Glass industry has ties to Ligonier Valley
Cassandra Vivian hopes to attract new members to the Mt. Pleasant Glass Museum and join the organization's mission to celebrate the area's glass industry history, which includes three former Mt. Pleasant glass manufacturers, Bryce Brothers, L.E. Smith and Lenox Crystal.
The museum and Mt. Pleasant Historical Society invite the community to an open house 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the museum in the In Town Shops at 537 W. Main St., Mt. Pleasant.
“Since we've opened, we have had 700 people come to visit us, and we are overwhelmed by the enthusiasm, but our membership needs to grow,” Vivian said.
One of those members helping with the efforts is Harley Trice, a descendant of James Bryce who established Bryce Brothers in 1896.
Trice resides in Pittsburgh but has a 200-year-old farm in Ross Mountain Park near New Florence. He will be retiring after 44 years as an environmental lawyer with Reed Smith LLP. “I am glad to move forward with something that is important to preserve heritage of this important industry in a major glass making center,” said Trice. “I met so many people since we started this project who have relatives who worked at Bryce's for whom this is really meaningful.”
Trice said his great-great-great grandfather James Bryce came to the United States from Scotland in 1818. He was a laborer at the Bakewell factory in Pittsburgh but died of lead poisoning.
“He was exposed to lead ingredients in crystal that give stemware its ring when you flick it with your finger.” said Trice. “On his death bed he asked Benjamin Bakewell to take on his son James as an apprentice glass blower at the Pittsburgh glass factory in order to support his wife and four children who will be left behind when he dies.”
In 1850, the younger Bryce got financial backing to start his own factory Bryce, McKee and Co. in Pittsburgh on the Southside.
By the late 1890s the company was motivated to move to Westmoreland County because it was nearby and there was lots of laborers in area, Trice said.
“Frick had attracted immigrants to work at coke ovens making coke for steel making. There was a good labor pool there,” said Trice. “And, the Mt. Pleasant citizens raised the money to build the factory there.”
Trice said Bryce negotiated an agreement with the Mt. Pleasant community to lend him $20,000 in 1896 to help build a glass factory. Bryce decided at that point to distinguish his compnay from other glass manufacturers in the region who switched to pressed glass because it was cheaper and faster to make glass with machines versus craftsmen.
“He decided to go back to making traditional blown glassware. It was a major change. He wanted to create his own special brand of quality glass,” said Trice. “Within four years, the company employed more than 1,00 people, and half of that workforce was women and girls.
Trice is on the board of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art in Greensburg and conducts lectures about Bryce glass there.
He said he learned about the local efforts to establish a glass museum while conducting research for a book about his family's business.
“I am writing a book about the Bryce factory because it was a major factory in the industry and it did not have a book,” he said.
He approached the Mt. Pleasant Historical Society and asked if they would like to have a talk on Bryce glass.
Trice said he plans to make substantial donation of Bryce glass to the historical society with hopes to further develop a permanent museum for the people of the Laurel Highlands.
“We are just getting started. We are getting nonprofit status to acquire donations so we can begin establishing the museum,” he said.
Trice is also organizing a Bryce glass collectors club.
“It is important for me on behalf of my family to give back to the area since it was the people working there who made the factory a success,” said Trice.
Trice said a collection of Bryce barware is on display at the Eastwood Inn in Ligonier.
He said prior to Prohibition, an important part of the business was making bar glasses. But when Prohibition closed all the bars in 1918, Bryce reached out to residential customers and started retail sales for homes and colored glass for home pieces.
“Smokey's has Bryce barware on the shelves in the restaurant. You can go there can get a drink in a Bryce glass,” he said.
Open house features glass experts
The open house will feature a series of videos made at L.E. Smith Glass and Lenox Crystal from the 1960s through the 1980s. In addition, some well-known glass personalities will be attending at different times during the day including:
• Jan Lewczenko, a Mt. Pleasant master crystal cutter, sculptor and designer and former employee of Lenox Crystal.
Lewczenko, a native of Poland who has lived in Mt. Pleasant for 30 years, was once chosen among the cutters working at Lenox to complete the inaugural gifts presented to President George H.W. Bush in 1989 and President Bill Clinton in 1992.
“Cassandra (Vivian) said she would like to revive glass history in Mt. Pleasant, and I agree that there's a lot of glass history here to preserve,” Lewczenko said. “I'm definitely willing to help with this event.”
• Rolf Poeting, owner of Glassautomatic Inc./Rolf Glass located at the Mt. Pleasant Glass Center on state Route 31 East in Mt. Pleasant Township.
Poeting founded the company in 1981 after immigrating from Dusseldorf, Germany.
“We are glass-engravers and cutters, and we are an industrial manufacturer. This type of work, we're the only ones in the Americas,” Poeting said. “If you look at the glass industry, you see what a dominant role it played for western Pennsylvania and how it really changed the region.”
• Jay Hawkins — author of “Glasshouses and Glass Manufacturers of the Pittsburgh Region 1795-1910” — will be signing his book from 1 to 3 p.m.
“By introducing the public to more glass personalities, we're hoping they'll join us as members to help us continue to thrive and grow.”
For more information about the museum, call 724-542-4949.
Deborah A. Brehun is a staff editor for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-238-2111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.