Fred Wise, a third generation glass worker from Cleveland, was interviewed at the age of 83 regarding his memories of the glass industry. The April 11, 1979 oral interview is archived at the Penfield College Library at Oswego State University. Kathy Darrow obtained a copy of this recording and provided the transcription provided below in May 2007.
The interview opens with interviewer and Fred looking at company store scrip.
How big were the premises?
What do you mean; how many rollers? Actual physical size, looking at the picture I can’t tell. It got hot; they closed down in the summer. They worked in different 8-hour shifts. One week you’d be one shift and maybe the next a different time; whatever they figured. Then they had what they called a midnight shift.
Then they had three shifts?
No. They worked piece meal.
Did you have a break for lunch or coffee?
No, about all they did was drink beer.
What about the wood to start the fire?
Of course that was the old time stuff. Then afterwards they had what they called the procedure they used for gas. They used to use wood you know. They used to use wood in the flattening house, where they flattened the cylinders.
Did they cut the cylinders before they flattened it?
Oh yes, you see your cylinder laid on the cradle, what they called a canvas belt and they would have these rollers that they had on an iron that they would step up into and then throw a handful of sawdust in the cylinder and take the hot iron and run back three or four times. And touch it like that and it would split right up through. It was an interesting thing to see the way they worked. It was hell what those guys did to their hands. I’ve seen them have cracks deep enough to lay a wooden match in.
That was an occupational hazard. Were there a lot of fumes?
There weren’t too many fumes because it was high and it went up in the roof and they had ventilators in the rear.
Would you say the conditions were dangerous on the floor?
Well, yea, sometimes. They had what they called a swing hole. They roll out of the furnace and of course they had an iron blow pipe and if you had the roller on the end of that and you put it up by what they called a tripe. That put that right in the furnace to keep it warm or hot. And then they would bring it out and they would be walking on this platform and down about 12 feet below they had this roller that they swung back and forth and of course the weight of the glass would keep it going to and sometimes if it come off the pipe then it might roll backwards and knock him off. But as a rule, there wasn’t too many people getting hurt there, getting cut now and then in the cutting room.
Where did they store the wood? Was it right on the floor? Did that present a dangerous situation at times?
Another thing about those glass factories, you couldn’t be a blower, gatherer boy or a glass cutter or a flattener unless you had relations that worked there. It was sort of one big family.
Did the Getman factory, was it a union factory.
I know when we worked, the one we worked in, we went to cane. And they worked in the machine plant and of course that involved the union. We had to pay a $50. back fine for working in the hand plant and vice versa, if we went to machine back to hand, they soaked you fifty bucks.
Was it a strong union?
Did you ever have an organized action against the management?
No strikes, was that part of the National Union of Glass Workers? Was it a large organization?
Was it a strong local?
Did the workers go to meetings?
Yea. They had a good alliance.
From the time the glass was removed from the ovens, what was the actual process?
Well, it would come out and the roll was made, they would put it on a horse, they called it a cradle, and they take a piece of hot glass and run around the thrower with tongs and then they do the same time, let the finger touch it, to release the pipe from the roller. Then they’d put this iron in there and run it back and forth and crack it open. Then that went down to the flattening house and they had this big wheel and the flatteners would be on this end of the furnace and the shovel boy could be over here and he’d ring a bell and he’d turn the wheel and then they would put another roller in and by the time this got around it was four feet tall. Then you had what was called basswood blocks, and you ran back and forth on that. That’s the way they flattened it. Then it would go down what they called the railroad and they take one out with a fork and they had what you called a dip, an acid that they run it through, to clean the glass more or less, that’s the process they went through.
How was the pay?
The pay was good.
Better than other work in town?
Oh yea. Of course the pay was sort of piecework. Each blower had what they called a snapper, and cutter. Now Dad cut for two blowers and they bring the glass in. You got paid by the box, 100ft., 50ft. and that’s the way you got your pay. If you didn’t have good luck you didn’t make as much money. And if you had good luck and got all your rollers in without smashing them up, that was more to your credit and pocket book too.
Did the workers live here at the lake, or back up the hill more?
Oh, they were all over. They used to have what they called factory houses where they lived.
Just single guys?
No, they’d bring their families. There was an awful lot to that factory stuff. There was a plant in Bernhards Bay. Then they had a plant in Durnhamville, that’s this side of Oneida. Of course, one advantage Cleveland had was the sand; remember the big sky things from Corning that sand was taken from Cleveland.
It’s on display at their museum. The first one came out flawed and they had to make another.
There used to be probably three teams drawing sand all the while. They had a big tank like, wooden tank; they’d wash the sand in there and get all the dirt out of it. Then they’d have to put it in what they called the drying house. And then they of course, with the chip glass and the potash and the sand all the stuff that went into the glass, they used to put that in the furnace and melt it all over again. All the chip glass was pieces they took off the roller if they had to cut out a stone or something like that. They threw all that in a chip box and that went back up to the factory to be melted over again.
Were the guys that went out and got the sand, were they paid as well?
Yea oh yea, they were paid good.
The workers that were in Bernhards Bay, Durnhamville, pretty much on the move. How did that affect their families?
How did it? While most generally, like to Durnhamville, they just moved right there with their family from wherever they came from. And sometimes when we were offered a job by different companies, they sent us tickets. One time they sent us tickets from Oklahoma, railroad fare, we sent them back. That was the last cutting we done. I got to laughing then and said if we got to cross this country to make a living I’d better do something different.
The glass people were in demand then. You worked with your father. Was that a typical situation for a glass worker to take in his son?
Yea, oh yea if he was interested. I got my apprentice papers. In those days you had to work around three years apprentice before you had your own table. Dad’s table set right here, by the window, big window. My table set back of his and I didn’t need the light to see, like he did. And then he used to strip, what they called “strip”. He used to cut pieces and another thing, he worked on orders, the boss cutter would bring your slips in and he’d want so many boxes of 12×24,24×24, 24×28, 32×32, only even numbers, and he would number then. So you would work on your boxes, so after you got boxes out, then you worked on whatever you could cut up. And get some on hand. You had to keep your blowers separate so you wasn’t given one blowers the others guy glass, keep it separate. You had to know what you were doing.
The blowers, gatherers and cutters were all in the same union?
Yea, oh yea.
Could a worker afford to send his son or daughter to school?
Yeas, they were making good money. What they done, is they probably started in Sept, they start to blow and they probably get through in April. Then till the next Sept. they wouldn’t do a damn thing. They sit right around. They lived on what they made in the winter. There were a lot of people that worked thou, like my dad, he used to do carpenter work.
So you were subject to getting laid off in the summer.
O yea. You couldn’t work in that hot weather. They tell about one guy used to go the Panther Holland? , That was a little beer joint and they used to have sticks about this long. They’d put the pails of beer on this stick and bring them back to the factory. And when you got to blowing you know sometimes, the guy next door there, he would go and drink out of his pail of beer. So we had one fellow by the name of Paul Lesgan, he was a blower, he’d take his false teeth and throw them in his pail, no one would bother it. They were always kidding about that.
About how long did a person work? Did he go after an age he was expected to retire?
Well, I really won’t know because this plant was out in 1910. And a lot of the fellows took up something else. There wasn’t an age to retire.
Did a lot of them leave when the glass houses closed down?
Yea a lot of them. A lot of natives around here, those who always lived around here took up different work. It was hard to get a going again after they quit their trade.
How much of your pay came in scrip?
Here’s one that says 25 cents. Good at my store.
Was it a reasonably priced store? Could you afford the stuff there?
Oh yea, he was fair.
The workers seemed like pretty happy go lucky fellows?
Oh yea, they were, you know, of course I was 83 in March and I am just about the last one around here that worked in the factory. It was good money when they were running. Some went to Clarksburg, West Virginia, Oklahoma.
Did you have all your own tools?
O yea, your white diamonds was $8 at that time and your yellow diamond was $5. They always got the white diamonds. There was an awful difference if you cut wet glass much, it didn’t work with your diamond to well. I got my diamond up to the shop. If you weren’t cutting much wet glass a diamond would last you a month. They were like cars today, one time you get a good one and next time not, they varied back and forth. I have my setting up tools up there now. We used to take a brick punch in this brass, you set the diamond in that, you’d have to wet your fingers, catch the diamond and then show it up on there, then we had what looked like a nail set, concave, set that over the diamond, give a whack with the hammer and drive that down in the brass, then take a file and file the brass away from the outside edge, so you diamond could rock. That’s the way you set them up.
The blower had their own pipes?
Yea, they used to carry this second glass block, a cast iron block, that they molded the roller into start the ball, the gathering boy. Then after that was started up, then the snapping boy, he took over, keep turning it and keep putting it in the furnace. You know that was quite a stunt too. He have a ball of glass about that big, white hot, blowing on it, you’d blow that thing out so that the cylinder, from the pipe, it would go in this shape. That is where your hot glass would be. You’d have your pipe here, and if it wasn’t cool enough, you had to turn it all the while; sometimes it would dip and they would holler, “Run you damn coward.” The language was something wicked, if a women came into the factory, they’d holler, “Fresco”, that would go right up thru the whole plant. You’d have to watch your talk, ya know. I can hear them hollering that now, it started down in the box shop, right up thru the packing room, flattening house. Right up thru to the blowers and gatherers.
I have heard about the little pots they got their gather from. Then keep getting bigger and bigger. The methods used in the Cleveland houses, small oven etc. Did the big ovens ever come in out west in Toledo?
Yea, that was machine glass. They drew their cylinder straight up. Might be as big around as this table, gas pipes to heat the glass all up. But that was going straight up and then when they would get this roller, the blower, he sit up in a cage, so if it fell, he would be protected, if it came unhooked from the pipe. They would draw it up fast and there was a guy who would cut the glob right off and they let it hang there to cool it and they had a brass pole they put over. They walk right out with it and the blower had to walk it down and put it on the horse. They got the length to the roller around the width of it. In the old way it was just reverse.
What was school like in those days, was it just a big old building?
Out school you mean? Summerall was the big shot, there then.
Did you ever teach in shop?
No, I quit, I had an instructor, he didn’t like me and I didn’t care for him. I knew he didn’t know what the hell he was talking about. I told him so.
How was the finished glass shipped out of Cleveland? I didn’t see any railroads, was it shipped across the lake?
They had railroads in 1890. We had a railroad that went to this factory, old O &W.
Did they use the lake?
No, not so much, they used to send a lot of logs out of here on boats, timber,
The timber industry was vital to the glass industry, wasn’t it?
Then they had to ship a lot of bark for the tannery, hemlock bark.
Where did the workers come from? Were they German in background?
Mostly Belgium, some French. My grandfather worked back then, my grandfather, my dad, my Uncle worked there. We had a couple of Bests, Caswell, 3 Wises, and Gouchies; all old timers.
Did they come from the old factories and other parts of New York State to work here?
Not really, they had been working in factories before, they came home here. They got the bright idea to start a factory here, so that’s what they done. The Getman. It used to be quite a town here. Here is a picture of one of the hotels that used to be here.
There is quite a difference in Main Street.
Yep, that’s the Getman House.
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