Local History

Henry Clay Fry: The “Magic” Glass Maker of Beaver County

 

        The marvelous and mighty influence of the steel industry in Beaver County will not ever be extinguished of its contribution to the prosperity of its laborious citizens and its humble and righteous position in the well-deserved annals of our local history; nor should it. As the steel production grew and more companies became established in the region, there is another story of an industry that Beaver County was known for: it was glass. The gallant and prestigious gentleman who discovered this venture and implemented excellent results that would eventually become world renown was Mr. Henry Fry of the H.C. Fry Glass Co. of Rochester.

        The infancy of his glass making commenced when he was 16 years old.  As an apprentice for the William Phillips Glass Co. of Pittsburgh, Mr. Fry would perfect his unusual and rare technique of his art that would make him the national icon of the industry. As his skills advanced he, with a few of his close colleagues, purchased 10 acres of ground in Rochester and began construction of the Rochester Tumbler Co. It manufactured ‘pressed’ and ‘blown’ glass; it was the largest glass company in its time. As a sharp businessman with glowing ambition, Mr. Fry was a person of enormous vision. His secret glass making procedure was highly sought after but never duplicated. Up until his time, most glass was hand blown by skillful craftsman and blowers. The hot glass was hand-blown into molds which dried and created the glass product; Mr. Fry’s operation of shaping glass was much more highly advanced. The hot material was “pressed” into a mold by a plunger thus leaving marks on the inside of the glass which produced a ‘cut glass’ effect when cooled. He invented and patented this process himself.

   

“Glass blowers at H.C. Fry Glass Co. gather in this 1909 photo at the Rochester, PA, plant. Known for its acid-etched signature “Fry” on its products, the company was respected internationally got its high quality glassware, colors and patterns created by local skilled craftsmen and women.” (Photo is courtesy of Beaver County Times.)

        Mysteriously, Mr. Fry’s glass making demanded a substantial amount of heat; to compensate for this, he became one the first glass makers on the production level to use natural gas; he even drilled for gas on his grounds and used it for heating purposes in his factory. Ironically, because of the high elevation in Rochester that Mr. Fry choose to build his plant, the workers took a careful observation of the mixture of air and gas in their smokestacks; consequently, the quality and color of their glass would be in high demand (as well as the result of having a constant source of heat from the natural gas well that Mr. Fry built).

        Because of the unique and natural process involved, Mr. Fry would market his most ornate glassware: “FOVAL.” (Fry Pearl Oven Glass.) This would become his most precious version of glass; it would be used for dinner plates, baking dishes, coffee pots and, most appropriately, tea sets. Lavish colors and designs were made from his high-quality material; deep blues and jade green were among his most popular by his admirers; the entire process was sealed in great secrecy from his nationwide competitors. As Mr. Fry’s reputation grew, so did Beaver County. At its height, his factory employed over 1200 people, making his business a major contributor to the industrial development of our region; eventually, his glassware would be in demand all over the world. Today, the products that still bear his name, are in high demand among collectors and antique dealers.

       

An artist’s rendering of H.C. Fry Glass Co. in Rochester, PA, around 1910.

      Sadly, with the storm of the Great Depression blowing into Beaver County, Mr. Fry’s glass became too expensive of a purchase for the locals as well as the nation and the world; he died in 1931 and the business was left in operation to his eldest son. He was unable to continue making acceptable profits and sold the business off to a private prospector. Interestingly, many of the glass molds were sold to the Phoenix Glass Co. of Monaca. The rest of the molds were destroyed and this once glorious and quite prosperous enterprise folded into a sad and closing chapter in our region.

       

       

Grave of Henry Clay Fry and his wife Emma, Beaver Cemetery, Beaver, PA.

        However, this chronicle is another opulent citation of Beaver County’s unique and talented labor journey that triumphed with the visions, artistry, skill, and dedication of the townspeople who once led an industry into national and global recognition. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Clay’s glassware is highly valuable in the collecting world; it’s just a tragedy that he himself, although a man of candid and sharp vision, could not foresee his magnificent and exemplary character he left in Beaver County. As aureate and unique our local history is, Mr. Clay bequeathed an impartial legacy on his fellow competitors and hanged a glorious and loquacious wreath upon the door of our earned and revered reputation. 

Antique H. C. Fry Glass Rose with Green Stem 5 1/2″ Footed Glass

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

  

 

  

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