In the Beginning
South Charleston’s Belgian Roots
By Stan Bumgardner
Prehistoric cultures had lived in the area for about 12,000 years. White explorers had found their way to the mouth of Davis Creek as early as the 1780’s. But the history of the modern city of South Charleston dates to the arrival of a group of intrepid immigrant glassworkers and their families in 1907. Lured by free land and free natural gas — a key resource in glassmaking — these 20th-century pioneers relocated from two towns in Indiana to start glass factories in the Kanawha Valley. A large number of these glassworkers were Belgian, and their influence was strong in this important industrial community.
Around the turn of the 20th century, the Kanawha Land Company, headed by former West Virginia Governor William A. MacCorkle, had acquired most of the bottomland on the south side of the Kanawha River, just west of Charleston. MacCorkle, however, was having trouble attracting residents. Other than an old iron ore company, businesses had yet to discover the community that would later be known as the Chemical Center of the World.
MacCorkle convinced his fellow investors to provide free real estate and two years of natural gas to any company willing to build there. As luck would have it, two glassmaking companies in Indiana were struggling to find enough gas to meet their needs. In the spring of 1907, Felix Dandois, Aimer Lefevre, and Alfred Gilbert — three Belgian-born officials with Banner Window Glass of Shirley, Indiana — decided to accept the Kanawha Land Company’s offer after first considering sites in Huntington, Milton, and Clarksburg.
The Banner Window Glass factory was built near the Kanawha River, beside an ancient Adena burial mound. (Today, a Rite-Aid store stands at the entrance to the former plant.) After the plant was built, it took some three weeks to fire up the glass furnaces to the necessary temperature for glass production. On December 12, 1907, Banner Window Glass manufactured its first piece of flat glass. This was an inauspicious start as the factory burned down the next day. Undeterred by the setback, the Belgians rebuilt the plant and restarted production several months later.
Banner Window Glass was a cooperative owned by 50 Belgian immigrants, all of whom worked in the factory. This arrangement derived from the European guild system, where laborers controlled the means of production. This, in their view, produced a more cost-efficient product and generated greater pay for the workers.
In the guild system, glassmakers and other craftspeople would apprentice for years to learn a specific skill. The guilds became tightly knit, invitation-only fraternities. In many instances, only the relatives of guild members were allowed to join. As such, crafts like glassmaking became family traditions, handed down from generation to generation. With glassmaking essentially a family secret, these skilled craftsmen held a corner on the labor market. This inside knowledge also meant they had special insight into how a glass plant should be run.
An example of this Old World tradition was the Dumont family, who emigrated from Ransart, Belgium, and eventually ended up in South Charleston.