Transportation and fuel provided the foundation of a large glass industry in central Appalachia at the beginning of the 19th century, but changes to the industry nearly destroyed it. To survive, Blenko Glass in Milton, West Virginia adapted its business.
The factory floor was once the exclusive domain of experienced glass workers. Now Blenko brings the public into the workshop to inspire a new generation of collectors and enthusiasts. Groups register weeks in advance to participate, and the programs typically sell out. On a recent weekend, more than 200 people showed up to create their own glass water bottles.
And that leads to a one-of-a-kind experience for participants like Kaitlin Jordan. “It was exciting. I feel like I made a one-of-a-kind Kaitlin Jordan original. I think, honestly, my favorite memory of the day was standing by the furnace watching mom do it with the anticipation that I was about to,” she said.
The art of making glass by hand is nothing new for West Virginians. In fact, the glass industry was once booming across the state, according to Dean Six, the Vice President and General Manager at Blenko Glass. Six said the first glass business was located in the Northern Panhandle and opened in 1813.
The most expensive part of making glass is the fuel needed to produce it. The discovery of natural gas in the state was a huge boost to the glass industry, providing a cleaner, more affordable and more portable fuel source.
Over the years, there have been hundreds of glass manufacturers in the West Virginia, but only a few remain today, including Marble King in Paden City which makes marbles and Wissmach in Paden City. “They’ve been there since 1903 and make flat glass similar to what we do, but they use a mechanized process and ship it all over the world for architects, crafts, stained glass windows,” Six said.
There’s also Davis Glass in Morgantown, which produces glass for lamps. Several individual artisans like Hinkle Glass in Upshur County operate in the state as well.
Blenko Glass went through bankruptcy more than a decade ago. One thing that helped them recover and thrive was doing more outreach events. Today, they have 10 activites a year that target potential glass enthusiasts.
Through online sales and community outreach efforts, Blenko is in the best shape they’ve been in for years. They plan to continue making glass well into the future, Six said.