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Wheaton Village – A Glass Menagerie

“A Glass Menagerie” originally appeared in the Fall 2008 issue of Cape May Magazine.

Like most people who grew up in this area, I’m familiar with Wheaton Village, way up in Cumberland County though it is. All good little schoolchildren on the Cape know that springtime means a field trip to the Victorian glass blowing theme-park to buy marbles at the general store, play on the jungle gym and watch a man make a pitcher out of a glowing glob. Or at least all good little schoolchildren in 1986 knew that. Now that you mention it, I’m trying to wrack my brain for the last time I was there.

I decide I should drive up to Millville to see the Village again. Oh, sure, you can see the glass blowing demonstrations at the Physick Estate right here in Cape May, but I’m trying to reconnect with my childhood here, if you don’t mind. As soon as I enter the park, the nostalgia is overwhelming. I head into the General Store to see if they still sell marbles – my third grade obsession. They do, but I’m distracted by grown-up stuff like cut glass decanters and dish towels that say quirky things about marriage and housecleaning. How horribly mature.

The gift shop at Wheaton Village

I walk out by the pond. This is the same pond I remember from those field trips. Well, some things don’t change. For example, I remember well Canada Geese as a menace. I immediately encounter two fat, sleek specimens of feathery hatred who lower their heads and charge me. Funnily enough, this has actually happened here before. I run at top speed right back to the old red schoolhouse from Centre Grove, 1876. I remember learning important lessons here as a child on school trips, like how teachers were allowed to beat you back in 1876, and students had to chop wood or bring food as payment. Oh, how my teachers loved that part of the tour! And just past the schoolhouse, the playground, completely redone to become a safe, splinter-free wonderland with cushiony landings below each swing. Does anyone get skinned knees anymore? The character building rite-of-passage known as a concussion is almost impossible to come by now. “How will kids ever learn to adapt to the dangers of the world, sheltered and soft like this?” I ask. But just then the two geese find me and the air is filled with evil honking. Seems like the Museum should be having a tour soon, right? I run as fast as my feet can go.

It seems so familiar as if I’d just seen it only yesterday. Wondering if déjà vu can become locked in the “On” position, I ask a lovely woman named Mary at the front desk about the next tour. She tells me I have 10 minutes, and I should enjoy the collection of paperweights they have in the side gallery until then. “It’s all one person’s collection,” she says. As long as there are no geese, I’m in.

“Macchia” by Dave Chihuly. Made at Wheaton Village in 1989. Picture courtesy Wheaton Arts.

One glance at the case of paperweights here, and it’s clear to me that Mr. William Drew Gaskill was not what we think of as a “collector.” He was, in fact, an obsessive. Fifteen hundred pieces! The American original and its Chinese copy? Czechoslovakian mourning paperweights, with pictures of dead children in them! Paperweights commemorating the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the 1876 Bicentennial in Philadelphia, and a great place to buy a suit in Beaver Falls (et tu, advertising?). Mr. Gaskill was inspired by his collection to form the American Paperweight Collectors Association, of which he was obviously the president. How can anyone else be a member? There must be four paperweights left on earth that were not owned by him.

Mary begins herding everyone back into the main lobby, where a man in a Mr. Rogers’ sweater is waiting. Meet Mary’s husband Bill. Bill explains that he’s the guide, shut off your cell phone, and this Museum building is a reproduction of another Victorian building. Oooh! Wait! What one? “The Mainstay Bed and Breakfast in Cape May,” says Bill, and my head explodes. “But it’s painted in different colors. They chose the Victorian era because that was the heyday of the glass industry.” This must be how amnesiacs feel when it all comes rushing back… now, I can totally see how obvious that is. But Bill is moving on.

Bill is a champion of deadpan understatement. He shows us the history of glass timeline. It’s interesting to note that just after “Venice” comes “Millville.” You almost never hear those two spoken of together. Millville was a glass powerhouse – all that sand, plentiful trees for the furnaces and convenient rivers for transport made the Holly City formidable in glass production. Wrap your head around that for a minute. For a period beginning in the late 1700s, Millville, New Jersey, was in the vanguard of technological advancement for one of the most widely used (and longest lasting) resources in the world.

And eventually they even figured out how to make it in colors other than green. Bill explains the iron in our sand made the glass green, until they began mixing in other metals to change the color. One of those metals was uranium. That explains so much. A woman asks about a Colonial pitcher on display, with a small ball resting on top. “That’s the lid,” says Bill, “but the ball itself is also known as a ‘witches’ ball. It was believed that if you hung them on the window, they would catch evil spirits. And since that’s been there, I haven’t seen any. Now, over here…” Bill is feisty! He’s especially concerned with the patent medicine bottles. “Back then, the medical industry was far superior to what we have now,” he begins innocently. “Because they had cures for everything. This was a cure for diabetes. This one cured cancer. Now, they never showed the ingredients,” he goes on. “But the main ingredient was usually cheap whiskey. This bottle here,” pointing at a particularly pretty white bottle with Bitters written on it. “When they analyzed what was inside, they said it was 88 proof. The others were between 70 and 80. But, you could just call it ‘medicine’ then.” Bill’s tone is regretful, almost reminiscent. “You could just say ‘Oh, I need my bitters’ and then go right off to the WCTU meeting.” All of the older tour-goers are losing it. I never realized the Women’s Christian Temperance Union had such rollicking get-togethers. Oh, Bill.

The last wing of the gallery represents the future of Wheaton Village’s role in glass blowing artistry. This gallery holds the “final projects” of the many artists who’ve been awarded fellowships at Wheaton. Bill explains that these artists are chosen from a cut-throat field of competitors. Winners are given a house, a stipend, and all the instruction and furnace-time they can handle for three months. Then, they get kicked out, leaving one final piece of their handiwork behind for the Museum. So everyone can see just what sort of glassblowin’ hijinks goes on around here. These pieces are wild, colorful and huge, and cuddled around premier glass artist Dale Chihuly’s sideways melting bowl, an object that dominates the central room. My question is who can lift that while it’s still liquid and dangerously hot? Bill appears to be unconcerned and recommends we all head to the glass blowing demonstration.

Don Friel, Studio Manager/Head Gaffer, a gaffer is the master craftsman in charge of the team, works on a trophy at the Glass Studio

It’s still a beautiful day. Although I see one downy tell-tale feather drifting across the porch of the Mainstay-like museum, the only honking I hear is in the distance. I run across the little park land separating the Museum from the glassworks and into the belly of the beast.

Today’s demonstration? The famous Lee pitcher. A replica of one of the first successful glass blowing attempts in the area. Our man makes it appear right before your eyes with the practiced smoothness of a magician. We applaud politely. Ten feet away, a skinny teenager is panicking in a way that could only be described as slapstick. He is trying desperately to sort of shake the glass back into the shape it was intended to go in, which is a bit like trying to de-impregnate someone by lightly shaking them. Except, in this case, there is lots of fire involved.

He is swinging the glass to stretch it and gets a little too enthusiastic. The glass becomes one long twisting thing which he isn’t actually tall enough to keep off the ground, but lifting it nearly sets him on fire. When he swings it back down it makes things worse. When he swings it back up he nearly sets the table on fire. It was very Jerry Lewis, except not as creepy and loud. And, he is also trying not to attract the attention of the instructor. The combo of too much glass, too little attention paid to it and no clue what to do next is a fine catalyst for dangerous comedy.

Behind him is a young girl in a tank top, steel rod poised in her arms like a spear. She is somehow bone-thin and intimidatingly strong-looking. She’s attracting attention even before she begins to work. (I think it’s the tank top next to all that molten glass, although later I realize it’s because she’s beautiful.) Our tour guide tells us this girl is named Charlotte, who has received the Wheaton fellowship. She’s been here almost exactly three months; tomorrow, she has to get out. With what’s left of her free furnace time, Charlotte has come to finish her project. But it’s already 4 o’clock, and most of the staff members are leaving. Even the other students are now leaving. All except the skinny teenager who nearly killed himself with molten glass a half-hour ago. Charlotte cannot work alone. The weight of the glass makes it almost impossible to maneuver while reaching for another tool or prying open the doors of the glory-hole to reheat the glass. The tall, charming kid is so eager to help! A group of us decide to wait and see how this partnership will end.

Charlotte’s project is a moose antler. There is nothing about the moose that is even remotely pretty. The moose is truly nature’s most elaborate joke. It’s a testament to the girl’s skill that the first antler, lying vulnerable and perfect on the side wall, is somehow beautiful. Even the scruffy flaps of skin that peel off the antlers of a real moose are rendered in a way that makes a beautiful texture – a play of amber light winding up into a clear fragile tower. I immediately want to know if she made a freakishly beautiful moose body to go with it, but there’s no time to ask because the boy is walking with a big gob of glass and Charlotte has to go to work. They flatten it. They stretch it. They heat it, reheat it, bring out more color in just the center, squish it, steam it, beat it, flip it over, add more glass, flame broil it, and start over. There must be at least 40 pounds of glass on the steel rod now. One thing, the boy is strong. Charlotte has only to say “Flip!” and the antler is upended before gravity and time have a chance to pull it out of shape.

They are fighting against every element. The heat could make the glass too soft. The cold air makes it too brittle. There are only precious seconds to grab the diamond shears that allow it to (almost) hit the floor. Charlotte seems to have eyes in the back of her head. She also has superior upper-body strength. She can grab the shears and cut through molten glass to create the “fingers” of the moose antler. Since the glass is still molten, she has to hack through within seconds and actually screams a little in the effort. But they manage it. Counting the fingers on the first antler, there are five. This is going to be a long afternoon.

The crowd is gathering closer, despite the face-frying heat of the furnace from 20 feet. Charlotte talks the younger student through every step of the process. She even seems to anticipate the trouble he’s always about to get into before he has a chance to hurt himself or ruin her antler. He starts to gain confidence. He flips the object before she tells him to and, when she doesn’t yell, he relaxes. They’re starting to look like a team – a good one. And this crazy antler thing (Who on earth decides to make an antler?) is becoming increasingly large, pointy, and beautiful.

But it’s also getting harder to work with. Charlotte is struggling for every twist of the glass. Time is of the essence. There’s too much glass underneath to dawdle. If the glass outside cools too fast, the whole thing will crack. If they heat it too much, the sheer weight of what’s beneath will ruin the shape. Their faces in the light of the fire make me think of mythology. Thunderbolt smithies and such. I notice that an older woman sitting down a row from me tenses up every time they get too near the fire. She must be a mom.

Charlotte grabs the finished, cooled antler from the wall and holds it up to its mate. Although they are facing opposite directions (so they can come out symmetrically from a giant glass moosehead – words I’d never thought I’d write) it’s almost a perfect match. People next to me sigh with obvious relief. I think this is better than recent episodes of Lost. Charlotte has to add one finger to the antler to make it match: that means more cutting, more twisting, more gobs of molten glass passing just inches from their skin. But they make it look easy. One slight issue, the base is too big. Charlotte tells the boy to reheat the whole thing just one more time. At its current size, they have to open the widest doors to the glory-hole, but the boy handles it smoothly and doesn’t even trip.

Charlotte is working on the antler base. Now that she knows she’s almost done she’s jubilant. The boy is smiling, nearly delirious. Did he, a gangly local kid, really just step up when no one else bothered to? While he reheats the antler one final time, she pulls what can only be called the “oven mitt scuba suit” from a shelf, carefully laying it behind him so he can climb into it as soon as she takes the antler from him. This he does as directed while Charlotte traces a precise circle along the base of the antler. As we learned with the Lee Pitcher, the cold metal tongs make the hot glass more vulnerable along the hand-drawn “fault-line” – which is the cleanest way to get the finished glass off the rod. The antler is still warm. The amber color inside glows like a fire. It’s like watching two people wrestle with lava. But the boy stands ready to catch the antler as Charlotte prepares to knock the rod off. One gentle tap should do it. She taps! Nothing happens. Hmmm.

The boy stands firm. He’s got all but the very tippy-top of the antler lightly cradled against him. Charlotte traces another fault-line. She smiles triumphantly, jokes with the crowd, and taps again. Uh, Charlotte? Wait just a – she taps again! Much too hard! The boy doesn’t have the top of the antler steady! Horrors!

We can see it coming but can do nothing. And breaking glass always sounds exactly like breaking glass, doesn’t it? Very distinctive. Now make that sound sort of goopy and wet. The still-liquid glass inside the antler is heavy. The cooler glass outside fragile. The top half of the antler, with three of the five crystal-clear fingers arcing skyward in perfect symmetry, smashes on the ground. The fragments melt out of shape instantly. The boy freezes into a position of abject misery. He freezes even though hot glass is bubbling inches away from his chest. All eyes move to young, pretty, tired Charlotte, who has only a few hours to finish up and move away.

Just for the record? I’d have killed him. Even though it was partly her fault, I’d have killed him. And no one watching would have thought less of me for it! In my peripheral vision, I see a middle-aged man cover his face with his hands, and look away, as if to say, “I have seen enough, and I can bear no more.” It is that dramatic! We are so involved! Where is PBS to make a reality show of this – Glass House? C’mon!

Back to Charlotte. The heroine of our piece grabs the rod holding the now ruined antler, and swings it viciously away from the boy. The hot glass inside the bigger bottom half is seeping out of the… well, the only word I can think of now is “wound” where the top of the antler had been. Even with the oven mitt PJs, I don’t think that would have felt good landing on him. She walks resolutely to the heap of broken scrap glass near the corner and without much fanfare, stuffs the antler in. With one practiced, smooth motion, she smashes the remaining antler pieces to dust and gobs again. I can see no reason to do that, unless it just helped her somehow. Then she picks up another rod.

And hits the boy right over the head with it! No, I kid.

Marbles for sale at the General Store

Charlotte walks over to the young boy, still wearing his oven-mitt-suit and trying to be as small and invisible as possible for an overgrown, giant, lanky teenager in a large asbestos “bunny suit.” He has the oven-mitt-hood in his hands and his eyes are down on the floor where ruined glass is still cooling. Someone in the crowd says “ohhh,’ but then Charlotte surprises us. Her voice was totally level as she said, “I have to start all over again. Can you stay and help me?” The boy smiles, his shoulders visibly relax inside the suit, and it is a beautiful sight. Then something else happens. She whacks him right over the head! No, no. Actually, what happens is every one of the women in the crowd starts applauding. Because that was some lesson she just taught him and us. And she’s awfully young. But, if her nifty little grind-the-failure-to-dust move is any indication, this is a girl who learns from her mistakes. And what is it the scholars say about mistakes? “Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.” Or maybe that was Dilbert – the point is, she handled that beautifully!

Long ago, a field trip to Wheaton Village meant the inevitable “report” written afterward. My reports dutifully included facts about glass, favorite marble colors and the occasional goose attack – all painfully scrawled in my crooked child’s printing. By 18, it was pretty embarrassing. But I have to say, you can still learn a lot from this place, even when you’re old and haggard like me now. Today, I learned about Beauty. (Beauty like gorgeous moose antlers? Well, no. That’s unique, to say the least.) But what are you going to do with perfect moose antlers when you’re old and alone and everyone hates you? That’s right. Nothing! But Charlotte’s patient and capable artistic mentoring of a young man at the beginning of his journey will live on and on. By comparison, glass moose antlers would appear to have a limited shelf life.

By this point, it was 5 o’clock and the park is closing, so everyone calls out good luck to them both, sing Charlotte’s praises and wanders out into the last golden hour of early spring sunshine. This time, I am surrounded by people and the killer geese stay far away. Next time, who knows? Maybe if I find myself here next spring, I’ll bring some bread. Or at least see if I can borrow that oven-mitt outfit.