While he invests his own money and resources into his collection, he has gotten help from several linemen along the way in the trade, namely Steve Jones, Kirt Doty, Rod Brosart, Dave and Mark Remer and Andy Taft.
By taking his show on the road, Townsend has gotten a positive response to the collection from fellow linemen. “At the [2007 international] rodeo, everyone loved it,” he says. “They didn't know the collection existed and gave me a pat on the back. A lot of linemen asked me if I would sell them something from my collection. Nothing is for sale, but everything is for trade.”
When he thinks back to seven years ago, he can't believe that a single antique tool has blossomed into such a large-scale collection. As he travels the country to do line work, he is constantly looking for new items to join other pieces in his collection such as a 1903 grasshopper Kearney cutout, wood cutout, a $5000 insulator or his personal favorite — a hot stick cutter from the Bush Tree Trimming Co. from 1920.
“I hope that people enjoy it when they see it,” he says. “I would like the collection to get bigger, and instead of throwing old tools away, I hope linemen will sell or donate them to me.”
If you would like to sell or donate such items as old insulators, antique linemen tools, hot sticks, lineman photos, old cutouts or old wire splices, contact Jason Townsend at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or, you also can send photos or items directly to Jason at 720 N. Dekalb Street, Sandwich, Illinois 60548.