Cover Story

Entrepreneurial Spirit

By:James E. Casto

Issue:Winter 2015 : Articles


West Virginians have always made things.

Most of the state’s early settlers who trekked across the mountains from Virginia in the late 1700s and early 1800s were limited to what they could carry on their backs or load on a pack horse. But they brought with them at the same time a rugged determination and an ingenious ability to make things. hey cut timber to make cabins, furniture and fences. They whittled wood into bowls, cooking utensils of all types, musicalinstruments, gun stocks and even toys for their children.They split oak into thin strips, soaked them and wove them into baskets. Blacksmiths forged tools and hardware. Tinsmiths fashioned kitchen utensils. Brooms were made of straw or corn husks. Candles were fashioned from tallow or beeswax and hardened in metal forms. Coopers bent wood into barrels for storage of grains and whiskey. Vegetables and nuts were boiled to make dyes. Carding wool, spinning the yarn, and weaving it into cloth were a part of the pioneer woman’s work.

Beginning in the 1830s and continuing for decades, successive waves of immigrants brought their unique talents and skills to the state’s small factories, its iron works, glass companies and, of course, the coal industry. Looking back, it’s instructive to examine the historic roots of some of today’s legendary names in West Virginia industry:

Blenko Glass Co. Inc.

Blenko has been a family owned and operated company since 1893 and has been located in Milton since 1921. Its exquisite color, skilled craftsmen and imaginative designs have made Blenko world famous in the time-honored craft of hand-blown glass. The company is one of the few survivors of a West Virginia glass industry that once numbered more than 400 firms. Beset by a list of problems – including soaring natural gas prices, foreign competition and a widespread switch from glass containers to plastic – virtually all those companies have vanished. But Blenko remains and continues to delight its countless customers. Blenko long has been known for its stained glass, which can be found in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, the chapel of the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere. The company began crafting its colorful hand-blown glassware in the 1930s in order to keep afloat during the Great Depression. The Blenko Visitors Center, located at 9 Bill Benko Drive, just off U.S. 60 in Milton, attracts thousands of visitors each year, especially during the busy summer travel season. For more information about Blenko and its glassware, call toll free at 877-425-3656 or log on at www.blenko.com.

Homer Laughlin China Co.

Founded in East Liverpool, Ohio, in the 1870s, Homer Laughlin China later moved across the Ohio River into West Virginia, building at Newell in the state’s Northern Panhandle.The town of Newell grew up around it.

In the 1930s, the company introduced its famous Fiestaware, a stylish line of dinnerware featuring a streamlined modernistic design rendered in vibrant monochromatic colors. The original Fiesta was discontinued in 1973 and is now avidly collected. Certain older pieces have sold for as much as $2,000. In 2011, Fiestaware was featured on a U.S. Postal Service stamp as part of a series that celebrated pioneers in American industrial design Homer Launghlin’s business peaked in the years immediately following World War II, then suffered as imported dinnerware began to make deep inroads into the American market. To compensate for the loss of retail sales, the company began producing restaurant china in 1959, which now accounts for a large share of its business. The company successfully revived Fiesta in 1986, which welped it remain competitive in the tough home dinnerwaremarket. Today, its Newell factory remains one of the largest potteries in the world. For more information about Fiestaware and the company’s at 800-452-4462 or log on at www.hlcdinnerware.com.

Marble King, Inc.

In Paden City, there’s a busy factory that operates seven days a week, 365 days a year. It makes marbles – a million of them every day.

Berry Pink was a successful businessman who sold marbles in the 1930s and early 1940s. The marbles he sold were manufactured by Peltier Glass in St. Marys. By the late 1940s, Pink was selling more marbles than Sellers Peltier’s plant could produce, so the two men joined forces and formed a new company. Pink traveled throughout the country hosting marble tournaments and giving away marbles at each stop. He became known as “The Marble King,” and that’s how the new company got its name when it was founded in 1949. The Marble King factory in St. Marys was destroyed by fire in 1958. Roger Howdyshell, who managed the plant, moved the company to Paden City, where it remains today. Howdyshell bought Marble King in 1963 and dedicated his life to running it until his death in 1991. His daughter, Beri Fox, is now the company’s president. Marble King is a long-time supporter of the National Marbles Tournament. But today its marbles aren’t just used as toys but are integral to a number of industrial applications. If you
shake a can of spray paint and hear it rattling, that’s not a steel ball bearing inside. It’s a marble. Steel corrodes and rusts. Marbles don’t. For more information on Marble King, call 800-672-5564 or log on at www.marblekingusa.com.

J.H. Fletcher & Co.

James H. Fletcher launched his company in Chicago in 1937, determined to develop mine technology for both improved productivity and increased safety. The following year the company’s first product — a rubber-tired, battery-powered tractor — debuted at a coal show in Cincinnati. At that time, roof control in coal mines wasn’t much different from what it had been decades earlier. Crews hauled, sawed and lifted massive timbers into place by hand. The advent of machines dramatically changed that. Fletcher introduced its first rubber-tired timbering machine in the 1940s. In 1947, J.H. Fletcher moved its offices to Huntington and three years later opened its plant at 707 W. 7th Street. That same year saw the company introduce the industry’s first self-propelled roof bolter. Additional innovations followed over the years, and Fletcher’s name is now synonymous with mine safety. Even after additions were built, the 7th Street facility was no longer adequate, so in 1990 the company purchased a 10-acre site on High
Street in Huntington’s Altizer neighborhood where it continues to operate today. In 2012, the proud company celebrated “75 Years of Innovation.” For more information on J.H. Fletcher Co., call 304-525-7811 or log on at www.jhfletcher.com.

Ingenuity, determination and hard work. Lots of hard work. Those are some of the qualities that helped make Blenko, Homer Laughlin, Marble King and J.H. Fletcher some of the best-known and respected business names in West Virginia.
And they’re the same qualities found in many of today’s entrepreneurs, some of whom surely will go on to be tomorrow’s legends.