Wheaton Village features art of glass Travel: Museum of American Glass is a treasure house, displaying 6,500 pieces.

September 23, 1998|By Randy Kraft | Randy Kraft,ALLENTOWN MORNING CALL

MILLVILLE, N.J. -- The thermometer inside the T.C Wheaton Glass Factory hovers just over 100 degrees.

Yellow flames roar like jet engines in furnaces of the circular brick stack that rises from the middle of the factory floor.

The heat is too much for a few visitors, but most stay. They sit on tiered steps in a theater-like setting to watch one man create art in front of the massive stack.

Blowing, shaping and reheating, pony-tailed Joe Mattson slowly and carefully turns an orange glob of glass - heated to more than 2,000 degrees and looking like a large dim light bulb - into a lovely multicolored vase with a metallic sheen.

When he's finished, Mattson's sweat-soaked T-shirt perfectly matches the purple in the vase.

The glass factory is the most popular attraction at Wheaton Village, which celebrates American crafts, primarily glass.

Watching glassblowers always is fascinating. And Wheaton's Museum of American Glass is a treasure house, surprisingly large and spacious. It displays at least 6,500 pieces, one of the world's largest collections of American glass. Among those treasures is the world's largest glass bottle.

In addition to displaying works of famous American glass companies, it showcases many odd and archaic glass objects once used by ordinary Americans. And some of the works would be at home in any contemporary art museum.

First-time visitors entering through the gates of this place see what certainly does look like a village, with no cars on the street, but aren't sure what to expect.

'Not historical in nature'

"A lot of people think we're Colonial Williamsburg, and we're not," said spokeswoman Janet Peterson. "We're not historical in nature, with people in costumes. We are more of an education institution. We want to promote the importance of American crafts, especially glass."

You may feel like you have the place all to yourself. On a sunny weekday afternoon, far more geese than people were strolling on the green in the heart of the "village."

Buildings and attractions of Wheaton Village accentuate the sense of emptiness, because they are scattered on more than 60 forested acres.

There is a feeling of incompleteness about the place. It originally was supposed to be a re-creation of a turn-of-the-century South Jersey glass-making village, Peterson said, but there wasn't enough funding to make that happen.

The glass factory is modeled after the original 1888 Wheaton factory, which stood about a mile away.

Three narrated glassmaking demonstrations, lasting about 40 minutes, are scheduled every day. After the demonstrations, visitors are welcome to stay and talk with the artists.

Glass objects are made all day long in the factory by Wheaton's staffers and volunteers. Visitors are encouraged to watch them work any time they like, for as long as they like.

"We pride ourselves that people can get up close and personal with our artists," Peterson said. "They will spend as much time as possible explaining the craft. Visitors enjoy that personal attention."

Despite ceiling fans and open windows, it is uncomfortably warm in the factory, at least on a summer day.

"It goes up to 110 sometimes," said John Marselis, a glass artist who is a volunteer narrator at the factory. "We don't brag about that."

Visitors watch glassblowers make vases, pitchers, bowls, platters and paperweights. "No two pieces are the same," Marselis said.

You'll learn glass-blowing is a 2,000-year-old art. One surprise is that artists work without any gloves for protection; they use wet newspapers to help shape the contours of molten glass bubbles between reheating.

The factory has glassmaking molds plus historic displays. You also can watch artists use glass-cutting tools - diamond saws, drills and grinding wheels. One was fashioning a black heart out of glass. Another was creating a flock of "scum birds" - starlings.

Glass from all over U.S.

Despite its name, some visitors mistakenly believe the museum showcases only glass made by the Wheaton Glass Co. or only New Jersey glass, rather than glass from all over the United States.

Although only one story, the museum is modeled after the Mainstay, a bed-and-breakfast in Cape May, N.J. Its lobby looks like a plush 19th century hotel lobby, with red carpets and drapes and a pair of magnificent chandeliers.

Elsewhere in the museum are a rural Victorian kitchen and a Victorian dining room.

The museum's collections generally are arranged chronologically. Some objects are beautifully displayed on glass shelves in floor-to-ceiling windows, where sunlight can shine through them.

One temporary exhibit features more than 150 rare fruit jars, in honor of the 140th anniversary of John L. Mason's 1858 patent for Mason jars. The museum's annual exhibition "Folk Art in Glass," which features more than 100 pieces, continues through Oct. 25.

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