Milton: Community known for those who brought successful ventures to W.Va. small town
MILTON — The town of Milton, W.Va., is know for the Pumpkin Festival, Blenko Glass and even the flea market.
More importantly, perhaps, than the events and places are the people who have forged those successful ventures.
It starts with an interesting story about who Milton is named for, Blenko’s economic impact for more than six decades, and the town’s growth in the late 1980s and early ‘90s.
John Milton Rece
Milton was named for the first postmaster at an early settlement along Mud River at the crossing of James River and Kanawha Turnpike. However, John Milton Rece never actually lived in what became Milton, although the Milton address covers the Mud River area today.
According to historical documents in City Hall, the Mud Bridge post office was established in a stone building on Rece’s farm in 1870. The post office was moved from the James River Turnpike to the C & O Survey, now known as Milton.
“Since John Milton Rece was postmaster at Mud Bridge at the time of its removal ... the name Milton went with the post office.”
Milton was officially incorporated in 1876.
Though former Mayor Betty Sargent described Milton’s first 100-plus years as being largely supported by mom-and-pop shops, there was one recognizable name that spurred economic growth: Blenko.
“Everybody in Milton worked for Blenko,” said Boyd Meadows, who enjoyed a 39-year career and now owns the Milton Flea Market, Halfway Market and several greenhouses. “They were always busy and could always find you a job.”
Blenko Glass started with William J. Blenko in the late 1800s. Born in 1854 in London, he became interested in glass adornment at an early age and became a glass craftsman.
In 1892, he came to New York to experiment with natural gas to fuel his glass-making business. But domestic glass was not selling like foreign-made glass, forcing him to return to England to make the glass and ship it back to Indiana.
He returned to Indiana in 1899, and started a trans-Atlantic shuttle that would end in Milton in 1922.
Blenko Glass reports that William Blenko chose the farming town of Milton because the Industrial Development Department of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad sold him on the idea of Milton as a good place to work. It was a dependable source of labor, and natural gas, used in all the glass furnaces, was cheaply priced.
In 1925, William H. Blenko and his wife, Marion, came to Milton to help his father in the daily operations of the factory. Needing still larger production areas and better shipping facilities, the factory was moved to the present location near the main line of the of the C&O Railroad across the river from Milton.
William J. Blenko died just 11 years after starting the company in Milton, leaving his son and daughter-in-law to forge ahead.
William H. Blenko Sr. became the president of the company, leading it through 30 years of prosperity until he died in 1969. Marion Blenko worked as treasurer, secretary and retail sales manager until her death in 1969.
Their son, William H. Blenko Jr., was introduced to the company and the glass-making trade at an early age. He worked at the plant during the summer and went on to graduate from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1942.
While a captain in the U.S. Air Corps during World War II, he met an English girl who was to later become his wife. They later had two sons.
Today, Richard D. Blenko and Walter J. Blenko Jr. lead the company.
Meadows, 76, was raised on a farm in Milton. When he reached his teen years, he said he helped his family harvest tomatoes and take them to the farmer’s market in Huntington.
He then went to Marshall College, where he majored in accounting. During those years in school, Meadows said he worked nights at Blenko and went to class during the day.
He was later put in charge of sales for the stained glass division, which led to extensive travels through the United States, Canada, Mexico and the islands. He said he wrote million-dollar contracts for churches and other commercial properties during his career.
He also never lost his roots in farming, as his wife and three children tended to the land during the week. On the weekends, he said he would come home and work long hours before heading back on the road for Blenko.
But it was during those road trips that he picked up ideas that led to his development of the flea market and produce market.
One of those ideas included a pick-your-own strawberry patch that he said drew people from a 100-mile radius.
He also started a greenhouse operation in 1970 that now includes about 20 locations in and around Cabell County.
In 1988, he opened the flea market on six acres of land that was, he said, “a tomato field one year and a flea market the next.”
“I got it really to sell our products we were producing,” he said.
It grew from one 350-foot-long building to several buildings with more than 100 vendors. Meadows estimates that up to 10,000 people visit the flea market each weekend, helping stimulate the local economy and provide an income for those who are selling. It’s the reason he rebuilt after a 2010 fire destroyed many of the buildings.
“You see that community and how many it supports,” he said. “I see a lot of people make a living.”
His daughter, Beth Williamson, now runs the Halfway Market and oversees the greenhouses. He says she is better than he ever was, while she humbly says her father still teaches her something new each day.
“I have a lot to learn, no matter what he told you,” Williamson said. “He built it, and I pray I can maintain it.”
Meadows’ career also included the development of several subdivisions in the Milton area and 25 years on the Cabell Huntington Hospital Board of Directors. He said he was chairman of the board when the hospital’s major expansion took place, including the decision to build space for Marshall’s medical school.
And, in the past few years, he and his daughter have provided a few acres of farmland to Cabell Midland High School’s agricultural program, which has grown potatoes and corn that was harvested and distributed to schools throughout the county.
The West Virginia Pumpkin Festival, now in preparation for its 28th year, has a large board of directors who each help put on the annual fall festival.
At the helm, though, is Bill Kelley, who has been president of the board or heavily involved since its inception in 1986.
Kelley, 75, recalls the real roots to what has become a staple in Tri-State for so many years.
“It was Gus Douglass (former West Virginia Agriculture Commissioner). He was looking for a place in this part of the state to hold a new (state) festival,” Kelley said. “They were looking for a product to help farmers with cash crops,and pumpkins are in the fall season.”
Kelley, who was finishing his 33-year career with the railroad, used his electrician skills to help set up the wiring during those first 12 years, when the festival was held on the Little League fields. He also sold bee pollen as a vendor that inaugural year.
He joined the board the following year and has been a consistent presence since.
“I’ve always been the type to want to improve the festival,” Kelley said. “I wouldn’t take credit ... been fortunate to be president of the board for several years.”
In 1998, with the festival becoming more and more popular, it became evident they would need more space. And next to the ball fields was the former Blake Farm cornfield that was owned by SuperValu.
They were able to purchase 37 acres that spring, spending months clearing trees and weeds to be able to hold the festival that fall. Since then, they have expanded to 80 acres, built the Milton Performing Arts Building and are completing the new general store, all without going into debt.
“I had a vision of what this place could be,” Kelley said of what is one of the largest festivals in the state and perhaps the only one outside the state fair in Lewisburg to own its property.
Kelley’s other connection with Milton is April Dawn Park. It opened in the late 1980s, and some people aren’t sure where the park’s name comes from.
It’s actually named for Kelley’s daughter, who died of a blood disorder in 1973 at the age of 11. Though it’s been 40 years since her death, Kelley instantly tears up when he talks about April Dawn, who had gone into the hospital for surgery but never left.
A longtime member of the Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District, Kelley said he was asked by Milton officials if they could name the new park on Mason Street after him. But he declined, asking instead if it could be named for his daughter.
Sargent was the first woman to be elected mayor of Milton, serving from 2003 to 2009. She described Milton as one of the best-kept secrets, serving as a link between Cabell, Putnam, Lincoln and Mason counties.
Her initial contribution to Milton was back in 1987, when she purchased nine acres of old farm property and spent four years developing it into Perry Morris Square.
She said the investment came about 10 years too early, but it sparked retail development in the area and preceded the flea market by a couple years.
“I could see the growth potential,” said Sargent, who works as a Realtor with Old Colony. “This was the first kick start for that growth.”
And the name of the plaza also has some significance. The Perry comes from her father, Webb Perry, who owned a business in Milton and was well known in the community. He died at the age of 57.
Morris was the name of a former Milton doctor, whose family owned the plaza property.
Another interesting tidbit:
The mayoral term changed from one to two years starting in 1935. Albert R. Field won that term and four more as he served until 1945. He also won a sixth term in 1947. He still remains as the longest-serving mayor in Milton history.