Glass museum would honor Mount Pleasant's productive past

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Throughout much of the 20th century, Mount Pleasant Borough in Westmoreland County was known for its glass factories. Now some in that community want to open a glass museum to pay tribute to that proud past.

The borough was home to three plants: Bryce crystal glassware became a favorite of U.S. embassies around the world; hundreds of locals worked at the LE Smith glass plant, known for its black and colored glass vases, candy dishes and bowls; Lenox Co. bought the Bryce company and continued some of its patterns.

Cassandra Vivian of Mount Pleasant is an organizer of the museum, which now has its first exhibit. She is a historian and teacher who lived in Egypt for 17 years, but who moved back to the borough three years ago. She believes there is a rich history in the town that needs to be promoted.

Ms. Vivian and others interested in glass history have formed the Mt. Pleasant Area Cultural Trust. [The name is meant to include both the borough, which spells its first name in full, and the surrounding township which uses an abbreviated Mt. in its official name.]

The group is hosting its first exhibit of local glass at the In-Town Shops on West Main Street, at the offices of the Business District Authority. The exhibit showcases about 150 pieces of hand-blown and pressed glass made in the borough factories, as well as other glass made in Pittsburgh mills.

The glass-making industry employed thousands in the region during the 20th century and had its peak years in the mid- to late-1900s.

"We put a notice [in a newspaper] about the exhibit and people came out of the woodwork," Ms. Vivian said. "People who worked in these factories have the glass, the tools and the stories. Mary Shaw, who worked at the Bryce plant, looked at a piece of glass that someone brought in and said, 'That's piece No. 6789.' She's amazing."

Others have brought in paperweights that were made by glass blowers in their free time but were never manufactured.

Descendants of the two most prominent glass company families are supporters of the museum, and both attended a reception in December in Mount Pleasant.

Harley Trice, a partner in the Pittsburgh law firm of Reed Smith, is a descendant of James Bryce, who opened the Bryce plant in 1896. Tom Wible, a retired computer programmer who lives in northern Virginia, is a descendant of Charles Wible, who helped found and operate the LE Smith glass company in 1907.

Mr. Trice has homes in Ligonier and Pittsburgh and collects his family's glassware. He owns about half the pieces in the Mount Pleasant exhibit and he's also on the board of the glass museum.

"I've begun to speak about the history of the Bryce company to raise awareness. I gave a talk in September, where I first met Cassandra Vivian, and became involved in the effort to start a museum," he said. "I believe this museum will go; there is lots of enthusiasm."

A look back

Mr. Trice's great-great-grandfather, James Bryce, moved his glass plant to Mount Pleasant in 1896. It operated until 1965, when it was sold to the Lenox Co., which continued many of the Bryce patterns.

"James Bryce, and his father, who came from Scotland, both worked in the Bakewell glass plant on the South Side in Pittsburgh," Mr. Trice said. "Bakewell manufactured luxury glass, crystal glass with lead.

"James formed a company with his brothers and moved to the borough when the town lent them $20,000 to build a new factory.

"When Bryce moved to Mount Pleasant, it changed from manufacturing high volume pressed glass back to hand-blown glass, the way James and his father had done it at Bakewell.

"Every crystal piece was hand blown, with 8 to 12 percent lead," he said. "These products went all over the world. Bryce was in U.S. embassies all over. When I went to Malta, I was served a beverage in a Bryce glass with an official U.S. coat of arms."

Mr. Trice is a collector of Bakewell and Bryce. He said there are 20 to 25 pieces of Bryce in the exhibit, as well as a piece of hand-blown Bakewell from 1825.

Mr. Trice first became interested in collecting his family's glass when, back in 1972, a relative gave him six Bryce goblets.

He said the Lenox Co., when it left Mount Pleasant, donated 20,000 pieces of its glass and Bryce glass, to the Heinz History Center. Mr. Trice has also donated some pieces to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh.

The Smith glass company got its start when an Anchor Hocking glass factory was about to close in 1907. A Greensburg bank allowed Charles Wible to help Lewis E. Smith take over the plant to manufacture jars for Mr. Smith's gourmet mustard, according to Mr. Wible's family history. Charles Wible continued to operate the plant after Mr. Smith left the business, but the Smith name remained.

Tom Wible said the company made headlights for the Henry Ford Co. in its early years, and later turned to housewares.

The Smith company was sold in the 1970s, but other companies continued to operate the plant in the borough until 2005, he said.

Mr. Wible worked a couple of years at the Smith plant after college, and his father, Tim, was a salesman at the company, and his uncle Rich operated it for many years.

While much of the glass was made using molds, some of the foremen would hand-blow handles on vases, he said.

Mr. Trice said at one time Pittsburgh had 10 to 20 glass companies, and was the glass capital of the country. Mr. Wible attributed that to the availability of coal, which was used to produce natural gas used in the glass-making process.

The Bryce factory was destroyed in a fire, but the Smith factory still stands, and the cultural trust hopes there might be some tools and glass of value still there.

Officials think there will be no problem attracting visitors. The Great Allegheny Passage, which Ms. Vivian said is used by 800,000 people a year, is nearby. In addition, Mount Pleasant sees a lot of traffic as visitors head for the Laurel Mountains and ski resorts. Borough Mayor Gerald Lucia says 17,000 vehicles travel through town each day.

The organizers' first project was getting signs marking the historic Braddock Road (Route 31) through Mount Pleasant and neighboring communities. It is the original trail that the British cut in 1755 to Braddock in Pittsburgh. Gen. Edward Braddock, and George Washington on an earlier trip, was trying to take Fort Duquesne at the Point in Pittsburgh from the French.

Four local communities will be erecting about 15 metal signs designating Braddock Road. Parts of Braddock Road later became the National Road, which is the first federally funded highway in the nation. Later, much of the National Road became Route 40.

The glass exhibit is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays.

neigh_east - neigh_westmoreland

Debra Duncan, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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