Heart of Glass

By Glenda Winders // photography by Greater Kokomo Visitors Bureau
Kokomo is fired up about tradition

A 2,250-degree furnace operates around the clock, glowing red in the middle of a massive shed. A worker uses a long-handled ladle to retrieve a 50-pound ball of molten glass from the furnace and then hurries across the concrete floor, flipping it as he goes so that it doesn’t harden before he can pour it onto a steel table. From there, another worker guides it through rollers to flatten it before it is gradually cooled and cut into sheets that will be shipped to palaces, cathedrals, art studios and more around the world.

Welcome to Kokomo Opalescent Glass, the country’s oldest art glass manufacturer; here, you’ll find glass pieces that feature more than one color and can range from translucent to opaque. One of its daily tours is an excellent place to begin your exploration of the bustling city of Kokomo, especially in the winter when the heat actually feels good.

“It’s the perfect mix of history and art,” says Sherry Matlock, Kokomo and Howard County Visitors Bureau and Convention Center manager.

The employee entrusted with the instructions for the glass, which date to the days of one of the company’s first clients, Louis Comfort Tiffany, will give you a peek into the area where he collects the ingredients for the glass from giant silos above, mixes in the coloring elements and loads the mixture into carts that his co-workers will set to cook in the furnace.

You’ll watch glass-cutters at work and artisans creating items such as plaques, awards, memorial urns and gifts to sell in the Op Shop, where you’ll end your visit. In the “color room” you’ll see hundreds of sheets of glass in some 22,000 varieties of color, texture and density. Some 75% of the churches in the world have glass from here in their windows, as do theme parks, movie sets and historic places around the globe, from Tiffany’s inverted dome in Barcelona to the chapel at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Much of its glass turns up in restorations of significant buildings, and all of the work is done using the same tools and equipment founder Charles Henry was using 130 years ago.

“Not much has changed since 1888, and it’s about as American-made as you can get,” said Jeff Shaw, president. “The sand to make the glass comes from Illinois, lime from Missouri, feldspar and dolomite from Ohio, and borax from Death Valley in California.”

Lighting the way
Kokomo hit its stride during the gas boom of the 1880s. Previous to that it had been inhabited by Miami Indians and then established as a county seat when a settler, David Foster, donated land for a courthouse. The grateful commissioners invited him to name the town, and he chose the name of a Miami Indian known as “Chief” Kokomo.

Once miners digging for coal discovered natural gas, however, the sleepy little town changed. The Trenton Gas Field, the largest discovered up to that time, supplied gas to Indiana as well as states to the west and attracted companies to the cities it encompassed that wanted to take advantage of the free fuel for their operations.

While Henry was one of the first manufacturers to set up shop, others soon followed, such as Elwood Haynes, an inventor who designed the first commercially produced car in the country. He and others contributed innovations that caused the city to acquire the nickname City of Firsts: first pneumatic tires, first carburetor, first tomato juice, first push-button radio and the list goes on. Chrysler and GM eventually moved in, and Kokomo kept rolling.

While you’re in an automotive frame of mind, head for the Elwood Haynes Museum. The house where he lived is filled with his possessions and inventions, and this is also where you can see an exhibit of his cars.

The Seiberling Mansion, the Romanesque Revival home of another gas-boom industrialist, Monroe Seiberling, is also a must-see. The mansion and its complex have had several incarnations, including as Indiana University’s Kokomo campus. For several years it sat empty and was vandalized. Community members cleaned it up and, with some fundraising efforts and grants, restored it to its original beauty, which required using pieces of KOG glass. The Howard County Historical Society oversees its operation now.

This time of year is especially good for a visit because the house is done up big time for the holidays. Some 20 charitable organizations donate decorations and elbow grease to turn their plan for the area they have chosen into colorful reality.

“The theme changes every year, and this year it will be Victorian,” said Peggy Hobson, volunteer chairwoman of the committee that creates the magic. “Every nook and cranny — even tiny spaces, bathrooms and the entryway — will be decorated.”

Still looking for indoor fun and beautiful items? Don’t miss the Indiana University Kokomo Art Gallery on the campus or the Kokomo Artworks Gallery, with jewelry, paintings, fiber art and more available for purchase. Or sign up for a class and create your own art at the Kokomo Art Center.

Up your alley
Downtown you’ll find the fruits of the “All Alleys Lead to Art” initiative. Alleyways that were once dark and scary have been lighted and filled with art to become inviting places to gather. The exhibit changes yearly with the art that comes down being sold at auction.

“The alleys make downtown so much more inviting,” Matlock said. “People come down here to take prom or wedding pictures or just to sit and eat their lunch.”

The centerpiece of Artist Alley is a sculpture of Elwood Haynes’ first car, and work by local artists adorns the walls of the buildings beside it. At Courthouse Alley students used pallets to fashion tables and chairs where visitors can sit to work or just enjoy the art – some of it also made from pallets.

Weather allowing, meander through downtown on the Sculpture Walk to see nine oversized pieces situated cleverly to take advantage of the Industrial Heritage Trail and the Wildcat Creek Walk of Excellence, which intersect in this area.

If you’ve come here to do your holiday shopping you’ll want to stay downtown and visit several locally owned and unusual boutiques. Kokomo Toys & Collectibles, which claims to be the largest toy store in the Midwest, deals in vintage toys, and nearby Comics Cubed offers comic books and related items. The Popcorn Café serves some 50 varieties of popcorn, along with candy and fudge, and J. Edwards Gourmet specializes in fine chocolates and gourmet cakes. The Market Store is a comfortable melange of farmers market, art gallery and café. Studio Black Antiques says it is “not your grandmother’s antique store,” but it is a great place to find vinyl recordings. Also in Kokomo is the Original Treasure Mart, an antique mall filled with items your grandmother probably would love.

City of lights
Another reason to come to Kokomo at this time of year is the million-bulb holiday light celebration at We Care Park, which last year was a finalist on ABC’s “The Great Christmas Light Fight.” Not far away is Highland Park, which offers “City of Lights,” its own exhibit of more than 50 large-scale displays through which you can walk or drive.

While you’re at Highland Park, take time for a peek at Old Ben, “The World’s Largest Steer,” a Kokomo oddity that Robert Ripley once included in his newspaper feature. When the 4,720-pound, 16.25-foot-long animal died in 1910, his owners had him stuffed. Now he is housed in a pavilion in the park, not far from a Vermont covered bridge and another pavilion housing what is billed as the world’s largest sycamore stump.

For a city of 58,000 Kokomo offers a wide variety of intriguing places to eat, including the upmarket Marble the Steakhouse and the Tin Man Brewing Co., both housed in the old train depot, and Martino’s Italian Villa, which has been inducted into the Pizza Hall of Fame. Half Moon Restaurant & Brewery is the place to go for a beer to have with your burgers and barbecue, and Pastariffic says its classic menu will have you feeling like you’re at your Italian grandmother’s for Sunday dinner. Cook McDoogal’s Irish Pub offers traditional Irish fare in a cozy, public house setting. Foxes Trail, a casual steak and seafood spot, is housed in the 1874 building that was part of an ice-making factory.

If you’ll be spending the night, plan to bed down in one of several chain hotels, unless you’re up for a more rustic adventure. In that case, check out Heritage Farm for a farm-stay experience. The farm is home to more than 60 alpacas and other farm animals, and the owners will invite you to interact with them and help with the chores. It has a zip line, too, but you might want to save that for a warmer season.