After nearly 100 years, Blenko still crafting colorful glass

“We’re looking forward to 2021, when we will celebrate 100 years of making glass in Milton,” says Dean Six, vice president and general manager at the Blenko Glass Co.

Vast deposits of silica sand and the ready availability of natural gas made glassmaking one of West Virginia’s first successful industries. While the state’s production of glass ranked far behind coal, it was close to chemicals and steel in terms of the number of employees and the value of its products.

Six, an acknowledged expert on the history of the state’s glass industry, estimates the state had more than 450 glass manufacturers, large and small, since the first one opened in Wellsburg in 1815. Today, virtually all are gone, victims of changing technology and cheap foreign competition. The survivors can be counted on the fingers of one hand, with a finger or two left to spare.

The largest of the state’s surviving glassmakers is Blenko in Milton, where its skilled artisans still craft colorful handmade glassware in much the same way it’s been done for decades.

A family owned and operated company, Blenko is housed in a multi-building complex that includes the factory, offices, warehouse and shipping facilities and a two-story visitor center. The center’s first floor has a busy gift shop and the second floor offers a mini-museum displaying the company’s long history.

Blenko offers visitors a brief factory tour, where an observation deck enables them to see the glass treasures being made. A sturdy railing along the front of the deck keeps visitors a safe distance away from the red-hot glass being manipulated by the factory’s workers.

I grew up just a short drive away in nearby Huntington, and so have visited Blenko any number of times. But on a recent visit, I was treated to a personal tour by Six.

I arrive a bit early for my appointment. which gives me time to browse a bit in the gift shop and check out the displays in the museum,

The shop, which retails both first-quality pieces and bargain-priced “seconds,” is busy year-round, but especially so during summer vacation season and, of course, in the weeks leading up to Christmas.

The small second-floor museum is filled with memorabilia from Blenko’s history. It introduces visitors to the various members of the Blenko family who have steered the company over the years, and to some of the designers responsible for its decorative glassware. And there’s a display of yesteryear’s glassmaking tools.

By 1980, Blenko had become a long-standing tradition when it produced a limited edition bowl commemorating West Virginia’s 117th birthday. Only 117 of the birthday bowls were made. Each year since, the company has offered a similarly limited edition glass collectible marking the state’s birthday. They’re always quickly snapped up by collectors. Examples of some of the pieces can be seen in the museum.

Especially impressive is a museum wall displaying some dramatic examples of Blenko’s stained glass artistry. Its stained glass can be found at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., the Cathedral of Rheims in France, the chapel of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and many other places.

Six meets me in the gift shop, and as we make our way to the factory, he gives me a Reader’s Digest version of Blenko’s history.

“The company’s founder, William J. Blenko, was born in London in 1854,” Six tells me. “He started the company in 1893 and later came to the United States determined to introduce stained glass production into his adopted country.”

After initial ventures elsewhere failed, Blenko tried again. In the spring of 1921, he arrived in Milton and immediately set to work building a furnace. Soon glass was being made.

Blenko originally made only sheet glass, Six says. But when the Depression reduced the demand for new or replacement window glass, the company began making the hand-blown decorative vases, pitchers and other glassware for which it has become internationally known.

As we step around the railing and venture onto the factory floor, Six begins to tutor me in the intricate art of making glass.

“Our glass is silica based,” he explains. “We regularly acquire tons of silica sand which we mix with soda ash, cullet — that’s recycled glass — and various chemicals.”

The resulting mixture, I learn, is called the “batch.” It’s shoveled into a hot furnace which turns it into molten glass.

“Our eight furnaces burn 24 hours a day, day after day, year after year,” Six says. “We never turn them off. At this point, all our glass looks orange in color. Real colors become apparent as the glass cools. Color is created by adding various metals to the molten glass. For instance, blue commonly requires the use of copper and cobalt.”

I watch as a worker, called a gatherer, reaches a metal pipe into a 2,000 degree furnace and gathers just the right amount of molten glass on the end of the pipe. Next, a glass blower blows into the pipe to inflate the glass at its end. It expands much like a balloon.

“We use wood moulds to guarantee shape and uniformity to the piece being blown,” Six says. “The blower is assisted by a mould boy who handles the mould, keeping it damp and opens or closes it as needed, as indicated by a slight toe tap from the blower. The two must work closely as a team.”

“Several of our blowers have 30 or 40 years of experience working with us,” he says.

Six continues to walk me around the factory floor and explain what I’m seeing. “A finisher uses hand tools to shape the final details into the cooling glass,” he says. The glass piece is still hot so it’s put on the lehr, a cooling oven with a slow moving conveyor belt. This slow cooling prevents the piece from cracking. With a final inspection, the completed piece is ready to go on sale at our gift shop or be packaged for shipment.”

“American shoppers are changing the way they buy things, and we’ve had to change as well to keep pace with that trend,” says Six.

“For years we sold our glassware at mom-and-pop glass and gift shops and a number of leading department stores,” Six explains. Macy’s began selling Blenko glassware in 1932. “But today,” Six says, “the mom and pops are pretty much gone and the big department stores seem headed in the same direction.”

Today, Americans are doing more and more of their buying via the internet, and Six says a growing list of merchandisers are including Blenko glassware in their online offerings.

He notes that Blenko has long been stocked in gift shops at museums and historic sites around the country, many of which now do a brisk business via the internet. These include Mount Vernon, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Blenko’s handmade water bottle is by far the glassmaker’s biggest-selling design, Six says. The bottle was first produced in 1938 and was made to fit into the narrow door shelves of the then new “electric ice box” — known today as a refrigerator. The bottle’s narrow shape, two pouring spouts and center indentation made for easy handling.

The No. 384 water bottle — the number indicating it was the fourth design introduced in 1938 — has been produced at Blenko’s Milton factory almost nonstop since that first year. The classic bottle stands 8 inches tall and holds 36 ounces. A miniature version, 6 inches tall and holding 16 ounces, was introduced in 2013. Over the years, the bottle has been produced in an array of distinctive colors.

“Today, the bottle is as functional and attractive as it was when it was introduced eight decades ago,” Six says.

Several times a year, Blenko offers the public a chance to sign up for workshops that will enable them to make their own small piece of glass — perhaps an ornament for their Christmas tree or, just before Halloween, a small orange pumpkin.

If you visit Blenko and are lucky, you may spy one of several cats that make their home in the factory and warehouse and keep them rodent-free.

“Currently,” says Six, “we have five resident cats, with one or two feral cats that slip in for a bite of food and a drink of water from the Blenko glass bowls that we have for our cats.”

The company even has a new coloring book featuring Kit, one of the resident cats, showing youngsters around the factory and explaining how glass is made.

If you go

The Blenko Glass Co. in Milton is just minutes away from Exit 28 off Interstate 64.

James E. Casto is the retired associate editor of the Herald-Dispatch in Huntington and the author of a number of books on local and regional history.

Funerals for Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Antill, Norman - 6 p.m., Curry Funeral Home, Alum Creek.

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