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Mountain Home Magazine

The Town That Saved Christmas (Again)

Dec 01, 2019 02:15PM
by Carrie Hagen


As a girl growing up in Wellsboro, Patricia Brown Davis shared a favorite holiday tradition with her father, an engineer at Corning Glass Works. Ellsworth C. Brown would bring home plain Christmas ornaments from work, and, together with his daughter, paint designs on the bulbs and other shapes. Sometimes he taught her fancier decorating techniques.

“Dad showed me how to make glitter by crushing Christmas ornaments quite fine, and gluing the small pieces onto another ornament with a clear glue,” Pat remembers today.

It wasn’t until adulthood that she learned the extent of her father’s role in preserving rituals like the one they shared. As head of Mechanical Engineering, Ellsworth Brown served on a team that rescued the Christmas ornament industry during World War II. Pat chronicled her father’s work as part of a larger story on the history of Christmas ornaments, Wellsboro, and Corning Glass Works in a 2008 Mountain Home piece entitled “The Town that Saved Christmas.” In the article, she detailed how a German-born businessman named Max Eckhardt anticipated the impact of an ornament shortage in 1939, when a British blockade halted German exports. At the time, 95 percent of the 250 million handmade ornaments shipped to America came from Germany. Eckhardt, fearing for his ornament business, approached Corning with a proposal. Should the factory design ornament molds for the ribbon machine that manufactured light bulbs, Corning could mass-produce clear glass round balls for wholesalers to decorate and distribute. Eckhardt could promise a large order already from the F.W. Woolworth Company. The idea, as Pat wrote, was “an unprecedented challenge that would change our community for generations to come.” Within one year, the Wellsboro plant of Corning Glass Works generated forty million Christmas ornaments, and Wellsboro became the town that produced 90 percent of the world’s ornaments.

Since Pat’s 2008 publication, the factory responsible for this transformative production closed without fanfare after 101 years (purchased by Corning in 1916, it was sold twice after that). Its sudden silence could have very well quieted its history, still largely unknown in Tioga County. But in an ironic twist, the very year the plant shuttered (2016), the town that it had helped save along with Christmas began to showcase its history, saving it right back. Now approaching its fourth season, Christmas on Main Street celebrates the storied place of the Wellsboro plant in Americana with over thirty living history exhibits located inside of businesses along Main Street. The three-day festival runs during the second weekend of December, and this year’s theme—“Shaping Our Traditions”—studies the ornaments that shaped the town’s industrial legacy.

Held one week after the popular Dickens of a Christmas transforms Main Street into a Victorian marketplace, Christmas on Main Street is a festival intended to capitalize on shoppers’ nostalgia while bringing business inside the brick and mortar shops on Main. Business owners say that the Dunham sisters—Ellen Dunham Bryant, president of the Penn Wells Corporation, and Ann Dunham Rawson, buyer and operator of Dunham’s Department Store—came up with the idea for Christmas on Main Street, but Ellen points to her husband, Shawn Bryant.

“Since moving to Wellsboro in 2009, Shawn has always maintained that it is a quintessential Christmas village,” she reflects. In the fall of 2016, Ellen and Ann “decided we just needed to move forward with a weekend event.” The sisters met with local artist Heather Mee, who designed a poster that they printed and took around to local business owners, drumming up interest in the event. Around twenty-five local business owners and managers attended a planning meeting. Wellsboro Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Julie VanNess suggested showcasing Wellsboro’s history with ornament displays, says Ellen, and Mountain Home editor and publisher Teresa Banik Capuzzo came up with the idea of having business owners display them in their shops, where visitors would encounter them on an ornament tour guiding them down and up Main Street.

“We really didn’t know what businesses would do with the displays, but many of them have been very creative and artistic,” says Ellen. “Some are just a simple ornament on display, but all make an impression.”

A brochure, the team decided, would narrate the town’s history and incorporate the location of the ornament displays in its storytelling. The first year, Jennie Borneman Lusk, owner of Wild Asaph Outfitters, researched the brochure’s content and envisioned each year’s publication concentrating on one piece of the story behind “The Town that Saved Christmas.”

For 2019, the researcher and writer of the Christmas on Main Street brochure is Anja Stam, who owns and operates Pop’s Culture Shoppe with her husband, Julian. The “Shaping Our Traditions” brochure’s reader-friendly essay guide considers how the shapes of Christmas ornaments have shaped holiday traditions. Anja’s research includes the roots of Christmas decorating in sixteenth century Eastern Europe, the development of ornament making as a cottage industry in the village of Lauscha in central Germany, and the advent of ornament production in Wellsboro.

On Thursday, December 21, 1939, the Wellsboro Gazette reported that over the past two months seventy employees at Corning Glass Works had produced one million ornaments for shipment.

“The achievement of a successful Christmas tree ball at a low price is a triumph of American industry,” read the article.

The following September, Corning executives and members of the Wellsboro Chamber of Commerce and service clubs gathered for a “Christmas” dinner at the Penn Wells hotel. Various speakers thanked Corning Glass Works for starting an ornament department, a move that more than doubled the number of employees of the company’s Wellsboro division. The superintendent of Wellsboro Electric Company also thanked Corning for allowing him to expand its plant in order to increase power supply. One spokesperson for the Chamber of Commerce called Corning Glass Works “Santa Claus” and likened the factory to the elves’ workshop.

“Fourteen years ago, when I came to Wellsboro, I found hundreds of people walking the streets, with no work, and wondering what they would do when Christmas time came,” he said. “Now, 1,000 people are working for Santa Claus, making Christmas ornaments. Everybody has a job, and the town is booming.”

That fall, a Wellsboro Agitator reporter watched the machine move ornaments along the ribbon (about three inches wide and 13,000 miles long). “The process is pretty,” the writer observed, “like soap bubbles on a frosted stream.”

Ellsworth C. Brown, Pat Davis’s father, was one of two men who had been given the task of designing the first ornaments to run on the machine: molds had to provide for the particular size, thickness, and neck length of a spherical shape. Ornaments in 1939 were mostly round.

Don Wilcox, the equipment engineering specialist at Corning Glass Works from 1952-1986, remembers Ellsworth Brown as “quite an artist.” As ornament styles evolved, Don says, each needed to have its own separate mold without “any sharp corners and turns.” Not all of Ellsworth Brown’s ideas took. Pat recalls her father bringing home prototypes that Corning Glass Works considered too modern-looking, such as a series of small vases that had a bulbous middle or bottom.

“They never went into a full production for the public,” she says. “These are collector items today if you find one.”

In 1940, one year after producing one million ornaments for wholesale, the Wellsboro factory produced forty million. Ornament shapes now included bells, acorns, reflectors, and pinecones. That year, the factory also bought S&L (silver and lacquering) machines to aid in an in-house decorating procedure. Ornaments could now be covered on the inside with a silver solution, and then coated in colored lacquer and fired. Ornament manufacturing became a year-round production.

Grant “Skip” Cavanaugh came to the factory in August of 1965, starting as an hourly employee and eventually working his way into management, where he served as the technical general manager. As soon as he arrived, Cavanaugh worked with the S&L machines. Teams, he remembers, worked six-day weeks and ten-hour days. Every other week, teams of thirty-five rotated between morning shifts from 5 a.m. to 3 p.m. and late shifts from 3 p.m. to 1 a.m. The ribbon machine, Cavanaugh says, had three shifts operating around the clock five days a week. On average, one ribbon machine could put out 400,000 ornaments per shift. After being tested and “cleared,” ornaments would go to the S&L team, which would package clear ones to certain companies, silvered-only ornaments to others, and silvered and lacquered ornaments to a third group of wholesalers.

The faster the production, the fewer the people needed. When Don Wilcox started at the plant in 1952, there were 800 employees. Upon Skip Cavanaugh’s arrival in 1965, he estimates there were around 350 workers.

“It was a very happy place to work,” Skip remembers. With thirty-five people together in a crew, the team became close, often hosting baby showers and birthday celebrations in the cafeteria.

Both Don and Skip point to the 1970s as the beginning of the end. Corning executives decided the company should function as a retailer, marketing and selling ornaments itself instead of at wholesale. It was a poor business decision that didn’t complement a significant decorating change: shrink film machines now allowed decorators to add modern graphic designs to ornaments. By 1980, the S&L machines were sold. General Telephone Electronics—GTE—purchased the factory from Corning in 1981, and sold it in turn to Osram Sylvania in 1993. It ran operations until closing the plant in 2016.

Skip Cavanaugh says people—including state representatives—had no idea what went on at the factory that took up over seven acres at 1 Jackson Street.

“Thousands of employees worked there, and nobody knew the importance of that plant. All of its history, and very few people in town knew it.”

News of the factory’s 2016 closure came several years after Skip had retired, but he still had two brothers and many friends who worked there. He assumed there would be a commemorative party to celebrate the century of labor and production at the plant.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is going to be a big deal.’”

But it wasn’t. The announcement, says Skip, “sucked the air right out of the room.” No party. No remembrance. “That was it.” And then he heard about Christmas on Main Street, the effort of local business owners to capture shoppers’ attention by celebrating the history of “The Town That Saved Christmas.” The work and workers of the Wellsboro plant would not only be remembered but also put on display.

Julie VanNess says Christmas on Main Street’s success is evident because people don’t realize how much work goes into it. “Any event has a lot of moving parts. If done well, people don’t notice. Committees work hand in hand to put that event together and to get historical information.”

Marsha Chesko, who until recently owned the Sherwood Motel with her husband, Bob, says that various committees meet once a month throughout the year to review and improve event details: they consider business participation, sponsorships, the number of events offered, even the route that the red trolley takes through town.

She says visitors have often asked about how the town survives when others around it seem to be struggling more and more. “We work well together,” she answers. “A major thing for me is how all of the businesses are pulling [Christmas on Main Street] together and making it.” And for an event that wanted to attract shoppers back into town after the Dickens of a Christmas outdoor extravaganza, it has been wildly successful.

“Many of us [including] Highland Chocolates, the Santa Brunch at the Penn Wells, photos with Santa at the Deane Center, saw an increased participation in those events that very first year,” says Ellen Dunham Bryant. “The second year, after we had a year of planning and more organized promotion, businesses saw between a 10 percent and a 300 percent increase in same day sales. The third year, many businesses saw over 100 percent increase in sales over the second year.”

The planning committee works to bring new events to each festival. This season, they added a Victorian house tour to a list of activities that includes carol singing, holiday cocktails, chocolate fountains, a public lecture, a kids’ carnival, family game night, storytelling, and a live nativity.

“One constant joke that we have among the committee members is our many failed attempts to bring a live camel to the event for the live nativity,” says Ellen.

Anja Stam has participated in Christmas on Main Street since its inception, but her historical research for this year’s brochure has deepened her love and appreciation for the intersection of Wellsboro’s history with those of Corning Glass Works and Christmas ornaments. (The owner or family connected to each ornament is listed in the brochure.)

“I am very grateful that Annette Geneski lets me borrow her Santa Clause ornament for display each year,” says Anja. “In doing the research this year, I learned that it is among the earliest of the Corning ornaments and quite rare. We’ll have that displayed here at Pop’s Culture Shoppe along with a sample of a German St. Nikolaus ornament to show how Corning Glass workers Americanized this popular European figure.”

Among those collectors listed in the brochure is Skip Cavanaugh and his wife Carol.

“[Skip] gets a real twinkle in his eye,” laughs Anja. Some of her favorite moments of preparing have included unexpected visits from Skip holding a rare package or two of ornaments for the displays.

“The package is just as important to me as the ornament,” Skip says. He is quite fond of Christmas on Main Street, an event that gives the old Corning Glass Works factory the due it deserves.

“[Christmas on Main] is reminiscent of an older Christmas, not so commercial,” he says. “Dickens of a Christmas shuts down the whole of Main Street with street vendors and craft shows. This slows things down. It lets store owners share stories.”

Skip and Carol have made it a traveling habit to stop at antique stores, yard sales, and secondhand shops in search of Corning Glass Works ornaments.

“We just purchased several boxes from an estate,” he relates. “They are about seventy years old with very good integrity.” Recent forays have included trips to Ohio, Virginia, and Gettysburg. They look for boxes marked “Shiny Brite,” the popular ornament company owned by Max Eckhardt when he approached Corning back in 1939. Other boxes include names of five and dimes where the ornaments would have sold—like a Ben Franklin or a J.J. Newberry store. A treasure for Skip is a series of shapes in a somewhat sturdy cardboard box. Dusty, faded, and maybe a little chipped, these ornaments are a tangible piece of Wellsboro’s legacy.

“It’s true. We were the town that saved Christmas,” reflects Pat Davis. “In the end you might say, ‘Christmas and Corning Glass Works saved our town.’”

Ornaments from Skip and Carol Cavanaugh’s collection can be found on the ornament tour inside of Emerge Healing Arts, Penn Wells Hotel, Stained Glass Reflections, Native Bagel, Steak House, TPA Family, Inc., and the Wellsboro Mini Mall. On Sunday, December 15, at 12:30 in the Penn Wells Hotel lobby, Skip Cavanaugh will participate in a lecture on the history of Shiny Brites with Regan Brumagen, Associate Librarian for Public Services at Rakow Research Library of the Corning Museum of Glass.