"We all need, now more than ever, handmade possessions that are unique and inspiring." - as seen on blenko.com

"Magnificent color, skilled craftsmanship and creative design make Blenko the most colorful name in glass." - As seen on blenko.com

When I scheduled the tour, I had no idea the cultural significance and rich history of what our students and staff were about to experience. Sure, I had heard of it, and I had even been given a couple of pieces of it as gifts. However, from the time our bus entered the parking lot, until the time we had to return to the bus, I was enthralled with the hand-blown art form created at Blenko Glass, "proudly located in (nearby) Milton, WV, since 1921."

According to the travelchannel.com, writer Jeff Stafford, Blenko Glass Co., a family owned and operated business that began in 1893, is one of the top 10 factories to tour. Stafford ranks Blenko Glass Co. with factory tours of such notables as Boeing, Steinway Pianos, Crayola Crayons, and Harley Davidson to name a few - not bad company to say the least! After our visit and tour of Blenko, I can certainly see why!

Entering the Visitor's Center Gift Shop is like diving into a colorful bowl of jelly beans.

The colors throughout the shop were vibrant jewels. Shelves sparkled and shimmered with a rainbow of colors and a wide array of shapes, sizes and textures. From the exquisitely designed decorative pieces, to beautifully crafted functional pieces, Blenko glass offers one-of-a-kind treasures, trinkets, and gifts for everyone! I have to admit, though, as clumsy and easily distracted as I am by all that is shiny and sparkly, I was a bit nervous walking around the shop afraid I might accidentally trip, stumble or bumble. In fact, visions of cascading glass, falling like dominoes in a line, kept me on edge while walking through the visually stunning gift shop!

Fortunately, I was traveling with staff and students of St. Joseph Catholic Middle School, so I quickly reported our arrival to the front desk, learned where the staff was to lead the students, and walked quickly (and without falling) back outside to assist with leading our students through the gift shop entrance and immediately up the stairs just inside the door and to the right. Still, as we trekked up the open staircase, my eyes were continually drawn to the colorful glass below in the gift shop- that is until I reached the top of the stairs and saw all the glass art in Blenko's historic glass museum.

The small, but lovely museum area, is filled with memorabilia of Blenko's historic pieces and works. Most, if not all, of the small pieces are safely tucked behind glass panes. From delicate pieces; such as bowls, vases, and other smaller works of art worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars; to breathtaking larger glass panels and stained-glass windows, visitors are surrounded by hundreds of pieces of hand-blown, West Virginia-crafted art. Additionally, examples of glass making tools throughout the years, historic story boards, and iconic, once only designed pieces, also line the gallery. Our tour guide was affable, knowledgeable, and engaging as we made our way around the museum; however, given the nature of supervising a large group of kids, in spite of how very well behaved they were, I could not always hear or focus on what he was saying - making John, my husband, and fellow co-worker, want to return.

Once the museum had been thoroughly explored, our group was led outside, along a covered walkway, lined with beautiful glass panels, and out to the glass factory. Talk about a fascinating experience! With furnaces burning at temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, watching what is mostly composed of sand turn to a liquid, and then be altered through the tools, talent, and time of the local artisans to a solid, uniquely designed piece of art is, in the words of one of our students, mind-blowing! In fact, there were times that our students broke out into applause at the seemingly magical transformation appearing before their eyes.

In fact, according to an April 18, 2019 writing on the company's blog, Blenko has eight furnaces under fire, allowing them to create glass pieces of eight different colors. Once lit, these furnaces burn around the clock for years until they burn out. Additionally, when a change of color in a furnace does occur, the artisans must melt a batch of glass between the two colors to "clean out" the furnace. Thus, they use this as an opportunity to create matchless, unique works, filled with whimsy and interest, out of the never-can-be-recreated hue. According to the writer, the quintessential Blenko water bottle is a reoccurring favorite creation of these one-time-only colors.

A nice fact about the Blenko Glass tour is that once you are in the factory area, the tour guide does not rush you. Even with our large group of students, and other tour groups simultaneously occurring, we were still encouraged to stay as long as we wanted. In fact, this glassmaking process held our students' attention for a significant period of time - which is saying something for 12- to 14-year-olds!

From the factory, we walked the students once more over the walkway, through the museum, and down to the gift shop. Several of our students had brought money in order to purchase gifts to take home. Since thoughts of my Papaw saying, "Stethie, you're like a bull in a China shop," when referring to my awkwardness, kept running through my head, I had no problem volunteering to take students who did not have money outside to the "garden of glass" area along the shore of a man-made lake. This colorful trail and park/picnic area is filled with colorful works of glass art, both large and small. It was, and is, the ideal way to end a tour of Blenko Glass Co.

I highly encourage you, Dear Reader, if you have the opportunity to travel to Milton, WV, stop by and visit Blenko Glass Co. and/or schedule a factory tour. You will walk away amazed! And, tell them Steph simply sent you! In the meantime, be sure to check out their website, YouTube videos, or find them on your social media spot!

From my home to yours, I wish you safe, happy, and art-filled travels!

P. S. Thank you Blenko Glass Co. for your wonderful treatment of SJCMS! We appreciate you!

Stephanie Hill is a freelance writer and a teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School in Huntington. She is also a lifelong resident of Lawrence County. She can be reached at hill992@zoominternet.net. Or you can check out her website, stephsimply.com.

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