Shining a Light on HistoryDec 01, 2022 09:00AM ● By Carrie Heath
This month, a different type of exhibit will be on display at the Gmeiner Art & Cultural Center: a collection central to Wellsboro’s history and celebration of the Christmas holiday. Thanks to the Wellsboro Glass Historical Association, many have gotten glimpses in the pop-up museum of some glass products made right here. But, oh, there’s so much more to see, read, and experience. About a year ago Josh Fox, curator of the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum, his wife, Tracey, and I set up a small display in the Atrium of the Gmeiner that focused on Don Wilcox, a local designer who worked here at the “glass factory,” as it was known. He invented the shrink wrap process that allowed images like Currier and Ives artwork, Holly Hobbie drawings, and all sorts of other photographs to be printed on Christmas ornaments. There was also a small selection of Shiny Brite ornaments in the exhibit. The response was overwhelming. People were fascinated and wanted to know more.
A few months and a few meetings later, we were planning a full takeover of the Gmeiner for December 2022. After all, 2022 is the International Year of Glass as declared by the United Nations. The entire space, Atrium and Main Gallery, will house a display of the WGHA’s collection of Wellsboro’s glassmaking history—100 years of it. There will be information about the abandoned plate glass factory, explanations about traditions behind glass Christmas ornaments, and the push to provide safe, indoor, electric lighting. Visitors will see a giant ladle used to hand-gather glass, browse the weekly newsletters full of local and national events, and marvel at a gaffer’s pole (blowpipe) that Ryan Root and his family literally dug out of the creek next to the old factory.
Speaking of Ryan Root, he gets a lot of the credit for rescuing the two ribbon machines used in the glassmaking process at the Corning Glass facility here and returning them to Wellsboro. Once upon a time, he was in charge of their repair and maintenance. I remember the Super Bowl Sunday when my sewer alarm went off, and I called Ryan to fix it. Afterwards, over chips and queso, he told me how he’d followed the machines to Kentucky and worked to raise money and enthusiasm to bring them back home. (See the Mountain Home story “The Return of the Remarkable Roving Ribbon Machine,” Dec. 2021.) He said they were in storage in an empty local factory, and that the hope was to someday have a museum where people could see them and learn about the contributions those machines, and the people who worked on them, made to the world—people like the ingenious Billy Woods and his invention of the ribbon machine, which revolutionized glass production. Billy’s mechanized, automated process allowed the Wellsboro factory to go from hand-blowing two light bulbs per minute to a whopping 3,000 bulbs per minute at the height of production. It made modern electric lighting possible. It was also adaptable enough that other glass products, like Christmas ornaments, could be made on the same line.
The Corning Glass Works factory, later owned by GTE and then Osram/Sylvania, employed local people who were renowned for their productivity and willingness to take on any challenge. They consistently out-produced Corning’s other factories, came up with innovative ways to recycle and reduce waste, and invented new products and processes throughout 100 years of production. Glass containers for explosives, radio and television tubes, all sorts, sizes, and colors of lightbulbs, camera flashbulbs, drinking glasses, candle holders, and fluorescent tubes are just some of what were made right here in Wellsboro, and will be in the exhibit. There will also be a display about the “Tile Rats,” an interesting chapter of the factory’s history when high quality ceramic tiles were produced in a 300-foot-long kiln.
Will the ribbon machines be on display? No. At fifty feet long and twenty-two tons each, they wouldn’t fit through the door. However, when people see the rest of the WGHA’s collection, it will help them visualize the museum that could be—a place for the ribbon machines, for the hundreds of glass items, and for the stories of all the locals who worked there.
The exhibit opens Friday, December 2, at noon and will be on display until Friday, December 30, at 6 p.m. Regular hours are noon to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Admission is always free. Dickens of a Christmas hours for Saturday, December 3, are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There will be vendors and refreshments in the studio that day.
A free reception with light refreshments provided by the Wellsboro High School Culinary Arts students will be Thursday, December 8, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. This will be a celebration of all the factory’s former employees. Any locals who worked there or had family members who did are invited.
During Christmas on Main Street weekend, December 9 to 11, local glass artist Greg Hoke—whose mom and step-dad both worked at the Wellsboro factory—will be at the Gmeiner demonstrating the art of lampworking, which is shaping glass over an open flame. He will have glass snowmen, ornaments, and maybe a few surprises for sale.
The Gmeiner, located at 134 Main Street, will be closed on December 24 and 25 for the Christmas holiday. The Wellsboro Glass Historical Association’s display is appropriate for all ages, but parents are requested to closely monitor their children due to the fragile nature of the objects. Find out more at gmeinerartculturalcenter.org or call (570) 724-1917. The Wellsboro Glass Historical Association can be found on Facebook.