During the first decade of the 20th century, French was frequently spoken on the West Virginia streets of such communities as South Charleston, the North View section of Clarksburg, and the small town of Salem. These neighborhoods shared a connection to the window-glass industry, and the people speaking French often were Walloons, or French-speaking Belgians. About 1900, changes in window-glass manufacture brought thousands of immigrants from the Charleroi area of Belgium just when the industry was expanding into West Virginia to take advantage of cheap natural gas and large deposits of silica sand. For a generation, window-glass factories, many of which were worker-owned cooperatives, relied heavily on these Belgian immigrants to provide the skills necessary to make West Virginia a national center of production.
West Virginia’s Belgians came from an area economically similar to West Virginia. The Charleroi basin of the Hainaut province in Belgium was dependent upon coal mining, steel production, and window-glass manufacturing. The Belgians’ new homes in north-central West Virginia and the Kanawha Valley must have felt familiar.
They left Europe because the Belgian glass factories were struggling in the 1880s and 1890s. Equally important, workers had limited opportunities to voice their concerns either politically or economically. Belgian glassworkers found in the United States an effective trade union to represent their workplace concerns and the means to build a vibrant political movement advocating democratic socialism. In fact, some of these Belgian enclaves, including Star City near Morgantown and Adamston (now part of Clarksburg), elected Socialist mayors in the years before World War I. Aside from politics, Belgian ethnic communities also became famous for the cuisine, musical groups, social clubs, and celebrations composing the unique Belgian cultural heritage.
The technological changes that had made skilled Belgian workers so valuable, however, soon gave way to newer technologies that turned window-glass manufacture from a skilled craft to a mass-production industry. By the end of the 1920s, a few large corporations dominated the industry and machines replaced most of the skilled craftsmen. One exception, window-glass cutters, continued to provide opportunities to a new generation of Belgian-Americans. More than 70 years later, the Belgian-American Heritage Society keeps alive the history and culture of this fascinating ethnic group.
This Article was written by Ken Fones-Wolf
Last Revised on December 21, 2010
Barkey, Frederick. Cinderheads in the Hills: The Belgian Window Glass Workers of West Virginia. Charleston: West Virginia Humanities Council, 1988.