MILTON, W.Va. >> At Blenko Glass you can watch glass being handcrafted the way it’s been done for more than 100 years.
The company’s famous glassware has been bought, collected and recognized around the world. Blenko stained glass was used in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Blenko tableware is in the White House as well as in various museums. Blenko also designed the trophy for the Country Music Awards.
The Blenko factory, in Milton, W.Va., a few minutes off Interstate 64, has an on-site museum displaying some of its innovative designs, along with an observation area. Here visitors can watch, up close, as workers heat, shape, blow and cut colorful glass pieces into vases, bottles and other items.
A series of signs explains the process. There are several jobs involved in producing a piece. One worker is responsible for gathering just the right amount of hot glass. Another blows, shapes and molds the glass. Then the piece is removed from the blowpipe, and a finisher completes the piece by cutting off ragged edges and working with the soft glass so that it matches a master design. Because each piece is made by hand, no two pieces are exactly alike.
The company was founded by William J. Blenko, an immigrant from England. He set up his first factory in Indiana in the 1890s but was not initially successful. In that era, Americans did not want domestically made glass; they wanted glass made in Europe.
After several ups and downs, he moved to Milton in the early 1920s partly because of the abundance of cheap, local natural gas, used to fuel the furnaces. Blenko eventually expanded from producing sheet glass and stained glass to tableware. The switch was prompted by the Great Depression, when a downturn in cathedral and church-building ravaged the market for stained glass.
In the mid-20th century the company’s innovative craftsmen began to be recognized with design awards for their handcrafted tableware. Despite that recognition, the company has not always prospered. It recently emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
The on-site gift shop offers many types and colors of vases, bottles, glasses, bowls and other items. You’ll also find handmade Christmas ornaments, small statues and even a bit of jewelry. Most of the items are made by Blenko, but a few (such as jewelry items) are produced by others. Vases are priced from $30 to $100. The museum displays are upstairs from the gift shop.
I purchased one of my favorite bowls at Blenko, a dark blue piece that looks beautiful with strawberries in it. The variations in color remind me that it’s handmade.
The company also hosts monthly events focused on glass. A paperweight collectors meeting takes place on-site March 11-12, and an annual glass festival is scheduled for Aug. 5-6. The events are free, with vendors and demonstrations. Classes are often offered during the events for a fee.
Blenko’s biggest annual event is keyed to the anniversary of the date West Virginia became a state, June 20, 1863. The company creates a unique commemorative glass piece in a numbered limited edition to mark the event each year, and the sale of the pieces is held on the Saturday nearest the anniversary (June 18 this year).
Collectors begin camping in the company parking lot the Monday before the sale just to get a space in line. The number of pieces and the price are determined by the year of the birthday: This year, on the 153rd celebration, the company will produce 153 pieces priced at $153 each.