Imperial Glass Museum opens for 2019 season
Volunteers share memories of working at, visiting factory
BELLAIRE — Budding flowers, blooming trees and the start of baseball all are signs a new spring has sprung. But there is another — the reopening of the National Imperial Glass Museum for the season in Bellaire.
The museum, which is dedicated to all things Imperial, contains thousands of pieces made in the factory that operated in the village for 80 years until 1984. The pieces are situated in beautifully lit oak display cases with glass doors so visitors can see the glassware from nearly all sides.
Some of the names of the designs most people will recognize — Candlewick, Peachblow and Carnival, just to name a few.
The museum’s first official opening day for the season was held Thursday, and the docents who take care of the museum said they were having a good turnout.
When one hears the word “museum,” they may think everything is an antique. In the case of Imperial glass there are some antique items on display, but since the factory stayed in operation until 1984 there are still people in the area who worked there, and many others whose relatives worked there as well.
For example, museum officer Steve Fabry worked at the factory for many years before it closed. He was a stemware presser, which involved a lot of hands on work.
“It was like working with a big family. It was once of the best places I ever worked,” Fabry said.
His main specialty was making goblets in the Old Williamsburg pattern. During the course of a shift, Fabry said he and others were required to make so many pieces. When it came to the goblets, on average, he was required to make 250 pieces during the first four hours and the second “turn” of the shift, another 250 pieces. If one made more than what was required in a shift they received bonuses.
“I had a gatherer who worked with me. We had pots of glass. He put this rod with a ball on the end and gather that amount on the end of it. He would turn around and drop it into my mould and I would cut it off,” he said. “Really I depended on him to gather a precise amount every time. If he gathered too much it wouldn’t press properly. If he didn’t gather enough it wouldn’t fill. Then it went from me to a person who would warm it in a glory hole so that he could flare the top. Plus it gave the glass a very nice shine.”
Fabry said they only got credit for the “good pieces.” He noted he never had any major accidents, but it was easy to get burned.
“This arm, from (wrist to elbow), was always burned from reaching under to do something with the mould. You just got used to it,” he said.
Fabry said during his career he also worked at the LaBelle nail plant in Wheeling for 17 years. He worked in coal mines off and on when he was laid off at Imperial. And when the coal mine would do layoffs, Imperial always welcomed him back.
Fred Ottoson, president of the society, said the museum was started by the National Imperial Glass Collectors Society. The process started in the 1990s and on June 5, 2003, the museum finally opened at its current location at 3200 Belmont St.
Ottoson said the society was, at first, looking at other locations other than Bellaire. The thinking at the time was that it would be better to have the museum closer to the interstate.
“The prevailing wisdom was since Imperial was here in Bellaire that the museum needed to be here,” Ottoson said.
The factory, which was torn down in 1995, was located where the Imperial shopping plaza is located now in the village.
Ottoson’s father, Axel Ottoson, was a chemist for Imperial. Fred Ottoson remembers visiting the factory with his father.
“Usually it was a Saturday morning and my dad would have to go check on things. I didn’t run around the factory, I usually stayed with my dad. I walked out into the hot metal and got to see my dad telling the furnace man what to do. … The gas burning through those jets all over the place, it was enormous,” he said of the loud sound.
Ottoson said although the glassware is high quality and heavy-duty compared to most of today’s standards, its chemical makeup actually makes it “soft,” which means it cannot be put into a dishwasher. Dishwasher soap, he said, will actually scratch and etch the glass. He said it also cannot be wrapped in newspaper because a chemical reaction will make it appear cloudy.
“That’s one of the reasons handmade glass fell out of favor because people can’t put it in their dishwashers,” Ottoson noted.
Fabry remembers working with Ottoson’s father. He said he was known as the “glass master.”
“I got to see his dad a lot. He was the chemist and … sunshine yellow, when it was first put into production, it was a difficult glass to work with. We had a lot of problems. Axel would come out and say, ‘What’s the matter with it, what’s the trouble now? He’d say I guess we’ll have to do this or that. It took a little while for it to become nice workable glass,” Fabry said.
Ottoson said his father was trained as a ceramic engineer.
“Engineers are problem solvers. When you talk about glass you don’t think of glass being ceramics,” Ottoson said. “But what do you melt glass in? Clay pots and clay brick.”
Ottoson said when he got older he would fill in on some unskilled labor shifts, carrying glass from station to station.
“We would line up at the water fountain at quarter til 7 in the morning … and if there was someone who didn’t show up … I would be fortunate enough to get eight hours of work that day,” Ottoson said. “All you had to have was a name and a Social Security number.”
His grandfather Carl Ottoson also worked there. Board Chairwoman Mary Blacker said her father, Robert Poch, worked there for awhile.
Rosalie Wenckoski, museum administrator, said her father, Larry Snyder, worked at the factory in maintenance. She worked there later, too, as a secretary. She remembers as a child seeing that they used Coca Cola to clean the factory’s molds.
Now with the museum, Wenckoski sees what the glass means to others who visit.
“I think everybody that comes in remembers something from their relatives, their grandmother, their aunt’s house. That’s what draws them in,” Wenckoski said.
Many of the pieces inside the museum are donated, others bought by the society. Some society members occasionally loan pieces for temporary displays.
The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday-Saturday through Oct. 31. For more information, call 740-671-3971. The 43rd annual National Imperial Glass Convention is set for June 6-9.