Fenton Art Glass has been designing, producing, and decorating glass products for more than 100 years. Much like the delicate, patient process of shaping a piece of molten glass, the business itself has gradually been molded over the years, often taking on new roles as it has reshaped itself to meet the demands of a century of customers.
As the grandson of the business' founder, Frank L. Fenton, and the son of longtime president Frank M. Fenton, Marietta resident Tom Fenton, 71, has witnessed a lot of this growth and change. Tom served as the former vice president of manufacturing before retiring in 2006 and has plenty of memories of growing up in the iconic Fenton factory and store.
Question: What is your earliest memory of being at the shop or plant?
Answer: My earliest memory would probably be riding in the truck with the maintenance foreman. His name was Bert Fenton, a cousin. He would be off doing things in the truck, and sometimes when they wanted to make sure they knew where I was and I wasn't in trouble, they'd put me in the truck. I was probably 9 or 10 years old at the time. Or even earlier was when they found me selling glass from the dump door to door down our street when I was 6. There were pieces of glass that looked like they were just fine to me at that age.
Q: How did you and your siblings occupy your time when you were at the store as youngsters?
A: I have three siblings, three brothers. We spent time just hanging around, possibly just sitting in the office with dad. That would be as far as they'd let us wander. We were more restricted from being in the factory unless we were with someone. When we were allowed in the factory, it was a very nice group of people, always very skilled. There was always a nice welcome for you.
At a glance
Fenton Gift Shop hours
Monday and Tuesday- 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Friday and Saturday-10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
1905: Brothers Frank L. and John W. Fenton, found Fenton Art Glass in Martin's Ferry, W.Va. and begin painting decorations on glassware made by nearby manufacturers.
1907: The brothers open their own glass manufacturing factory in Williamstown and introduce "iridescent ware," now known as carnival glass.
1940s: Second generation Fentons Frank M. and Wilmer C. take over leadership of the company.
1969: Fenton enters into a business relationship with Cracker Barrel.
1986: George W. Fenton, grandson of founder Frank L. Fenton, becomes company president.
1988: Fenton first appears on shopping channel QVC.
2000: Fenton launches its website, fentonartglass.com.
2011: The company stops its traditional glass making production and focuses on handcrafted glass jewelry.
Source: Times research.
Q: What was your favorite thing to do or see at Fenton when you were 10 years old?
A: I didn't have much of a view of it at that age. Around the dinner table, dad might say, "What if this happened what would you do?" and we'd discuss it. It might be some problem he was facing or something he had seen, and he might just put it out for discussion. No names or anything. It was just of a problem-solving nature.
Q: What was the hot Fenton item at the time?
A: Now you'd probably have to take me up to when I started to work there in high school. At that time, Fenton milk glass-a white glass-it was just really starting to catch on. We had a formula we'd developed and a great sales force. They were selling it all over the country. That would probably be in the mid-50s. They worked and worked on that formula.
Q: What was your first job at Fenton?
A: Actually my first job at the factory was working with a chemist who mixes the ingredients for colors in a 3,000 pound bath. It would give the glass some sort of special properties. It showed they were a daring bunch to let me perform that function that year. It was a very interesting job. Ike Willard was the chemist back then and he was for many years. He was very heavily involved in that beginning of that great regrowth spurt of our company. We went from a couple hundred employees to about 700 in the early 70s and Ike Willard was very instrumental in letting us be known as America's best colored glass.
Q: When did you realize that the family business was this nationally renowned?
A: I didn't realize that until I started to work there and then became very interested in it. I'd always thought maybe I'd work there, but not until I had a full time job there did I begin to understand. That was in 1965, and we had something around 12,000 separate retailers in the U.S. that we shipped to. It was quite a diverse operation. I appreciated the sales and the marketing and the design side, but I didn't know a whole lot about those areas. What I was involved in was the manufacturing side, actually making the glass. That was always very interesting to me.
Q: What other jobs did you have at the store?
A: Actually I worked at the retail store. That was another thing occurring in the 50s. We realized we could retail from Williamstown, and that's when the tours started. We began to realize that people would drive and come here just as a destination to see the glass and maybe buy the seconds. I worked for one summer in the store giving tours and bundling up glassware at the store and helping customers out to the car with it. Giving the tours and meeting the people who were coming in, explaining to them what was going on, it entertained them and helped me learn more about the business. I was just graduating high school then. The following year I worked on the floor in the hot area-the entry job-carrying glass from one part of the project to the next. They called it carry-in or carry-over depending on where the glass was going, and you just hoped it wasn't going to the floor.
Q: What are some of the bigger changes you remember?
A: The physical plant was pretty much rebuilt from 1955. Back then it would have been about 50 years old. It was almost entirely rebuilt and expanded by the mid-70s. It doubled or tripled in size during that time. The other big change was the decorating started back up, and we hired a decorator named Louise Piper in 1968. She began teaching people how to decorate scenes and objects on the outer surface of the glass. That created a whole new opportunity for sales for us.
We had about 70 decorators in the 70s or 80s. A lot of people were hired at that time for that specialized skill. We showed the way within the industry on how to handle that type of process.
This interview was conducted by Jasmine Rogers.