Recently, I heard that Fenton Art Glass in Williamstown was going to be shutting down its operations. I remembered my visit to the glass factory nearly 45 years ago and being fascinated by the craftsman working with hot glass. The work area back then was a bustling place of people performing the many skilled jobs in the handmade glass industry. It seemed to me like hundreds of workers moved around the floor in a well choreographed pattern to move the hot glass from each of the many work stations. Some workers moved steel containers of colored glass from staging areas to one of the furnaces, where the recycled glass would be remelted to over 2,500 degrees. When looking into the furnace I could see the bright orange of the interior created by the high heat needed to melt the glass.
In one of the large pot furnaces, raw ingredients were being added to 12 different individual pots to make basic glass in the melting crucible. Slowly, over hours, the raw materials would begin to melt into a glowing red hot molten mix that would become a variety of beautiful and unique colors for which Fenton is known. The craftsman seemed to handle the molten glass as if it were clay to be molded into a fine glass sculpture.
The experience from long ago and the fact the factory was going to be closing its operations gave me an idea to take my visiting grandson to see one of the last historic glass making operations left in the country. We live in an area where handmade glass was once part of the trade mark for the Ohio Valley. Viking, Fostoria, and Paden City glass at one time produced glass that was known throughout the world. To those who love glass, the mere mention of any of these names brings visions of some of the finest art glassware created in America.
Mike Fenton gives Chuck Clegg’s grandson a tour of the now eerily quite factory floor at Fenton Glass in Williamstown.
Fenton Art Glass is one of the last remaining manufacturing plants in the country today. That was until mid-June, when the factory announced it would be winding down its daily operations. Like many industries in America, the changing economic times has sealed the fate of the once thriving family business. For the Fenton organization it truly is a family operation. Today the manufacturing operations are being carried on by members of the third and fourth generations of the Fenton family. The family atmosphere extended into the daily operations on the factory floor to the craftsman and the many others that make the process possible. Many of the employees have worked for a good portion of their lives at the factory, often starting out in jobs that were part of the basic manufacturing process and over time moved into the skilled art of handling glass.
After the glass pieces are created in the factory, decorators hand paint each piece, giving the glass creation its own unique touch. Decorators at work stations sit at a carousel table that holds the pieces they are working on to complete the hand painting process. After each piece is painted, it is then signed by the artist before moving onto the next step in the process.
We arrived at the plant early to be part of the first tours for the day before it became to warm. My wife picked up the ticket as I showed my grandson pictures of the process that hung on the walls in the waiting area. After a few minutes a young lady arrived and announced that the tour would only show a couple of steps in the manufacturing process. The creation of glass beads for jewelry and decorators hand painting glassware. She went on to explain that many operations had ceased in the glass making process. I realized that my idea of showing my grandson the wonders of glass making had slipped away.
Three other families along with mine followed the young lady into the factory to where two glass workers were making glass jewelry. One was creating glass beads and the other glass earrings. We passed a lone worker grinding the rough edges from glassware that had been created before the production floor was shut down. In another area we watched as decorators meticulously hand painted glass Christmas trees, red glass mice, and small green frogs. The once bustling factory I remembered from long ago is gone. The factory that once was home to 750 workers is now as quiet as the museum full of beautiful glass from Fenton's past above the main shop. We later learned that as each worker finishes their work, no more will come behind it, their careers at Fenton are most likely coming to an end.
After the tour, my wife and grandson selected a couple of pieces from the gift shop to purchase. I was still thinking about the quiet factory. As we checked out I asked the lady at the register if anyone could take me out into the open factory to see the place I remembered from long ago. She made a call and in a few minutes a tall man approached me and stuck out his hand as he introduced himself-Mike Fenton, one of the owners of the business. He very graciously took time out of his day to take my family and me out into the quiet factory. On the large factory floor sat idled glass furnaces, conveyer belts, pipes, and duct used to move air around the building during operations. All was quiet now. In a half dozen metal tote bins colored glass waited to be melted down for a final time. One large pot furnace in the south side of the building still glowed hot inside as the last of the glass is being worked through the process. Fenton stepped off an area to show us where another large glass furnace once had stood. This man I had never met before today took the time and explained how the process once worked and now the uncertainty of the future for the company and even his own future.
America is a great country because of families like the Fentons, who believed in hard work and a good product that can make a difference. But their story is like thousands of other businesses in this country that are struggling to survive the new global America. Whether it is a fine piece of art glass or the clothes we wear, many items are now being made in another country, making it nearly impossible for business to survive.
Fenton Art Glass will be remembered for the quality and craftsmanship that made them synonymous with art glass in America. Beautiful handcrafted glass pieces will be long coveted by collectors throughout the ages. I hope in the future that those who gaze upon the glass art will remember America's men and women who created each piece with skill and pride. I also hope they remember the Fenton family who for over 100 years created a quality product with sand and pride that became a true American icon. If you have the opportunity in the near future stop by the factory and visit the museum; also be sure to take a few minutes watch the video that tells the story of Fenton glass.
My grandson did not get the opportunity to see the factory in operation like I had planned, but I believe he will remember the beauty of Fenton Art Glass as he looks Thru the Lens.