It’s hard to believe that in state whose largest private employer is Wal-Mart that so much industry once existed. West Virginia’s history goes beyond coal and chemicals. Here are five West Virginia industries you may have forgotten.
West Virginia used to be known world-wide for its pottery and clay products. It’s believed the first pottery in the state was established in Morgantown before 1785. The center of our pottery industry shifted to the Northern Panhandle. In fact, in 1948, the Homer Laughlin China company produced over 10 million dishes.
Several other large potteries were found elsewhere in the state, like H.R. Wyllie China Company in Huntington or the Bowers plant in Mannington, Marion County. The Bowers Plant was once the largest manufacturer of toilets in the world.
Also important to the Northern Panhandle was the steel industry. The first Iron furance appeared in Jefferson County in the Eastern Panhandle in 1760. The industry focused on Wheeling however primarily because of its location on the Ohio River. Wheeling produced so many nails during the 1800’s it was known as “the nail city.”
By 1950, the iron and steel industries employed nearly 23,000 in West Virginia; the overwhelming majority of those in the Northern Panhandle. Eventually, facing competition from cheap foreign steel, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2000. Weirton Steel followed suit in 2003.
Driven by large sand reserves in the Eastern Panhandle and cheap natural gas, the glass industry exploded in West Virginia in the late 19th century. Early in the 20th Century, Fostoria’s glass factory in Moundsville was the largest tableware factory in the country. Window glass was also important; two huge factories could be found in Clarksburg and Charleston.
A Point Pleasant-native named Michael Owens perfected a completely automatic glass-bottle blowing machine in the early part of the 20th century. His company operated plants in Charleston, Fairmont and Huntington until the 1980s. In 1910, glass was the state’s 4th largest employer.
Few Charlestonians realize just how important the salt industry was to the Kanawha Valley and the development of their city. Through the early part of American History, salt was largely imported—until a major, usable salt lick was found in the Kanawha Valley. The valley produced so much salt that by 1817, salt makers in the area had to come together to regulate their production to control prices.
The industry peaked by 1850 as stronger salt sources were found in the west and the railroad allowed for easy transportation. The salt licks, however, would play an important role in developing the valley’s chemical industry.
At the turn of the century, nearly half of all workers in Martinsburg in the Eastern Panhandle worked in the textile industry. In fact, the country’s first electric-powered textile factory, Middlesex Knitting Company (eventually known as Interwoven), was established there in 1890. Interwoven would eventually become the largest men’s hosiery plant in the world.
After World War I, however, the garment industry turned away from cotton and wool to focus on more synthetic materials. In 1947, some 14,000 people worked in textile-related jobs here. By 2010, less than 200 did, mostly working in small shops scattered across the state.