The Legend and Phantom Folk

Legends are stories that are often based on or inspired by real historic happenings. Sometimes facts (or echoes of what might have actually transpired) are embellished or exaggerated to a point where the story seems rather incredulous. Where the line between real and imagined gets blurred.

The Legend of the Gathers is one such story. 

Though a fictional tale, The Legend explores a very important event in local (and world) history: when young inventor Thomas Edison sent someone from his company to the small town of Corning, New York. According to some historic accounts, Edison sent a representative (which may or may not have been William Meadowcroft) to Corning Flint Glass Works sometime in 1879 or 1880 to see if the company could make the special glass containers for his incandescent lamps, as the glass needed to be able to withstand the intense heat generated by the electricity passing through the filament. 

Inside the Factory Illustrations pages 12-13 from The Legend of the Gathers picture book, art by Erin Nowak
Inside the Factory Illustrations from The Legend of the Gathers picture book, art by Erin Nowak

You can read more about the Historic Event here

What lends itself to the stuff of legend, however, is the story that while there Edison’s representative noticed one of the shop boys gathering molten glass from the furnace and playfully swinging his metal pipe before blowing the bubble that would change the course of history for the glass company and for the community. 

A young boy whose identity has, more or less, remained a mystery. 

Young Frederick Deuerlein courtesy Sara Rosplock
Young Frederick Deuerlein courtesy Sara Rosplock

While rooted in history, legends often have a larger-than-life magnificence to them and, occasionally, a sense of mystery that makes them so much more than ordinary stories. 

Our legend certainly has a sense of mystery as well, for it appears years later three different men—Frederick F. Deuerlein, Joseph Baxter, and James Goggin—claimed to have been the boy who blew that first bubble of glass. 

The Days of Incandescence Guided Tour 2019
The Days of Incandescence Guided Tour 2019 courtesy Kevin Peterson

This simple contradiction makes it difficult to say with one-hundred-percent certainty which (if any) of the three men had been the actual boy. 

Of course, that ambiguity allowed us to add a supernatural twist to the historic event when we created our fictional version of the story titled The Legend of the Gathers: Protectors of the Light in which phantom folk known as Gathers appear each October in order to help get light out into the world. In our story, the mysterious boy who blew that first bubble was a young Gather. 

In many ways the real boy who is an indelible part of Corning's history was, himself, a source of light not unlike The Gathers. No small feat for any boy, real or fantastical. 

The legend, not so coincidentally, also aligns with the season of Halloween which is known for magic and supernatural happenings. 

Frederick Deuerlein Historic Photo courtesy Sara Rosplock
Frederick Deuerlein Historic Photo courtesy Sara Rosplock

A Very Real Boy

Despite our inability to definitively identify who blew that first bubble, some documentation provided by the family of Frederick Deuerlein suggest that their great grandfather may have been the boy in question.

Frederick Deuerlein Historic Family Photo
Frederick Deuerlein Historic Family Photo courtesy Sara Rosplock

In looking through articles written around the time of his passing, one thing is quite evident: Frederick Deuerlein was a beloved member of the Corning community, as well as a long-tenured and very respected employee of Corning Glass Works (CGW). 

It appears that, unbeknownst to his parents, Frederick began his career with the Glass Works (as it used to be known) at the age of twelve. A few years later, he was part of the shop that blew the first glass bulbs for Thomas Edison.

As of yet, we haven't encountered any documentation made by the company at that time as to who blew the first bubble. That auspicious day in history was, at the time at least, perhaps simply perceived as just another day where the glassworkers attempted to create something for a customer.

We wonder if any of that crew, led by gaffer James Lear, could have predicted just how profound an impact that glass product would have on the world or how ubiquitous it would become.

Frederick Deuerlein Fisherman courtesy Sara Rosplock
Frederick Deuerlein Fisherman courtesy Sara Rosplock

By the time of his retirement in 1936, Frederick Deuerlein had worked for CGW for 60 years.

A glassworker for 45 of those years, Frederick was called a “true friend” by Amory Houghton, who along with his brother Charles, brought Brooklyn Flint Glass Works to Corning over 150 years ago. Frederick was, according to Amory, a “real institution in the company.”

In looking at the historic family photographs his great grandchildren graciously shared with us, as well as the sundry articles that assert that Frederick was the person who blew the first bubble, it is quite apparent that he was the sort of person to whom people felt connected. One of the documents shared with us is a resolution from a fellow Alderman (that's right, Frederick was involved in serving the local community as an alderman himself) indicating that there was a consensus of opinion that "in the death of Fred F. Deuerlein we have all sustained a deep and abiding loss."

The family photos also reveal that Frederick loved fishing and was rather adept at the sport.

While a newspaper article from the time of his death alludes to Frederick’s assertion that he blew the bulb “which is believed to be the first one ever made,” there do appear to be a few discrepancies within the same article, such as an allusion to Frederick conferring “with a young inventor named Thomas Edison.” However, there does not appear to be any evidence that puts Edison, himself, in Corning. 

Some historic accounts suggest that someone from CGW may have gone to Menlo Park to discuss the company making glass containers for Edison's incandescent lamp. Other accounts—like those by Thomas Dimitroff in History of the Corning-Painted Post area: 200 years in Painted Post country—suggest that Edison sent a representative to Corning.

Of course, that disparity doesn't actually preclude the possibility that Frederick was the mysterious young boy, but it does intimate a lack of irrefutable and definitive proof either way. In essence, it keeps a perhaps somewhat slight window of uncertainty still opened. 

In a different print publication from 1954, the caption of a photograph about the blowing of the world’s largest light bulb taking place in Corning that January also states "Just 75 years ago the late Frederick Deuerlein, as a young Corning Glass Works employee, blew the bulb blanks for Mr. Edison's first incandescent lamp."

Though there is, doubtless, more research to be done and more archives to be searched with regards to this matter, because none of the newspaper articles provide primary source references it is nearly impossible to assert with absolute certainty that Frederick Deuerlein was, in fact, the mysterious boy who blew that first bubble.

Yet, all the aforementioned documentation certainly does suggest that it is very possible he was that boy. 

Frederick Deuerlein Family courtesy Sara Rosplock
Frederick Deuerlein Historic Family Photo courtesy Sara Rosplock

Frederick Deuerlein spent much of his life devoted to (and as an integral member of) the Corning Glass Works company and the culture of glass around which the town has grown. A culture that permeates the local community to this day.

You might even say that glass seems to have been in Frederick's blood, as members of his family continue to work for the company today.

Given just how revered their great grandfather was by those who worked for the company and for his various contributions to the town, it’s obvious Frederick Deuerlein was an inspiration who left his mark on the community. 

Regardless of whether or not he was, in fact, the boy in question, we continue to respect, appreciate, and celebrate the accomplishments of Frederick and the other members of James Lear’s crew at the time. According to historic accounts, once James Lear saw the shape that Edison’s representative wanted (the one the boy blew), he and his team were able to create on that first day “165 bulbs satisfactory to Mr. Edison” . . . “and it took all day to make them.” 

On November 17, 1880, Corning sent 307 dozen bulb blanks to Edison and in the first year (1880) Corning made 3,684 bulbs (also known as blanks) for Edison. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Oh, yes, and the stuff of legend!

More information about this and other important historic moments can be found in The Generations of Corning: The Life and Times of a Global Corporation by Davis Dyer and Daniel Gross.

Frederick Deuerlein historic photo courtesy Sara Rosplock
Frederick Deuerlein historic photo courtesy Sara Rosplock

Illuminating the World

Pause a moment and take a look around you. How many ways are light bulbs part of your everyday life? Can you even imagine a time before electric lights were possible? Back when gas lanterns and torches and candles were the most common ways of illuminating a home or space.

The Legend of the Gathers is more than an historical retelling, and it is also more than supernatural fiction. While portraying a real event in local and world history, the story also explores the theme of light and how this one invention (which we tend to take for granted today) allowed Thomas Edison to share light with the world at large.

Young Frederick Deuerlein, as well as gaffer James Lear, and others from the small town of Corning, New York played an integral role in that very significant historic event. 

Learn more about The Legend of the Gathers story as well as where to get your very own copy of the middle grade chapbook or the new beautifully illustrated picture book here