Collectors rue Fenton Art Glass closing

Company has spent a century in Williamstown, W.Va.


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WILLIAMSTOWN, W.Va. -- As a tiny girl, Linda Harmon delighted in picking through the "mistake'' pile behind the Fenton Art Glass plant and slipping away with a shimmering vase, dish or figurine that hadn't passed an inspector's muster but, to her, was irresistibly pretty.

Like so many other people in this community on the Ohio-West Virginia border, Mrs. Harmon's grandfather, Frank Wooster, spent years working in the Fenton complex a couple of blocks from his home. She cracks a wistful smile at memories of dashing across a field to meet him after his shifts, and of hearing him scold when she'd drag home castoffs with minute flaws.

"He'd say, 'That could explode any minute,' " said Mrs. Harmon, of Columbus, Ohio. "But I've still got a lot of those pieces from that pile.''

So after learning that the century-old Fenton plant that sustained her family and generations of others around Williamstown will close next month, Mrs. Harmon and her husband, Dick, returned for a day to visit and walk its grounds above the Ohio River.

This time, she was after more than a flawed hunk of glass.

"I want a brick to keep,'' she said. "My grandfather's picture is still hanging in there. This place is special.''

Thousands of people around the world who scour auctions, conventions, Internet sites and the QVC television shopping channel for coveted pieces of Fenton's distinctive handmade, hand-painted glassware would agree. Time was when nearly every china closet or dining-room table in America held a Fenton plate, basket-shaped candy dish, punch bowl, fluted vase or other fancy piece pulled out only for special occasions.

But the fervor of Fenton collectors and tourists who made the plant one of West Virginia's most popular stops has not been enough to shore up one of the last relics of an industry that once flourished along the river from Pittsburgh to Alton, Ill.

Company President George W. Fenton, whose grandfather and great-uncle pooled $284.86 to open the business in 1905, announced in August that the plant will stop production this fall. About 100 workers remain, down from more than 400 a decade ago.

Initial plans called for the plant to close this month, but a wave of last-minute orders will keep workers producing and decorating glass through November, Mr. Fenton said. A gift shop and museum, which are housed in the plant but operated by a separate company, will stay open until the contents are sold.

"If you have lost a loved one in your family, that's how this feels,'' Mr. Fenton, 57, said of closing the plant where four generations of his family labored and his neighbors trained for years to master the intricacies of producing mouth-blown or molded glass.

"Now it's about, 'How do we go on and celebrate the best of us?' That's the mode we're working in now.''

Fenton Art Glass survived previous economic downturns by producing a wide variety of innovative colors, shapes, figures and animals that appealed to a broad base of buyers. Among its most famous lines were the luminous red pieces known as Cranberry and the knob-covered, opaque white hobnail milk glass that debuted and caught on at the end of the Great Depression.

But despite months of efforts to restructure its finances, Mr. Fenton said, the company no longer can withstand combined blows: Competition from lower-priced foreign imports, changing tastes of collectors, economic conditions that have taxed the wallets of its longtime customers, and rising costs of natural gas used to melt sand for glass-making.

Fenton also became an inadvertent victim of its own success in the 1990s, when it was one of the first gift and collectible companies to offer its wares on then-fledgling QVC. Resulting demand from new fans persuaded company officials to expand, using borrowed money it now is struggling to repay, Mr. Fenton said.

"QVC was very important to our growth, giving us exposure and ability to tell the story of glass-making,'' he said. "But 2001 [after 9-11] was a change year for us in many ways. The stock market went down and gasoline and natural gas prices started going up.''

Mr. Fenton would not say how much his company owes to creditors. Wood County, W.Va., officials said the company is working out a plan to pay more than $200,000 in overdue taxes owed to county and local governments.

Mr. Fenton said the unpaid taxes are not the company's primary problem but are a result of efforts to address greater, more pressing financial issues. He and other company officials still are looking for options to address the debts and keep the plant running, but have not found a solution.

"We have a bubble of enthusiasm at the moment,'' said James Measell, a retired university professor and Fenton's resident historian. "But like any bubble of enthusiasm, it will not sustain the business long-term.''

Fenton Art Glass founders Frank L. and John Fenton were grandchildren of Irish immigrant John Fenton, who in the 1880s settled in Westmoreland County. Family members worked in glass companies in Indiana, Pa., and around the region, prompting brothers Frank and John to try running their own company.

They initially rented a building in Martins Ferry, Ohio, where workers painted and decorated glass purchased elsewhere. But when the Fentons encountered supply problems, they built their own factory in 1907 in Williamstown.

Their first piece: a crystal pitcher in the now-famous Water Lily and Cattails pattern. Over the next century, the Fenton family would develop signature lines known for distinctive finishes and hues produced by the addition of gold or other substances to glass formulas.

"Fenton appeals to everyone because of its vast variety of products, and you could collect on just about any budget,'' said Sharon Fenner, president of the National Fenton Glass Society, one of at least three sizable groups of U.S. collectors.

Mrs. Fenner, 60, of Browerville, Minn., said she knows of Fenton collectors who live as far away as Australia. Fenton pieces now may become more valuable, she said, but that's little comfort to true devotees like herself who plan yearly vacations around Fenton conventions near Williamstown.

"It's devastating to us collectors,'' she said.

The announcement of Fenton's impending shutdown was not a shock in Williamstown, nearby Parkersburg, W.Va., or across the river in Marietta, Ohio, where whispers about its financial and tax circumstances had been fueled for months by occasional layoffs.

Still, civic leaders and residents kept hoping that Fenton officials would find a way out of their troubles, retaining the jobs, tax dollars, financial largess and identity on which those communities long have depended.

"It's been the talk of the town. We've kind of seen it coming for a while,'' said Becky Graves, 57, who is related to the Fenton family and worked in the plant on summer vacations from high school.

"It's just always been here, always part of this community,'' Ms. Graves said during an afternoon walk with her father, Glenn Kimble, 80. "I can't fathom what it will mean to not have it. I hope they get something else in there.''

Williamstown is so indelibly linked with the glassware company that its streets are studded with signs directing visitors to the plant. Entering the city's name in the Google Internet search engine quickly brings up information about Fenton's gift shop.

"This is all just a crying shame,'' said Wood County Administrator Marty Seufer, who also has been a Williamstown council member for 22 years. "My dad worked there. My three daughters worked there. It's one of the last American businesses and a big tourist draw for West Virginia.''

Williamstown, with about 3,000 residents and a budget this year of about $1 million, receives about $28,000 each year in property and personal property taxes from the Fenton plant, Mr. Seufer said. But its shutdown may cost the city as much as $100,000 each year because of lost surcharges on natural gas used to make glass and taxes on revenues at hotels and motels frequented by Fenton-bound tourists, he said.

"Our parks are 100 percent funded by our hotel occupancy tax. That will take a huge hit,'' said Mr. Seufer, a longtime collector of Fenton's iridescent Carnival glassware.

Over the years, the Fenton family also has been generous, donating money or specially designed pieces for fund-raisers to community, church and school projects "and they never made a big deal of it," he said.

But officials and residents are somewhat heartened by George Fenton's pledge to try to maintain a scaled-down aspect of traditional glass-making to keep tourists coming and the museum and gift shop open.

"It's the character of the town,'' Mr. Seufer said. "There's no other reason for people to come to Williamstown, W.Va.''


Cindi Lash can be reached at clash@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1973 First Published October 14, 2007 4:00 AM


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