Milton’s Blenko Glass Company celebrates 16th annual ‘Festival of Glass’

By Vanta Coda III,

Visitors from many corners of the country flocked to get a glimpse of the master craftsman of the Blenko Glass Company in Milton, West Virginia, during the 16th annual Festival of Glass. The thousands of festival attendees enjoyed hands-on glass-making workshop experiences, as well as factory tours and live glass blowing demonstrations.

Alex Burnett speaks to a crowd of visitors about the various work that is happening around the hot shop. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

“The festival is usually held on the first weekend of August. But it’s very, very hot in the shop, reaching temperatures up to 130-140 degrees,” said John Blenko, Blenko Glass Company President. “Our workers are acclimated to it, but it’s dangerous for our guests, so we chose to move it to April because of those precautions.”

Shards of recycled class called “cullet” lay in color sorted heaps waiting to be reused in newer pieces. Photo by Matthew Young, RealWV.

The Festival of Glass was founded to preserve, celebrate, and showcase the glass heritage of West Virginia while nodding to the history of the hundreds of glass factories that previously dotted the state. The Blenko Glass Company was founded in 1893, but moved to Milton, West Virginia in 1921, where it still remains.

Standing high on a step stool, a hot shop worker blows into molten glass from a rod. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

Blenko glass pieces are sourced from a sand mixture of different minerals, and made with old world techniques, such as air blowing and sculpting with hand-chiseled cherry wood tools and molds. Events such as this allows visitors a compound understanding of the Blenko process of glass making that has been carried down through generations.

Katherine Endicott (left) and Mary Cart (right) laugh as they follow the instructions for a bird feeder. The bird feeder class hosted by Charlie Harshbarger is one of the many classes that visitors could participate in. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

Every year, the Festival of Glass sells a featured piece from one of their designers. This year’s festival highlighted an archived design from Don Shepard, one of the most famous Blenko designers who produced work from 1974-1987. The piece is supposed to resemble the surface of the moon in light of the solar eclipse on April 8.

Visitors walk around the Blenko Glass Company gift shop. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

Some of the eldest members of the glass maker ranks in the Blenko “hot shop” have been working their whole lives at the shop and have brought family members and friends into the fold to work with them. It is not unusual for a learned craft such as this to be passed down.

Charlie Harshbarger, 63, stands for a portrait in his workshop. Harshbarger has been working at the Blenko Glass Company, since he was 18, he is responsible for creating electrical fittings for certain pieces. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.

“One time, one of our staff members who worked here since he was a young man was present when his son was offered to blow glass for the first time,” said John Blenko. “When he saw his son blow his first glass piece, I saw tears roll down his cheek. That was a very prideful day for that family.”

Matthew Urban, a guest designer from Chicago, Ill, carefully finishes one of his pieces that he has been making over the course of his visit. Urban is the owner of Urbini Glass Furnace in Chicago, Ill, and focuses on only using recycled glass for all of his pieces. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.
Dusty Davis, Blenko Glass Company hot shop worker, reaches into one of the many furnaces in the hot shop to collect molten glass for a piece. Photo by Vanta Coda III, RealWV.
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