EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an updated, corrected version.
When workers, looking for coal in 1876, drilled a hole into the ground near the East Central Indiana town of Eaton (now part of Muncie), a loud noise and an odious smell convinced some that they had discovered hell instead. Corking up the hole, the workers walked away from their find not realizing its significance until eight years later when natural gas, found in Ohio, was reported in Indiana papers. Suddenly the Indiana gas boom was on, changing the landscape of a large part of the state from a rural to an industrial base with the founding of such businesses as the Kokomo Opalescent Glass (KOG), Hemmingray Bottle and the Insulating Gas Company. U.S. Steel chose Northwest Indiana for its operations in part because of easy access to gas.
The gas, many thought, would last forever and despite warnings that it was being wasted and legislative actions to limit flambeaus – flames lit at the top of each well – the practice continued and that, coupled with other wasteful practices brought the boom to a bust by the early 1900s.
But some of the businesses survived. KOG, where Louis Comfort Tiffany bought glass for his windows and lamps including those found in the recently renovated Chicago Cultural Center, still thrives almost 130 years after it first opened. The Ball family, who moved from New York State to Muncie, opened the Ball Corporation making, among other products, canning jars and left an indelible imprint upon the community.
And glass objects – beadwork, sculpture, stained glass windows and more – can still be found tucked away in antique stores and art galleries of towns like those in Hamilton County.
For those who want to wander through the central part of the state, retracing the history of the gas boom, the recently created Indiana Glass Trail offers a look at places that showcase the best the boom brought to 19th century Indiana.
A good place to start is Kokomo where KOG, still owned by some of the original family members, offers free tours of its factory where workers melt soda ash, silica sand, crushed limestone, feldspar colors and minerals in clay pots that can hold about 1,200 pounds of the material, cooking it for about 17 hours at temperatures of 2,400 degrees. Then the glowing molten glass is shaped, first in the large factory room – the same one used for more than a century – and then in the hot glass studio where it is turned into vases, bowls, jewelry and other intricate shapes.
When the Ball family made their fortune, they chose to build mansions on the north bank of the White River, a place which for centuries, poised on two busy historic roadways – Wheeling and Grandville Pikes. Now a 40–acre tract of that land, named Minnetrista - which means gathering place by the water - hosts a museum, cultural center, extensive gardens, popular farmers market and daily tours of the G.A. Ball House.
The House of Glass in tiny Elwood is the offshoot of the gas boom in Madison County. John St. Clair, an immigrant from Alsace–Lorraine France, worked as a master gaffer at a glass factory in the 1900s. Encouraged to come in at night to create glass works, he often took his sons who watched him make the delicate glass flowers that were part of his heritage.
After the company went out of business, all of the family moved away except for John's son Joe who in 1938 started a glass business. The company thrived for decades, evolving into the House of Glass which sells artisan glass items that are reflective of the Elwood's glass heritage. The Elwood Glass Festival, entering its 39th year, is held the third week in August to celebrate the town's glass history.
Columbus is known as one of the most architecturally significant cities in the country but it's also big on glass. There are two Dale Chihuly installations in town, including the 9–foot yellow chandelier in the Columbus Area Visitors Center. The center, the start of both walking and driving tours, also has a delightful gift shop stocked with glassware made by Indiana artists. It is also one of the few places in the Midwest where Chihuly glass items can be purchased.
Beyond that, the 1900 Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor and Museum in the city's downtown, which recently underwent a multimillion dollar renovation, features wonderful antique glass lamps, windows and chandeliers. Glass hunters will want to check out the wide selection of glass at the 72,000-square-foot Exit 76 Antique Mall, the state's largest with 600 booths.
For information about other stops along the trail, visit www.indianaglasstrail.com or call the Columbus Area Visitors Center at (800) 468–6564.