Belgians and Their Glassmaking Roots in
Mount Vernon, Ohio
by Jennifer Marie Frate Di Lisi
It was the dedication day of the Statue of Liberty on Liberty Island, New York, and it was also the day Rene Mondron's grandfather first came to the United States. Rene's grandfather used to joke about that day. He would say that the Americans were celebrating his arrival on American soil. They were throwing a party just for him. In fact, several Belgians immigrated to the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s, many of whom settled in rural communities like that of Mount Vernon, Ohio.
Pittsburgh Plate Glass Factory Mount Vernon, Ohio
Art Cornell, an area resident and retired glass cutter, comes from a long line
of Belgian glassmaking workers. His grandfather, Alexander Cornell, was a glass blower in Belgium for a number
of years. However, working conditions in Belgium were poor, and Mr. Cornell had been suffering from a persistent
back injury and lung ailment. With the understanding that glassmaking factories in the United States were better
than those in Belgium, Mr. Cornell decided to immigrate. He later sent for his wife and children after finding
American life to his liking. Mr. Cornell did eventually remedy his health impairments with the help of a herb doctor
near Anderson, Indiana, where the family first settled.
The influx of Belgians into Mount Vernon at the turn of the century coincided with the founding of glassmaking factories in the surrounding area. As Rene Mondron, a longtime resident of Mount Vernon and retired glassmaker says, "Glass has a tendency to gather. They would build a plant where there were a lot of raw materials available. Mount Vernon was resourceful in natural gas and sand, too, which made it wonderful." However, once these resources became scarce, the factories, as well as the employees, were forced to relocate. "A lot of Belgians moved out here from Indiana, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania because smaller plants would die out," says Rene Mondron. Belgians migrated to different cities and towns in order to find work. It was the glass industry itself that brought so many Belgians to the cities of central Ohio including Mount Vernon, Newark, and Utica, where the glassmaking industry was prosperous. Rene Mondron described Belgian families as nomadic. "The families, they were like gypsies, following the glass tanks. They knew they could find work where the glass tanks were moving." Yet, once prominent glassmaking factories were established like Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company in Mount Vernon, many Belgian families established permanent residences in the area.
The glassmaking business was not in operation throughout the entire year. It was, in fact, very much a seasonal occupation. In summer months, when it was simply too hot to work in the factories, the glassmaking employees were out of work. And so, the employees were forced to occupy themselves in some other type of work in order to maintain a suitable income. According to Art Cornell, many of the workers took up gardening as an occupation. "A lot of us had gardens and would sell vegetables. Others worked as cooks and sold pastries." It was important for people to be careful how they spent their money during this down time. "When the plant closed down, you knew you had to live for three to four months, so you had to watch your money." One of Art Cornell's uncles owned a buggy and would travel around the area selling fresh candies and pastries. The Cornell family, for example, owned forty acres of farmland from Newark Road clear down to Memorial Park. During the summer, the family grew a variety of vegetables like sweet corn.
Although many of the family values from Rene Mondron's heritage have lost their meaning or strength, the traditional recipes unique to the Belgians have remained strong. Rene recounts in detail the types of foods he grew up with and the recipes he has maintained such as the preparation for the pates, gollads, and goflats. "Food wise, Belgians love to eat. We put a lot of garlic, onions, and leeks in foods." He explains that much of the food they used to prepare their dishes were taken directly from their personal vegetable gardens. Rene also claims that, "they love heavy eggs and butter in France and Belgium." In reminiscing about Belgian tarts and the care that went into making them, Art Cornell explains, "It could take all day for someone's mother to make it, but it only took a few hours to eat."
The Belgian heritage is rich in its tradition, which includes not only a variety of foods, but music as well. Music seems to have played a significant role in the lives of many local Belgians. As Rene Mondron says, "Belgian people loved music. Art Cornell and I have played a lot. It seemed as though a lot of Belgians I knew played some type of music." Art Cornell's father, who played the clarinet, taught Art, his brother and his sister all how to play as well. Art recalls, "On Sundays, when people would sit down to watch football games on televisions, my family did not do that. In the winter time, we would play our clarinets. My father would buy these trios, and then would deal them out of us. You did not know what part you were going to get. You played whichever part you got." As an adult, Art pursued his musical interests by playing in a fifteen-piece big band at Buckeye Lake, where both Art and his father played on several occasions. The music of the Belgians enriched the cultural heritage of the Knox County community.
Since the Belgians were so very knowledgeable of the glassmaking industry, Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company (PPG), which was at one time a prominent glassmaking factory here in Mount Vernon, collaborated with the Belgians because of their expertise. The Belgians, together with PPG, created patents for their glassmaking techniques. "PPG, with the help of the Belgians, developed the glass blowing process because the Belgians knew how to handle the glass," says Art Cornell. However, the traditional process of glassmaking created by the Belgians has now become outdated by more technologically advanced techniques. The original technique of glassmaking centered around blowing and cutting the glass. According to Art Cornell, an experienced glass cutter, "This was the technique that the Belgians knew and this technique is what brought them to this area." The new system of glassmaking is called the float process, or vertical draw.
Belgian glassmaking employees were very well respected by other members of the community. The glassmaking industry was at one time considered to be a very prestigious occupation. As Art Cornell explains, "I was a tradesman, and back then it was like being a doctor. The glass blowers went to work with top hats and coats. They were highly respected." Even the type of dress worn by glassworkers was an indication of their occupation. Rene Mondron remembers, "You could always recognize a glass cutter because he wore a suit. That was the trademark of the cutters."
Not only was glassmaking a very prestigious occupation, but it was also one that sustained as a family tradition within the Belgian ethnicity. Growing up as a kid, says Rene Mondron, "We heard about the business from our parents and grandparents. So when we went to work in the factories, we already knew something about glassmaking." The glassmaking trade was something that remained private within Belgian families and households. Knowledge of the trade was almost always passed along from fathers to sons. "It stayed within the Belgian community and passed along through the family," explains Rene Mondron. Art Cornell adds, "Your father would teach you something that you would never tell anybody else." In fact, family relation was something of a mandatory requirement for employment in the glassmaking industry. The trade was learned not only by word of mouth, but by on sight training. Fathers, when they felt it was the appropriate time, would bring their sons to work with them. Sons would have to serve a three-year apprenticeship in the glassmaking factories before they could even be considered for work.
The glassmaking industry became almost exclusive in a way, which brought about the creation of the Taft-Hartley Bill. The Taft-Hartley Bill of the early 1950s was an anti-labor law which made it illegal to pass down a trade within the family. It also mandated the hiring of non-Belgian workers in the glassmaking factories, considering that the majority of the workers were Belgian. With the conception of the Taft-Hartley Bill, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and even women were hired as factory workers. Belgians, still, however, dominated the glassmaking industry. After all, glassmaking was the trade they had perfected in Belgium during the early 1800s.
Women also played a small role in the glassmaking industry. The majority if women, however, held clerical positions in the office. According to Rene Mondron, "Women did not find work in the cutting room. They worked as secretaries in the offices." It was only after World War II that women began working in the glassmaking industry. Rene Mondron and Art Cornell recall an instance when a young girl worked at PPG. Rene Mondron explains, "I remember we had a girl who was learning how to cut glass. She learned how to cut because her father was a cutter." Even so, women almost never held the same positions that men did in the glassmaking factories.
The glassmaking industry has died out, in part, due to the fact that fathers, like Art Cornell and Rene Mondron, encouraged their children to pursue their individual interests. Art Cornell says, "Our kids did not get into glassmaking. We deterred them from getting into it. We wanted them to go to college." Education became an important ideal with the passing of each generation of Belgians. According to Rene Mondron, "Getting to eighth grade was considered a pretty good education. I doubt many people ever made it beyond that because kids were called to work in the factories." Today, however, the situation is much different. Belgian families emphasize the importance of higher education.
Although glassmaking is no longer the flourishing industry it once was here in Knox County, Belgian families continue to live in the area and have established permanent homes. The presence of Belgians is not as easily recognizable as it once was. Many Belgians have established themselves in the greater community, despite the fact that many glassmaking employees have retired or moved onto other occupations. According to Rene Mondron, "The end of the trade didn't necessarily mean you had to leave the area." For the most part, the Belgians have blended themselves into the culture of Knox County, and remain somewhat invisible. Rene Mondron comments, "The Belgians have now dissipated." Paging through the Mount Vernon telephone book, one comes across a number of Belgian names like Bertiaux, Loriaux, and Michaux. Yet at the same time, many of the family names have died out because the families have either moved to other cities, or there were not enough children to continue on the family name.
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