Speaker to recall heyday of glass-making at L.E. Smith

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For 34 years, Forrest Kastner worked at L.E. Smith Glass in Westmoreland County.

At 7 tonight, he will share a look back on his time in the factory, especially from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s, an era he considers the factory’s glory years.

Mr. Kastner, born and raised in Mount Pleasant, will be the first speaker in an inaugural series of talks sponsored by the Mount Pleasant Glass Museum, which opened in November 2012 in Mount Pleasant Township to preserve the area's rich glass heritage. To complement the museum's exhibits, curator Cassandra Vivian has scheduled a series of talks about glass that will be held at 7 p.m. on the third Thursday of each month. 

After he graduated from Penn State University with a degree in mechanical engineering, Mr. Kastner was hired in 1959 as a management trainee in the production department of U.S. Steel in Homestead, and he worked for U.S. Steel for the next seven years.

In 1966, a family friend, Cedric Spence, who was vice president and treasurer of the L. E. Smith Glass factory, told Mr. Kastner that the company, first incorporated in 1907, was looking to expand and and that he would be a good candidate to take Mr. Spence's job when he retired.

"At first I wasn’t that interested in the position," Mr. Kastner said. "I was content with my job at U S Steel and knew how unsteady work in the glass factories could be because my father had worked for Bryce Brothers Glass in Mount Pleasant."

When he visited the factory, however, he realized the operation was a lot like the steel industry in that raw materials were melted down and re-formed into a variety of objects. That realization, along with the promise of a raise in salary, prompted him to take the new job. He worked in a variety of administrative positions, including plant manager.

L. E. Smith, along with Bryce Brothers and Lenox, was one of three glass factories in Mount Pleasant. Known in its early years for its black and souvenir glass, such as novelties and miniatures, the Smith factory later became known for its "swung" vases, in which the glass maker swung the glass back and forth to make it flow.

The factory was one of the first glass manufacturers to outfit Henry Ford’s Modal Ts with headlights. In the '60s and '70s, it became known for its punch bowls and automotive headlight lenses. Also popular at that time was its moon and star line, designed for its vases and table top items such as relish dishes and covered candy boxes.

"In the glory years of the mid-1960s and '70s and early '80s, when everyone wanted handmade glass, the factory business was robust," Mr. Kastner said. "At its peak, we had 281 employees plus salaried staff that brought the total number of employees to around 325 to 350. By the time I retired in 2000, that number dropped significantly to, I’d guess, 100."

In 1975, Owens-Illinois purchased the factory. Sold again in 1986, the factory limped along with limited production until it closed in 2005.

"L. E. Smith was one of the last glass factories in the area to close," Mr. Kastner said. "We’d outlived competitors like Imperial, Viking and Westmoreland."

Future talks in the series will feature Tom Felt and Dean Six on "The Museum of American Glass and it Artifacts" on April 17; Jay Hawkins on "Bottles and Bottlemaking in the 19th Century" on May 15; and John Potts on "Transition from Bryce Brothers to Lenox Crystal" on June 19. Admission to each talk is a suggested donation of $3. 

While all of the nearly 600 pieces in the museum's permanent collection come from one of the town’s three major glass companies, its first changing exhibit, which opened this month, focuses on paperweights and has a broader reach outside the area. The exhibit will remain through June 15.

The museum is inside the former Lenox Crystal plant, 402 E. Main St. Details: 724-542-4949. 

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.

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