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Mr. John Furch came to Canada from his native Czecheslovakia, where he had been trained as a blacksmith and welder. Adept in manufacturing the tools of his trade, including furnaces and kilns, it is believed that he opened a glass blowing plant in Ontario, before moving to Medicine Hat in 1950. The major impediment in the glass blowing industry at that time, was the difficulty in obtaining qualified glass workers in Canada; most such tradesmen had usually been trained in Europe where the trade was centuries old. The attraction to establish at Medicine Hat was largely dependant upon the availability of low cost gas, as consumption by the plant was close to 500,000 cubic feet per month. As President and Manager of the plant, Mr. Furch oversaw the manufacturing of vases, figurines, bowls, lamp bases, ash trays and other hand processed articles in a wide variety of colors and color combinations. Les Stagg, a son-in-law, also learned the trade following his marriage to John's daughter Margaret. During the first 10 years, John and Les worked together with various glassblowers and helpers, the nearest worker coming from Redcliff while others were obtained from Germany, Czecheslovakia, Poland, Scotland, Holland and Hungary. In the late 1960's, Altaglass employed two Spanish glassblowers, who contributed greatly to the design line with their Venetian styled vases. They were Manuel Esteban, who was with Altaglass for 16 years until his retirement, and his partner, Francisco Ribas, who worked there for 21 years. In the early stages of manufacturing, Altaglass vases, bowls etc., were blown into wooden molds. Eventually however, molds were replaced by a casting process. From 1950 to 1981, Altaglass also manufactured paperweights, a unique item which many people collected. Another very popular item was the swan shaped candy dish, which were created in the early 1950's. The ingredients of the glass were silica sand, which comes from Ottawa, Illinois and Winnipeg, soda ash from Amherstburg, Ontario, and potash from Niagara Falls. Each day, the glass ingredients would be mixed in late afternoon, so it could be placed in the furnace at once, to avoid contamination by dust and dirt. The glass batch was then melted overnight at 2,700 degrees F, and by morning it was ready to be worked. The Altaglass plant did not recycle other glass in the manufacturing process, but chose to use only the raw materials which was prepared by themselves. On December 29, 1976, John Furch died at the age of 80. He had worked at the local plant until he was 75, not missing a day of work. In 1977, the Altaglass plant has been kept going by Les and Margaret Stagg and a very limited staff. Tourists and school children were welcomed for tours of the facility, and a gift shop was kept open for those seeking souvenirs of their visit. Charles Sinclair, the last to be hired by the plant, was hired in 1979, having relocated with his family from England. Mr. Sinclair left the operation in 1981. As in England, he did lamp work, and created other unique Altaglass pieces. In 1981, when the furnace was shut down for repair, it was decided not to be put it back into working order again due to an abundance of stock, as well as high operating costs. Altaglass finally closed its doors in the early 1990s. The Esplanade Arts & Heritage Centre in Medicine Hat holds many Altaglass pieces in their permanent collection.


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Esplanade Archives

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