The fans in the furnace roared, and hot flames reddened its interior as Pat Howe rotated the molten ball of glass at the end of the metal rod, which was being heated by 2,000 degrees of heat.
This was taking place at the once commercial Wheaton Village Glass Factory in Millville, N.J., about 30 miles south of Philadelphia. Towering trees including pines and oaks surround the entire village, making it a cultural center embedded in a forest.
You can see glassmaking using century-old techniques that are demonstrated in the working 1888 glass factory; crafts typical of the era also come alive in nearby locations. The Museum of American Glass and the glass-making are the village's centerpieces.
It's a great family trip that takes little effort and planning.
One of the premier glassmakers, called gaffers, is Pat Howe, who demonstrates her skills. It's fascinating to watch her making perfume bottles and vases with a special emphasis on creating paperweights. Currently, she may be seen on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.
When you first witness the demonstration, you realize how repetitive and painstaking the process of making paperweights is. A long metal rod is first inserted into the furnace and a ball of glass is extracted, which is placed in a mold that looks like the bottom of a plunger, and then reheated in another furnace called the "Glory Hole." Then it's worked on by hand and reheated again until the glassware is completed.
Throughout this unique spectacle, beads of perspiration accumulate on the artisan's forehead. Intermittently, she heads for the water cooler to keep from melting away herself.
Enticing, too, is the Flameworking Studio, which has ongoing demonstrations of bead- and marble-making that involve the melting of glass with the use of a torch.
Birds of a Different Feather
And there are other artisans who ply their crafts in the village, like Arthur Parkin, an expert woodcarver and retiree. Here in a maritime setting of tidal marshes, Parkin patiently creates his specialty. "All I do is birds," he says proudly.
From a lifeless block of wood comes an intricately feathered assortment of end products; some are decoys. Before Parkin starts carving, he sketches the birds in fine detail after deciding whether they will be in a tranquil position or in graceful flight.
If you want to see wheel-throwing, glazing and decorating, visit the Ceramic Studio. Three kilns are used: gas reduction, salt-glazing or a wood-fired kiln. Lamp workers demonstrate the art of creating miniatures and marbles on a small burner.
One of the most striking highlights is the Glass Museum – the largest of its kind in the United States. Docents there, mostly seniors, offer information that gives much more depth to your visit.
After passing the columned entrance (wheelchair-accessible), you find yourself in a large, spacious lobby that resembles a prominent room in a European palace. The decor is Victorian, with several ornate chandeliers, a grand piano, and a group of delicate and striking furniture pieces on deep, red carpeting surrounded by walls dramatically covered with brilliant red-and-white wallpaper.
The museum houses more than 10,000 pieces of glass, both historic and contemporary. The exhibit chronicles American glassmaking from the earliest pieces – like mason jars – to Tiffany masterpieces, from paperweights to the world's largest bottle.
Among the items on display are cups, glasses, bowls, plates, lamps, decanters and shakers. The last gallery you visit consists of modern glass artwork. Make sure you take a few moments to study a set of glass chess players. Tours are offered daily, beginning at 2:30 p.m.
Carl Sandburg wrote: "Down in Southern Jersey, they make glass. By day and night, the fires burn in Millville, and bid the sand let in the light." u
For more information, call Wheaton Village at 1-800-998-4552.