Editor’s note: This is part of an ongoing series about the people and events that have shaped the 200-year history of New Albany. Read all installments by clicking on the bicentennial link under the “seasonal content” header at newsandtribune.com
In today’s world, dirty windows might be the only thing that brings attention to paned glass. Yet back in the late 1800s, the business of making plate glass brought some much deserved interest — and an economic boost — to the city of New Albany. And it all started with a man named John B. Ford.
Back in the 1860s, Americans predominantly acquired their window glass from Europe. The importation costs made the product much more expensive. Seeing a market, businessmen in the United States began to experiment with making the glass at a cheaper price. Sounds easy right? As a country of go getters, America believed it could produce anything that any other nation manufactured and do it better. But making glass isn’t as clear as the product itself.
Nowadays we look through our window and see glass as a construction material. In the past, creating glass was much more. It was, in fact, an art form. Craftsmen from Europe worked on special machines to construct the pieces. Each pane, while still in its liquid state, was smoothed by hand for the purest, most polished look. In the beginning, American glass artisans couldn’t seem to get the process down in a way that would turn a profit.
Entering the glass stage about this time was Danville, Ky.-native Ford. A man from modest beginnings, the Kentuckian ran away from a saddle making apprenticeship at the age of 14 and made his way north to Greenville. When he turned 20, he married a local girl who taught him to read and write.
Eventually Ford would accumulate enough wealth to move down river to good ol’ New Albany, a place that he viewed as an entrepreneur’s Eden. Here he went into shipbuilding and iron works, and then founded John B. Ford & Co. Glass Works in 1865.
As John E. Kleber stated in “The Encyclopedia of Louisville,” Ford was a heck of a scientist but not much of a business man. Within a year, the company belonged to his debtors. As a final nail in the coffin to the venture, the buildings burned down in 1866.
Undeterred, Ford reentered the glass making business in 1867 with New Albany Glass Works. Learning from other factories, the entrepreneur brought over talented craftsmen from Europe to manufacture the glass. He also purchased the best glass making machines from the old country. While the company made predominantly window glass and mirrors, bottles and other glass objects were also produced.
After all the research and hard work, Ford’s product began to rival his European counterparts. According to Kleber, Ford received awards for his work and was even bestowed an honorable mention from the French Academy of Science. And, with the town as host to his complex, New Albany received a special distinction.
“The very first plate glass was hung there in the Hieb Building in 1870,” said Floyd County Historian David Barksdale. “Those pieces of glass stayed there into right before the 1937 flood. I think they were given to some family members. It was a tremendous industry we had here in New Albany, and again another first for New Albany. We were on the cutting edge numerous times back then during that time period.”
While the glass might have been exquisite, Ford’s business still wasn’t making a profit. To make matters worse, his own step-cousin, Washington C. DePauw, opened a glass manufacturing plant in New Albany called Star Glass Works. Ford might have had the brains, but DePauw had the money. In 1872, DePauw, the richest man in Indiana, acquired Ford’s company. At the age of 61, Ford left New Albany relatively broke, being forced out of the business he had founded. Once DePauw took over the money portion of the glass works industry here, things started to change. The name of the business was no exception, with the millionaire exchanging Star Glass Works for DePauw’s American Plate Glass Works in 1861.
Profits began to flow, and the company grew. In the 1896 book entitled “The Kings Handbook of the United States” by Moses Foster Sweetser, the author stated the company occupied more than 30 acres of land. Likewise, it became a leading industry in Indiana and the largest plate glass operation in America, if not the world. Klerber listed the amount of employees at the facility as between 1,500 and 2,000 men.
“It was said to positively affect every working person in New Albany, including the merchants who sold to the workers and the farmers who sold to the merchants,” Klerber said.
Unfortunately the same wheels of progress that brought glass making to New Albany in the end proved to be its downfall. You see, Ford didn’t give up after he lost his business to his cousin. Instead, he went to Jeffersonville and began a glass manufacturing plant there. In 1883, he and his sons moved to Pennsylvania and formed Pittsburgh Plate Glass. Here the industrialist discovered something new that would make the production process not only cheaper but better: natural gas. Coal needed to be shipped to the manufacturer and hand-fed to the flames, giving at times an uneven heat. Not natural gas.
Around the same time, this new fuel source was found in central and eastern Indiana. The plate glass manufacturers packed up their equipment and moved to these cheaper locations. A financial panic in 1893 didn’t help matters either. By 1900, the once thriving plate glass industry had disappeared from New Albany.
Founding numerous successful ventures following New Albany, Ford would later be known as the father of the plate glass industry. He died in 1903, shortly after the trade he helped to start in our river city suffered a similar fate.
— Contributing Writer Amanda Beam