It all started in 1996, when Ellen Stohler and her husband were living in a small town in New Jersey. The last to get cable, they were excited to explore the various channels when they came across the shopping channel QVC. Bill Fenton of Fenton Art Glass was showcasing a beautiful Mulberry hand painted vase. “He was a wonderful man and the perfect spokesperson for Fenton,” Ellen says of Bill. Her husband fell in love with that hand painted vase, and they ended up placing an order for it. They were very pleased with their purchase, but it wasn’t until years later that the real collecting began.
Occasionally, Ellen and her husband would watch QVC and would buy a Fenton piece, but they were so busy with their careers at the time that collecting wasn’t on their radar. In 1998, they both retired and moved to Virginia. During the episodes of QVC, they would often hear about the Fenton Tent Sale. In 2004, they finally made the trip to Williamstown, West Virginia (where Fenton glass is manufactured) to check out this tent sale for themselves. They had a great time at the sale, but it was a trip to the gift shop that really wowed them. “We were bowled over with the beauty we saw. You had to walk around several times to absorb all of the glass on display.” This was the day that the serious collecting began.
What makes this collection so special is the wide variety of different types of glass. Ellen notes that Fenton made so many different types of glass in their 105 years of existence that it would be impossible for a serious collector to obtain every kind. The premier glass that Fenton manufactured is Burmese glass, which is made with uranium and real gold. If you shine a black light on this glass it will become fluorescent because of the uranium. In regular lighting, Burmese glass is yellow with a pinkish color rising to the top of the piece, creating an ombre effect. The reason for this pink glow is that when the glass is heated, the gold rises to the top. Another favorite glass of Ellen’s is called Favrene. The base of Favrene is cobalt glass, which creates a deep blue shade, but silver is used in the formula, giving it a beautiful silver sheen. Another special, luxurious glass is Cameo glass, where an artist will develop a design on the piece with several layers of carving.
Another type of Fenton glass are Fenton animals, which are among the most popular pieces by the company. Ellen has a collection of animals designed by Delmer Stowasser, who worked for Fenton in the mid-1980s. Stowasser made something called offhand glass, which is blown glass that’s made without a mold. He designed a series of tiny elephants, birds, and whales, which now sell for between $300 and $500 each.
One of Ellen’s favorite pieces is a blue Stowasser elephant. Fenton had a museum just above their gift shop, which was a collection of all the special Fenton pieces throughout the decades. This elephant was one of the items on display, and Ellen used to look at it and think about how much she would love for that elephant to be a part of her collection. When Fenton went bankrupt, they unfortunately had to sell some of their assets, and items from the museum went up for auction. In the last auction, the blue elephant was up for sale. Ellen told her husband, “If we get nothing else in this auction, I’m going home with the elephant.” She placed the winning bid, and the elephant was hers.
Ellen’s collection is on display all over her home! She has several curio cabinets filled with pieces from every decade, starting with the 1920s up until when Fenton closed in 2011. What is not on display is stored in plastic storage bins. Occasionally, she’ll rotate pieces to change up what’s on display. Ellen mentions that one thing that makes her collection so special is that many pieces are one-of-a-kind – so you won’t find them anywhere else. What’s more is that this collection has so many incredible stories behind it, giving it a special kind of sentimental value.
One such story involves a special encounter with Delmer Stowasser himself. Ellen and her husband became members of the national club, where they are still heavily involved, and they also regularly attend the national convention. 2014 was an exciting year for that convention, because the chairperson was able to get together Robert Barber, Dave Fetty, and Delmer Stowasser – all well-known Fenton glass artists. At the time, the factory was closed and not making any glass, but there was a building called Gabbert that was full of discarded glass shards that could be reused. Ellen and her husband were watching Robert and Dave make glass from the shards when they found themselves in a conversation with Delmer, who took a liking to them. Delmer ended up inviting them to his home, and then they took him out to dinner at his favorite restaurant. Then Delmer, a veteran, took them to a memorial park that sat high on a hill, overlooking the Ohio River. Two months after this pleasant encounter, Delmer passed away. “That’s a really pointed memory I have of a wonderful man, a hero, and a great glass maker.”