Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

June 13, 2013

'This factory should live forever'

Kokomo Opalescent Glass celebrates 125 years in business

BY Lindsey Ziliak Kokomo Tribune
Kokomo Tribune

---- — A Kokomo man walked into Jerome Durr’s New York studio in 1982 looking to make a sale.

“He said, ‘What’s it going to take for me to sell you Kokomo Opalescent Glass?’” Durr said Wednesday.

The stained glass artist told the salesman he was looking for a company that would sell him one sheet of glass at a time.

The salesman returned to Kokomo and designed a cardboard box that would accommodate one sheet of glass during shipping. And, of course, the company won Durr over.

Sue Shea left her home in Massachusetts in the 1980s for a road trip to Kokomo Opalescent Glass. She had heard about the company’s work and wanted to see it for herself.

When she arrived, employees took her back to a room full of glass in “odd ball” colors. The company’s unique color selection won her over.

“We bought our first glass inventory on that trip,” she said. “We bought 50 cases of glass.”

Durr, Shea and about 100 other members of the Stained Glass Association of America traveled to Kokomo Opalescent Glass Wednesday to help the company celebrate its 125th anniversary.

The company started production in Kokomo in 1888. It was begun by glass chemist Charles Edward Henry.

Henry was born in Paris, France, in 1846. He immigrated to the United States in the early 1880s and formed Henry Art Glass in New Rochelle, N.Y., in 1883. Henry Art Glass made glass buttons, novelties and opalescent glass rods.

Henry heard about the gas boom in Central Indiana, and when he was returning to New York from a business trip to Chicago, he stopped in Kokomo.

On April 27, 1888, the same day he arrived in Kokomo, he met with local officials about establishing a glass plant in the city. Within 24 hours, an agreement with local government officials was signed, providing Henry with a plant site and a natural gas supply.

Today, the glass factory remains the oldest locally-owned company in the city, according to CEO John O’Donnell.

It’s also the oldest art glass manufacturer in the nation.

Stained Glass Association of America members took turns touring the factory Wednesday. They first saw sheet glass being made.

They watched men, soaked in sweat, scooping glass from furnace pots with their ladles and moving it quickly to the mixing table. There, the molten glass was hand mixed and sent through rollers that contain one of 17 textures.

It then spent 30 minutes in an annealing oven, where it was slowly cooled. Then, they watched men hand cut it and pack it to be shipped.

Tour guide David Riggs said it’s a labor-intensive process.

The ladles the ladle men carry weigh upward of 100 pounds when they’re full of glass.

“It’s very taxing,” he said.

It’s also very hot. When it’s 90 degrees outside, it’s more than 150 degrees in the factory near the furnaces.

The whole process captivated Junji Miwa, who works for a glass distributor in Japan.

His company, Jujo, has been doing business with Kokomo Opalescent Glass for more than 30 years. But Wednesday was the first time he’d seen their work up close.

“I was really fascinated by the old style of making glass,” he said. “I told my customers I would love to work here.”

International companies and individuals make up a substantial portion of the Kokomo factory’s customer base.

Riggs said 40 percent of its business is conducted with people outside of the United States.

He’s met people from around the world while giving tours. He rattled off a list of countries Wednesday: Germany, Korea, Iran, Uruguay, England, Australia, France, Italy, Russia, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Panama and Cuba. And that’s just the countries he’s seen represented in the past two years.

A German man flew to the Kokomo plant and waited four days once to have glass special made for him. The company didn’t have the color combination he wanted, so he had the color custom made, Riggs said.

Costa Ricans Sylvia and Enrique Laks said they were already making plans to have Kokomo Opalescent Glass products shipped directly to their studio in the mountains of San Rafael de Heredia.

It was the couple’s first time in Kokomo Wednesday. The pair came with the Stained Glass Association of America. Enrique said his wife’s studio was the first international studio to join the American association.

After they saw the glass manufacturing process during their tour, Enrique said his wife has “much respect” for the people who do that work. They are true artists, she said through her husband.

The Lakses said they are more apt to support Kokomo Opalescent Glass because of its rich history.

O’Donnell said it does, indeed, have a vibrant past.

He walked deep into the plant Wednesday to the warehouses that are some of the oldest parts of the building. Scrawled on the walls are hundreds of signatures – the oldest one dating back to 1898.

Almost all of the employees in the company’s 125-year history have signed those walls at some point. It’s a tradition that continues today.

Sylvia Laks got emotional just seeing the men work and hearing about that history. People from all over should support the business because of that, she told Enrique.

“After all these years, it has life by itself, its own soul,” she said through her husband. “This factory should live forever. We need it to continue living.”

Lindsey Ziliak, Tribune education reporter, can be reached at 765-454-8585 or at lindsey.ziliak@kokomotribune.com