MILTON, W.Va. -- Phyllis Safreed said she has been visiting the Blenko Glass Co. in Milton for more than 30 years with her husband, Carroll.
Phyllis, 80, and Carroll, 84, of St. Albans, searched among tables of decorative glass pieces Saturday during the Fourth Annual Festival of Glass.
The event celebrated Blenko Glass's 90th anniversary.
The couple said they have been collecting Blenko glass pieces since the 1980s and they visit the gift shop every six to eight weeks.
They always buy their pieces in the same color, which they call "Blenko blue."
In recent years, high natural gas prices and a recession have hurt West Virginia's decorative glass companies.
In May, Blenko Glass filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with plans to continue operating but reorganize the company. In July, Fenton Art Glass Co. in Williamstown announced that it was halting production.
Phyllis Safreed said she doesn't know what she and Carroll would do if Blenko halted their production too.
"That would be awful," she said. "We've been collecting it for so many years."
Andy Blenko, a fourth-generation member of the family business, said the company has been able to stay afloat thanks to longtime customers such as the Safreeds. He said word of mouth has always been the company's best promotion and has prevented it from halting production.
"Decorative glass is a discretionary expense. We've felt the full effect of the recession," Blenko said. "It does seem like were climbing out of the worst of it now."
The annual festival helps bring in new customers and serves as an open house for the company's factory and glass-making classes, he said.
Patricia Earskine, 68, and her son, Stephen Earskine, 39, of St. Albans, said they have more than 40 Blenko pieces between them.
Together on Saturday, they took a class on making a wall clock from colored Blenko glass.
Patricia Earskine said her family has been collecting Blenko glass since she was a little girl. She said it's a shame that the art form is dying in West Virginia.
Stephen Earskine, a school counselor at Chesapeake Elementary School in Charleston, said he got into the hobby thanks to his mother and thinks the art needs to get more attention because it's something the state is known for.
"In this day and age when it's so hard to find things American, people should support West Virginia companies because it's American made," he said.
He said he has brought classes from his school on tours of the factory as part of a West Virginia history trip.
Hundreds of people toured the company's gift shop and factory Saturday, where the baking ovens can cause the room to exceed 140 degrees, said James McDonald, safety manager and tour guide for the company.
McDonald said Blenko Glass is working on running a smaller operation.
"I see the future of glass being smaller operations due to the overwhelming process of trying to run operations like Fenton or how Blenko was 20 years ago," he said. "The natural gas prices have doubled in the past five or six years. It's hurt the glass industry."
He said Blenko has stopped their factory production but continues to make limited edition pieces and offers tourists a chance to blow their own pieces.
He said he is unsure of the company's future sale, but is optimistic that they would always have a loyal following.
"I can't say we'll be here, but we're going to try," he said. "We have a good following and a good product."
Gail Alley, 58, of Grove City, Pa., learned how to blow her own glass decoration in the factory, which she shaped into a vase.
"I started to make a candy dish but I made a vase instead because I liked the shape that was coming out," she said.
When she heard about the company's financial troubles, Alley said she decided to come to the festival to make her own piece. She has several pieces but has never made her own.
"Glass is permanent. It stays there," she said. "I like glass because it is natural, it is originally made from sand and heat."
Pete and Cindy McCoy, from Columbus, Ohio, said they came to the factory after seeing some Blenko pieces during a weekend stay at The Greenbrier.
Cindy McCoy said she bought six water pitchers at $24 each to give out during Christmas. She said it's sad that the economy has taken a toll on local art.
"People have to buy it," she said. "We did our share."
Reach Travis Crum at travis.c...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163.