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Glassmaking industry not always smooth

West Virginia plants reflect struggle, success

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Kelsey Murphy, left, discusses the art of handblown glass with Marlin Grimwood at GlassWorks-WV.

Kelsey Murphy, left, discusses the art of handblown glass with Marlin Grimwood at GlassWorks-WV.

Bob Shaw, Associated Press

WESTON, W.Va. — Before GlassWorks-WV ended production last fall, a victim of dwindling markets and expensive labor costs, each of its hand-blown wine glasses required the efforts of six skilled workers.

"Our product had two flaws," said Bob Gonze, the latest owner of the 77-year-old glass plant in Weston. "It was overpriced, and it was old and boring."

When Gonze and his partners purchased Weston's last mouth-blown glass operation in October 2000, the plant had 255 employees making 16,000 pieces of blown glass a day. Earlier this month, Gonze began selling his remaining inventory and other assets to repay creditors an estimated $3 million.

Gonze blames the plant's demise on production costs — especially labor expenses.

"Competing on price when a skilled Chinese glass worker makes $50 to $75 a month compared to our people making $2,000 to $4,000 per month, plus benefits, just does not compute," Gonze said.

Dean Six, curator of the West Virginia Museum of American Glass, disagrees.

"Every time glass gets in trouble, like most industries, the first thing we yell is foreign competition," he said.

Six said Congress investigated similar complaints during the 1960s when the first wave of imports hit. "They concluded that the problem wasn't foreign glass so much as the fact that we just weren't buying glass at all," Six said.

After World War II, Americans stopped sitting around a table for family meals. Many new homes dispensed with dining rooms, and "we don't need two or three sets of glassware any more," he said.

By one historian's estimate, Six said, at the turn of the last century the bars, hotels and restaurants of New York City broke an estimated 500,000 glass tumblers every day. And those had to be replaced.

"Glass was the disposable paper of its day," Six said. "Plastic, Styrofoam, didn't exist 100 years ago."

The glass industry made a serious move toward mechanizing starting in the 1920s.

The pinnacle of that process is demonstrated in nearby Clarksburg, W.Va., at AFG Industries' flat glass plant — a glass operation that thrives. The factory turns out window glass for the automotive industry with minimal manual labor.

"When they make window glass, one man sits in an environmentally controlled booth with dials and a computer screen," Six said. "He controls the production of as much as all of those factories and all of those hundreds of employees did a century earlier."

West Virginia traces its once-robust glass industry to well before the Civil War. The industry thrived because of fine quality silica, transportation via the Ohio River and later railroads, and cheap fuel sources.

By 1902 there were as many as 500 glass companies in West Virginia, employing tens of thousands of skilled workers. The government's most recent economic census in 1997 counted 35 glass and glass product establishments in West Virginia, employing about 2,700 workers, and two flat glass businesses with 250 to 500 workers.

Despite the decline, Six sees a profitable future, based on products from the past.

One of West Virginia's most enduring manufacturers is Blenko Glass, a family owned art glass studio in Milton.

When William Blenko began the factory in the 1920s, he set out to produce hand-blown, brilliantly colored flat glass for stained glass windows.

Today, the art glass that fashions vases, bowls and figurines dominates Blenko's production, although its stained glass can still be found across the country, including the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. The company also was asked to make windows for the White House that would maintain the structure's historical integrity.

Blenko's pieces routinely sell for less than $100, and for another $10 you can have it signed by Rick Blenko, the fourth generation member of the family to run the studio.

According to Six, studio glass has been surging in popularity on the West Coast, where some artists command six figures or more for abstract sculptures and architectural installations.

An example he cited is the work Dale Chihuly, an artist who has designed numerous public installations, including a ceiling for the lobby of the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, and glass works at the Atlantis Resort in the Bahamas.

West Virginia glass artisans must consider their work differently, Six said.

Chihuly "even owns his own Lear jet," Six quipped. "And we can do this in West Virginia, too."