Indiana’s century-old industry continues to glisten
By CJ Woodring
»The basis for Indiana’s glass-making industry began in 1886 with a boom in Howard County. A natural gas boom.
The discovery the following year of the Trenton Gas Field, in east central Indiana, along with resultant gas-fired furnaces, launched statewide manufacturing companies, including many glass-related operations.
More than a century later, glass remains a shining example of artistry in the Hoosier State, reflected in leaded and stained glass windows by the likes of Louis Comfort Tiffany, and in the works of established art glass manufacturers and emerging artisans throughout the state.
“Indiana has deep histories in several art media, but probably none so long-standing as glass and furniture making,” says Eric Freeman, director of Indiana Artisan and board chairman for Indiana Glass Arts Alliance.
“The natural gas found underground in Indiana in the 1880s gave rise to cities like Muncie, Kokomo, Anderson — and, of course, cities like Gas City and Gaston — largely because of the enormous glass manufacturing companies that went in and either created those towns or increased their populations by multiples.
“We have been producing both functional and decorative glass for 130 years in Indiana, and very few states can match that.”
Early glassware manufactured by Dunkirk-based Beatty-Brady Glass Co., (later called the Indiana Glass Co.) was primarily functional: multifaceted glasses, goblets, pitchers, candy dishes and decorative accessories. Not to mention A&W Root Beer mugs.
Today these pieces remain in demand, offered in antique stores and online auctions, enchanting new generations of buyers.
Other early companies flourished in Sheridan, Elwood, Richmond, Alexandria and Hartford City, among others, while glass bottling companies emerged at Lawrenceburg and Terre Haute, the latter the birthplace of the iconic Coca-Cola bottle, which was manufactured there into the 1980s.
Muncie produced yet another glass product that became globally renowned: the ubiquitous Ball canning jar. Still operational, Ball (ball.com) now operates as a global metal packaging company.
Although he doesn’t have a precise figure, James Glass, principal of Indianapolis-based Historic Preservation & Heritage Consulting LLC, says, “I think there were between 35 and 40 window glass factories, three to five plate glass factories, and another 10 to 15 glass factories producing all other kinds of glass products (fruit jars, tableware, art/stained glass, etc.). So altogether, there was somewhere between 50 to 60 glass factories in east central Indiana (eight counties) in operation by the late 1890s.
“Also, Indiana was second in glass production in the United States by 1900, and Muncie was the number two city in the country in terms of producing glass that year,” adds Glass, co-author of “The Gas Boom of East Central Indiana” (Arcadia Publishing, 2005).
Historic glass factories still flourish
The Hoosier art glass industry was launched in Kokomo by a New York glass chemist who had heard about central Indiana’s gas boom and decided to pay a visit.
Thus, Charles Edward Henry founded Opalescent Glass Works in 1888, with customers that included Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Now operating with 45 employees from its original location, Kokomo Opalescent Glass (kog.com) is America’s oldest art glass company. Direct descendants of early KOG partners remain on board.
KOG established its Hot Glass Studio in 1998, producing a wide range of mouth-blown and hand-cast glass. The company manufactures colored glass for global art and architecture, also promoting sheet glass art. In addition, it remains the primary source for stained glass restoration work, producing nearly all the original colors Tiffany used in his work.
One of the primary components of the operation is public tours. CEO John O’Donnell says the company hosted about 7,000 tours in 2014; the number increased last year to about 8,500.
“They love the tours, because they’re going to see hot molten glass being made into sheets of art glass, and they’re going to feel the heat off that,” he says.
Younger visitors, O’Donnell says, most often want something already made because they have less time. “To counter that, we offer a lot of classes. We’re finding that once they attend a class, they’ll come back. So in many cases, tours lead to classes and classes lead to customers.”
O’Donnell says he believes glass art has a stable future in Indiana. The secret lies in developing new product ideas and a wider range of architectural and construction uses.
“One of the things we’re looking to do is find other uses for glass; for example, we make trophies and awards and use glass strips for beads. Another market potential is the funeral urn business. So I think the potential is there for many other new uses.”
Kerry Zimmerman, principal of Zimmerman Art Glass LLC (facebook.com/zimmermanartglassbusiness), Corydon, is a fourth-generation glassmaker. It’s a legacy handed down from father to son since Zimmerman’s great-grandfather, Frederick, emigrated from Alsace-Lorraine, France, in the 1800s, settling in Pennsylvania.
Zimmerman’s grandfather, Victor, opened Corydon Crystal in 1942; his father, Joseph, founded Zimmerman Art Glass in 1961.
When a 1983 fire destroyed his factory, Joseph Zimmerman rebuilt on the same site, also bringing sons Kerry and Barton on board and changing the name to Zimmerman Glass Co.
Following separate tragedies that claimed his father’s and brother’s lives, Kerry Zimmerman took over operations and responsibilities, while continuing as a craftsman and offering glass-blowing demonstrations to enthralled visitors.
“We’re very viewer friendly,” says Zimmerman, a former high school track and field coach. “You can watch and ask questions, unlike at most places. We’ve given tours for fourth-graders since the 1970s, and last year had 97 busloads in six weeks from as far as Fort Wayne.”
A grand reopening was held in October to commemorate the company’s move to a remodeled gas station in downtown Corydon. The setting boasts a gallery as well as a museum that showcases works by Zimmerman’s father and grandfather.
Zimmerman and his sister-in-law, Melanie Uhl, are sole employees. A one-time intern for Zimmerman, Uhl designs and creates seasonal jewelry and ornaments. Zimmerman continues to expand a line of glass fruit items begun by his grandfather.
Citing Ball State University’s new glass arts program, Kokomo Opalescent Glass’s ongoing work and a resurgence in awareness of the art, driven by sculptor Dale Chihuly’s flamboyant works — the first such movement since the 1960s — Zimmerman says he believes art glass’s future in the Hoosier State is very strong.
“My new factory may be a great addition to downtown, but it may also allow this business to continue,” he says. “I don’t expect (future owners) to put up with what we did over the years, because that’s what we were used to. I think this is going to give it a good fighting chance.”
He says Zimmerman Art Glass will continue to blend new technology “with old stuff our father taught us. You can’t just sit there and do the same thing over and over and think it’s going to survive. It’s not going to happen.”
Founded in 1911, Warsaw Cut Glass (warsaw-cutglass.com) remains as the only art glass-related company still operational in northern Indiana.
In the mid-1980s the building was named a National Historic Landmark, one of just over 2,500 historic places nationwide that have earned the distinction.
At that time, says Randy Kirkendall, who, along with his wife, Linda, bought the company in 1980, they were told theirs is the last original cut glass shop in the United States. “And there used to be 14 just between Chicago and Cincinnati,” he says.
The company does not make glass; rather, it is a cutting house that produces lead crystal items: stemware, barware and bowls; coffee mugs, cookie and candy jars; pitchers, vases, serving pieces and specialty items. Major production is in tableware and trophies, Randy Kirkendall says.
He is the sole glass cutter, sitting in front of a revolving stone wheel operated by a turn-of-the-last-century line shaft, meticulously grinding or cutting delicate floral or geometric patterns into each piece of crystal.
In addition to special occasion gifts, he is also called upon for custom orders, such as replacement stemware for the Indiana governor’s mansion. “We custom designed the original pattern, which we took from the state flag, using the torch and stars. For this year’s state bicentennial, we’re putting that design on ornaments,” he says.
Regarding art glass and its Indiana presence, Kirkendall says he’s encouraged about the industry, in general.
“We have friends in this area who do a lot of stained glass, and, of course, Kokomo Opalescent Glass is a huge operation. And Ball State has a new glass program (the Marilyn K. Glick Center for Glass), so one can only hope it carries on. And we’re going to keep doing our bit for as long as we can.”
“It is doubtful we will pass the business down to a family member at this time,” his wife adds. “We don’t have a child interested in learning the craft.”
Although Indiana’s glass industry has dwindled throughout the years, companies bought out by larger, often global, conglomerates, or shuttered through recession and industry decline, many continue to operate within the state.
They include Anchor Glass Container Corp., Lawrenceburg (anchorglass.com); Ardagh Group/Verallia North America, Dunkirk (ardaghgroup.com); and The House of Glass Inc., Elwood (thehouseof
Among more recent additions are GRT Glass Design, Indianapolis (grtglassdesign.com) and Prestige Crystal, Elwood
(prestigeartglass.net/home.html), founded in 1987 and 1990, respectively.
Celebrating art glass
To honor the art glass industry and preserve and display past artisans’ works, Dunkirk and Greentown have established glass museums.
The Dunkirk Public Library houses The Glass Museum (dunkirk.lib.in.us/the-glass-museum.php), which museum staff and volunteers operate May 1 through October.
The collection showcases more than 8,000 pieces of glassware from more than 100 global factories, including glass produced in Dunkirk and regionally. Related tools are included in the collection.
Greentown City Hall is home to the Greentown Glass Museum (greentownglass.org/museum_news.php), which features more than 2,000 pieces of glass and related historical items from the former Indiana Tumbler & Goblet Co.
The company was operational in Greentown from 1894 to 1903, when fire destroyed the factory. The National Greentown Glass Association (greentownglass.org) oversees the museum, founded in 1970.
Supported by Indiana Artisan and the Indiana Glass Arts Alliance, along with promotional efforts that include the Indiana Glass Trail and related local events, art glass is destined to remain a bright and enduring Hoosier industry and a sparkling testament to the creativity and passion of its artists.
“We have truly exceptional glass artists in this state,” Freeman says. “One reason for Indiana Artisan, the Indiana Glass Trail and the IGAA to exist is to be the proud ‘spokesorganizations’ for the beautiful handcrafted work coming from Indiana today.
“The state always has had a very strong culture in making fine craft and art. What we’re doing is attempting to define Indiana a little more by that culture. We owe that to ourselves and to those who carry on the traditions of that culture.”