Emily Rice Published

Blenko’s Glass Festival Returns

Colorful glassware is seen displayed on a white table.
Blenko Glass' Glass Festival 2023 piece, a square peg decanter.
Emily Rice/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

On any particular day at Blenko Glass Company in Milton, West Virginia, the furnaces blaze with innovation as artists mold their glass creations into shapes that become iconic pieces of West Virginia history.

Charles Chafin has worked at Blenko for nearly three decades. He is passionate about his work and passes that gift along to his trainees.

“I’m having the best time in my life teaching the young ones all about Blenko glass, and they’re moving up quicker and I’m really loving that,” Chafin said.

A worker’s tools lay cooling after use in the fiery furnace.

Credit: Emily Rice/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Blenko Glass Company’s Festival of Glass will make its return this year on Aug. 5, and Chafin is excited for the return of the event. He said he enjoys meeting visitors from out-of-state.

“We are getting ready for our festival and it’ll be a great one,” Chaffin said. “We’ve been missing it for two or three years over this COVID. And now we start back, and I can’t wait to meet all the people. They come from all over the United States, they do. We had some three years ago, they were from Hawaii, California, Wyoming, Maine and we had Maryland, Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia. I hope we have a lot more out-of-state people come to see this. It is pretty cool.”

Blenko Glass Company founded the Festival of Glass at the turn of the 21st century to celebrate and preserve the heritage of glassmaking in Appalachia. 

The company is a cultural icon of the Mountain State with roots that run deep through its passionate employees.

James Arnett, creative director of Blenko Glass, said the Festival of Glass is a chance for visitors to have an immersive experience in the workshop.

“We have run this festival of glass every year as a kind of immersive experience for our customers and our collectors to come to Milton, West Virginia to take classes to have hands-on glass experiences, to buy specialty wares to enjoy the products that we make for the festival of glass,” Arnett said.

For each festival, Blenko creates a one-of-a-kind collector’s piece. This year, the festival’s theme is ‘Be There Or Be Square’ as an homage to this year’s square peg decanter.

“This year, as we do every year, we’re going to be making a special festival of glass decanter, called the square peg decanter. This year it’s squared olive decanter with a cobalt wrap and a crystal cube stopper,” Arnett said.

Blenko Glass’ 2023 square peg decanter with assorted glass pieces for the festival.

Credit: Emily Rice/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

Blenko used to be one of 400 glass companies in West Virginia. Today, it is one of a handful in operation. To honor those fallen companies in the past, Blenko has been able to acquire old molds from those production companies to include in their festival piece.

However, this year, the festival’s main staple is slightly different.

“Blenko glass is of course known for its mid-century modern design,” Arnett said. “So for this year, in honoring British modernist art glass, we’re folding in some of that inspiration, some of that aesthetic and honoring other glass makers who have made tableware much like Blenko has by hand with bright colors and using old techniques.”

While Arnett may have only been in his position for four months, his passion for Blenko Glass runs deep.

“There’s nothing like being able to come into a place like this and be surrounded and suffused with color,” Arnett said. “It really drives me.”

Blenko is a 130-year-old company with roots that extend deep into West Virginia’s history.

“We have a history and a heritage here in West Virginia that’s hard to match anywhere,” Arnett said. “[Blenko] has been so deeply situated in place and with the people here in the Milton tri-state area and Appalachia.”

Glass decorations lay in a pan ready to be affixed to various pieces.

Credit: Emily Rice/West Virginia Public Broadcasting