WILLIAMSTOWN - Officials of Fenton Art Glass
- the world's largest manufacturer of handmade colored glass - saddened
residents of this Ohio River town with an announcement that they would be
forced to shut down their century-old factory at the end of 2007.
Thousands of loyal Fenton customers promptly responded with a surge of
orders that has kept the company going.
Fenton officials and well-wishers will celebrate the company's resilience
at the opening of a new exhibit at the Cultural Center called "West
Virginia's Gift to the World: Fenton - Handcrafted American Glass
George and Scott Fenton, president and vice-president of the company, will
be on hand. They will present limited edition flip vases called "West
Virginia Winter" to Gov. Joe Manchin and First Lady Gayle Manchin and
Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith of the Division of Culture and History.
The company's history dates to 1905 when
Frank and John Fenton scrounged up $284.46 to start Fenton Art Glass in
Martins Ferry, Ohio. Company historian Jim Measell said the brothers hired
four experienced women to decorate tumblers they purchased from nearby
glass factories. Finding it difficult to acquire a reliable supply of
glass, however, the brothers began looking for land to build their own
factory. About 80 miles down the Ohio River in Williamstown, a man had
suffered huge losses in the stock market and wanted to sell a large tract
for a bargain price. The Fentons snapped it up. In addition to being a
bargain, the land was the near the river, railroad and natural gas wells.
The Fentons broke ground on the factory in 1906. On Jan. 2, 1907, the
company made its first piece of glass - a crystal creamer.
Today, Fenton makes glass in much the
same way as it made it then, using the same tools and same techniques. For
example, to change the color of the glass, minerals are added. Manganese
and powder blue make violet glass. The company has more than 11,000 molds,
some of which are older than the company and many of which the company
still uses to make glass pieces. "We're preserving not only the glass
history of West Virginia, but the glass history of America," Measell said.
To preserve that history takes special care.
After the molds have been used, they are
placed on a table to cool. Next, they are given a bath in water to make
sure all oil and any residue is wiped clean. If not, future pieces made
with the mold may have nicks, Measell said.
The demand for glass is also similar to
what it was 100 years ago. For example, carnival glass - a glass with a
sort of iridescent spray covering - is popular today. It was first made by
Fenton in the early 1900s.
In the early 1980s, Fenton started using
a sandblasting process to create a glass with a layered effect. Milk glass
coats a different color glass. That covering is carved and blasted with
aluminum oxide crystals to reveal a deep, richly colored glass beneath it
and to produce a scene. "This is an area we think has a potential for
growth," Measell said.
Because the process is so labor-intensive
- pieces must be blasted, then carved, then blasted multiple times - the
final products are expensive. A vase retails for $1,100.
But pieces like this provide a source of
hope for Fenton. "The glass industry has always been challenging because
of competition," said Measell. The cost of labor is always rising, and the
cost of natural gas is soaring. Sales at Fenton began dropping about three
and a half years ago.
On Aug. 9, 2007, the announcement came
that it would be closing its doors. "It was no secret that on August 9
there were a lot of tears," Measell said. "It was one of the worst days of
my life." About 25 employees were laid off last year immediately following
the announcement. But then something unexpected happened. Order after
order poured in.
"We had a great deal of emotional support
come our way," Measell said. The company had enough of a surge in business
to stay open. "We had a firm of financial advisors helping us," Measell
said. "They told us they rarely, if ever, see the kind of support we got."
"The support we've gotten has been very valuable to us," Fenton said.
"It's really the customers who have been important to us and kept us in
place." The company was able to hire a few of its staff members back, such
as a Web site designer.
Fenton officials have come up with a
different sequence for rolling out new products. Instead of making items
before they are ordered, the company will now receive orders from its
dealers, make the products that were ordered and ship them out.
They have also concentrated on developing
a new division of the company - Fenton International. "We looked for
products made around the world based on the philosophy we have here - good
designs, handmade," Fenton said. The pieces vary from ceramics to casual
tabletop to fiberglass Christmas decorations, Fenton said. The pieces come
from China and Fenton sells them with the Fenton International trademark.
"We still have to continue to work from day to day and week to week,"
Measell said. "Now we are hopeful that we will remain open for a second
At the Fenton exhibit in the Cultural
Center, visitors can view a 22-minute film about the company called
"Experience Fenton: Glassmaking - An Art of Hand and Heart." The exhibit
is on display in the Lobby Gallery and the Balcony Gallery and features a
wall of pieces Fenton produced. The company loaned about 225 newer pieces.
Older pieces are from the West Virginia State Museum Collection. Tonight's
opening reception and exhibition are free and open to the public.