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The Lives Behind Christmas Glass

Former employees of Corning Glass that shaped ornament history

 

by Sara Vogt - December 6, 2018

History makes you smart; heritage makes you proud is a military saying that I believe accurately describes the history of the close-knit family of factory workers here at Corning Glass in Wellsboro.

In this broadcast, we will be featuring four employees who worked at the factory, Ellsworth Brown, Allen “Oddie” Scranton, Donald Wilcox, and Wanda Kennedy.

Pat Davis, Ellsworth Brown’s daughter, told of her father’s creative work as a draftsman who later became the head of Mechanical Engineering Department at the plant. He worked at Corning Glass Works from the mid-1930s until the time of his death in 1965. He was responsible for drafting forms that could be produced on the ribbon machine. In the 1930s, Max Eckhart of the Shiny Brite Company approached Corning Glass Works. His business was selling hand-blown glass Christmas ornaments from Germany, but because of the WWII blockade, he was no longer able to import these ornaments. He thought that it might be possible to produce the glass ornaments in the same way that light bulbs were produced. Corning accepted the challenge, and Ellsworth then got the job of designing Christmas ornaments. He had to develop the decorations in such a way that they would be able to fall out of the mold easily after cooling, without breaking. At first, they made simple ball-shaped ornaments in red, green, gold, white and blue. That is why the flag was Corning found that the machine-made bulbs could be made very thin and were sturdier than their hand-blown counterparts. Therefore, they became very desirable. Depending on the size and style, they could produce up to 2000 per minute.

As the men were returning from WWII, Corning Plant Manager DJ Carr said he wanted to welcome and honor them with a banquet. He asked Ellsworth to design something as a backdrop to the main banquet table, using CGW products. Brownie realized that they had plenty of Christmas ornaments to work with, and they had red, white, blue and gold bulbs, so he created the flag design. (There are 1438 bulbs in the flag) Emery Houghton was the main speaker at the banquet, and after the event, he asked if he might borrow the flag for similar dinners at the other Corning plants in the area. After the events, they donated the flag to the Penn Wells because there was no place to display it at the plant. Pat said, “I still see it reflecting in the Penn Wells lobby when I go in or drive by, and I think of my dad and the men that were honored.

Our second guest on today’s broadcast is Mr. Allen “Oddie” Scranton, a retired Corning Glass Molds Manager for the plant. He started working at the plant when he came home after World War Two in the ’40s and continued working there for thirty-seven years. His father-in-law, Harold Campbell was a foreman at the plant and was instrumental in securing a job for him in Wellsboro. That was not the only time Oddie mentioned family in this interview. He also said, ” People worked together as a family, and didn’t cut each other’s throats. “Wellsboro Corning Glass was tops as far as personnel. They were quality workers and therefore made a quality product. They shared information and helped each other out to make a better product.”

Oddie’s job was to make the ribbon machine run faster and more efficiently, and his nickname was “Speedy Scranton.” Bosses from Corning often came to Wellsboro to see if he could make improvements to produce more per minute. They were after speed, and his challenge was always to make things faster. He would try different things like running the glass hotter to set up better or improving the mold.

Corning Glass sent someone to Germany to copy the hand-blown glass ornaments made there, and then they were made here much faster by machine, at a good profit. Oddie said that his favorite Christmas ornaments were a juice harp, birds with feathers and Santa Clauses.

People from all over the world came to see the production line at the plant.
They had people from Germany and the Czech Republic visit the plant. His most memorable visit was from a man from Spain who came to study the production line. He gave the man a tour which took a few hours, and for years afterward, he received a big box of candy from Spain as a thank you. His family even looked forward to the arrival of the box!

Oddie is 101 years old and spoke about his years at Corning Glass in a respectful tone of appreciation for the management of the plant by saying,
“D.J. Carr was the president of the Wellsboro plant and the best foreman you could ever have. “D.J. cared for everybody.”

Our third guest on this feature is Mr. Donald Wilcox, Equipment Engineering Specialist who worked at the plant starting in 1952 and officially retiring in 1986. He was asked to work there for another twenty years!

When Don started working at CGW, his parents were also working there. His mother began working there in 1938 when he was six years old. Six months after his mother went to work at CGW, his father joined her there. They worked for about 38 years before they retired. His two sons also worked at CGW for 42 and 37 years each respectively and are also retired now. The Wellsboro plant was a family-oriented plant. If you came from a family with a good work history at Corning, they were willing to hire you on the spot

One of Don’s first jobs at the plant was to help maintain the flag and keep it in its original order. He had to go down and straighten the bulbs and change them occasionally. He did that for about 3 or 4 years and then graduated to more critical jobs. At the time the flag was created Corning in Wellsboro was making 90% of the glass Christmas ornaments in the world. There are 1438 bulbs in the flag. Don explained that the bulbs have a silver coating on the inside and a lacquer coating on the outside. The silver coating on the inside gives the bulbs their shiny reflection.

Don was hired as a drafting person because he had taken drafting in high school. He would draw and redesign the molds so that the machine shop could then manufacture them. There were others that did that job also, and their job was to design the equipment that would handle the glass produced at the plant. He calls himself a self-taught engineer. Though he was hired as a draftsman, Corning often sent over mechanical engineers from other plants, and whenever they were working in the Wellsboro plant, Don would pick their brains and learn as much as possible. After about ten years he had the opportunity to be an engineer. Corning encouraged people to grow in their jobs and learn from each other.

He had to design metal equipment that could handle working with glass at 1100 degrees C, and also the drastic temperature changes. Speeds increased over the years as new equipment came along.

The technology was changing very rapidly when Don started working at the plant. When he began, they produced approximately 800 bulbs per hour, and then later up to 68,000 bulbs per hour. The ornaments were dipped at the plant, and the Shiny Brite company did any additional painting after they bought them from CGW.

There were also about 800 people working at the plant when he started in 1952 and by the time he retired there were only about 300, yet they were producing more because of the improved technology and machinery.

Our fourth guest is ninety-five-year-old Wanda Kennedy who worked for Corning for over 40 years. She too came from a family who worked at the plant which included her father (Alfred), her mother (Nora) and her oldest brother,(Lyle).

As a woman some of her challenges was taking care of her family which included her four children, working at Corning, and running a farm.

Many women began working at Corning because the men were off at war. The men were promised their jobs when they returned but many of the women, like Wanda, working during that time stayed after the men returned.

Her job at Corning included hand-painting Christmas ornaments, and overseeing other women who did the painting. They made different kinds of ornaments and had a separate room where the painting was done. They had a chart to tell what colors to use on each shape, and in each section. They brought you a tray with paints and little brushes. She enjoyed painting the ornaments. She liked painting the reindeer, because she liked the shape, and they were mostly one color and easier to paint.

Later, Wanda ran the frosting machine for the light bulbs for many years. It was hard work, but she wanted to show them that she could do a job that the men could do. People were surprised she could do the job, but she was a strong farm girl. There was a conveyor to bring a tray full of the clear bulbs in to be frosted, and Wanda sometimes had to climb the ladder to the floor above to make sure the transport rails were running smoothly. There were about 120 bulbs per tray, and these metal trays were heavy. Then she had to make sure every bulb was straight on the spindles so the acid could be sprayed inside the bulbs evenly. She also had to make sure the acid flow was kept at a certain percentage. From there, the bulbs were taken to be dried and then they had to be boxed. You had to be strong, neat and organized. She was the only woman who did the frosting. She wore a dress when working on packing, but slacks when she went up to run the frosting machine and work with the acid. When doing packing work, they would package about 12 bulbs per cardboard box, so they were ready for sale. This frosting process was for the lightbulbs that Corning was making at the time. The frosting process did pay a bit more because it involved more responsibility.

Credits:

Idea/Concept: Sara Vogt

Videography: Andrew Moore, Johanna Vogt, John Vogt

Video Editing: Andrew Moore, Sara Vogt

Writing: Sara Vogt

Anchor: Johanna Vogt

Correspondent: Sara Vogt

 

Produced by Vogt Media

Funded by Christmas on Main Street, Penn Wells Hotel / Lodge

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