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Monday April 7, 2008
Fenton stages surprising comeback
WILLIAMSTOWN - Officials of Fenton Art Glass - the world's largest manufacturer of handmade colored glass - saddened residents of this Ohio River town with an announcement that they would be forced to shut down their century-old factory at the end of 2007.

Thousands of loyal Fenton customers promptly responded with a surge of orders that has kept the company going.
Fenton officials and well-wishers will celebrate the company's resilience at the opening of a new exhibit at the Cultural Center called "West Virginia's Gift to the World: Fenton - Handcrafted American Glass Artistry."

George and Scott Fenton, president and vice-president of the company, will be on hand. They will present limited edition flip vases called "West Virginia Winter" to Gov. Joe Manchin and First Lady Gayle Manchin and Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith of the Division of Culture and History.

The company's history dates to 1905 when Frank and John Fenton scrounged up $284.46 to start Fenton Art Glass in Martins Ferry, Ohio. Company historian Jim Measell said the brothers hired four experienced women to decorate tumblers they purchased from nearby glass factories. Finding it difficult to acquire a reliable supply of glass, however, the brothers began looking for land to build their own factory. About 80 miles down the Ohio River in Williamstown, a man had suffered huge losses in the stock market and wanted to sell a large tract for a bargain price. The Fentons snapped it up. In addition to being a bargain, the land was the near the river, railroad and natural gas wells. The Fentons broke ground on the factory in 1906. On Jan. 2, 1907, the company made its first piece of glass - a crystal creamer.

Today, Fenton makes glass in much the same way as it made it then, using the same tools and same techniques. For example, to change the color of the glass, minerals are added. Manganese and powder blue make violet glass. The company has more than 11,000 molds, some of which are older than the company and many of which the company still uses to make glass pieces. "We're preserving not only the glass history of West Virginia, but the glass history of America," Measell said. To preserve that history takes special care.

After the molds have been used, they are placed on a table to cool. Next, they are given a bath in water to make sure all oil and any residue is wiped clean. If not, future pieces made with the mold may have nicks, Measell said.

The demand for glass is also similar to what it was 100 years ago. For example, carnival glass - a glass with a sort of iridescent spray covering - is popular today. It was first made by Fenton in the early 1900s.

In the early 1980s, Fenton started using a sandblasting process to create a glass with a layered effect. Milk glass coats a different color glass. That covering is carved and blasted with aluminum oxide crystals to reveal a deep, richly colored glass beneath it and to produce a scene. "This is an area we think has a potential for growth," Measell said.

Because the process is so labor-intensive - pieces must be blasted, then carved, then blasted multiple times - the final products are expensive. A vase retails for $1,100.

But pieces like this provide a source of hope for Fenton. "The glass industry has always been challenging because of competition," said Measell. The cost of labor is always rising, and the cost of natural gas is soaring. Sales at Fenton began dropping about three and a half years ago.

On Aug. 9, 2007, the announcement came that it would be closing its doors. "It was no secret that on August 9 there were a lot of tears," Measell said. "It was one of the worst days of my life." About 25 employees were laid off last year immediately following the announcement. But then something unexpected happened. Order after order poured in.

"We had a great deal of emotional support come our way," Measell said. The company had enough of a surge in business to stay open. "We had a firm of financial advisors helping us," Measell said. "They told us they rarely, if ever, see the kind of support we got." "The support we've gotten has been very valuable to us," Fenton said. "It's really the customers who have been important to us and kept us in place." The company was able to hire a few of its staff members back, such as a Web site designer.

Fenton officials have come up with a different sequence for rolling out new products. Instead of making items before they are ordered, the company will now receive orders from its dealers, make the products that were ordered and ship them out.

They have also concentrated on developing a new division of the company - Fenton International. "We looked for products made around the world based on the philosophy we have here - good designs, handmade," Fenton said. The pieces vary from ceramics to casual tabletop to fiberglass Christmas decorations, Fenton said. The pieces come from China and Fenton sells them with the Fenton International trademark. "We still have to continue to work from day to day and week to week," Measell said. "Now we are hopeful that we will remain open for a second century."

At the Fenton exhibit in the Cultural Center, visitors can view a 22-minute film about the company called "Experience Fenton: Glassmaking - An Art of Hand and Heart." The exhibit is on display in the Lobby Gallery and the Balcony Gallery and features a wall of pieces Fenton produced. The company loaned about 225 newer pieces. Older pieces are from the West Virginia State Museum Collection. Tonight's opening reception and exhibition are free and open to the public.

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Visitors to Fenton Art Glass will find a spacious Gift Shop and a pleasant museum. Free factory tours (M-F 8:15am to 4:00pm) take small groups of guests right out to the factory floor to see glassmaking "up close and personal." Friendly, knowledgeable tour guides explain all aspects of the operation. The Fenton tour has been ranked among the "Top 10" factory tours nationwide by USA Today. In addition we have been named Rand McNally Best of the Road for 2006. For a factory tour schedule, click here. For a map, click here.


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