The First Sea Glass Festival

By Richard Lamotte

A tribute to that sea glass pioneer, Joanne Schreiber

Each fall tourists head to New England on a quest to view and photograph the fleeting autumn colors adorning the trees. However, on October 9, 2004, travelers with other goals arrived at the tiny seaside town of Rockport, Massachusetts. There they witnessed the birth of a new creative industry, one also driven by individuals in search of glorious colors

Earlier that year, a local artist and musician had met dozens of people on the beaches surrounding Cape Ann who were picking up pieces of glass and pottery among the wrack and stones. She began asking them if they would be interested in joining a sea glass community that she and a friend created online called Between the Tides. That summer she asked her new group if they would be interested in hosting a sea glass festival. Their resounding approval fortunately came with offers for help.

Joanne Schreiber and Nancy Larson

Joanne and Nancy "At The Office"

Joanne Schreiber was never known to be shy. She was a very generous person who was interested in sharing her passion and her art with everyone she met. Joanne had recently begun creating mosaics with her multi-colored pieces of history, so as an active member of the local seARTS community, she was highly motivated to start the first-ever sea glass festival. Assisted by jeweler Nancy Larson, the two quickly gathered enough support to find a location and date. Next they began reaching out to other artisans with mutual interests in the venture such as Jackie Ganim-DeFalco and Jo-Ann Castano. I recall getting my first call from Joanne Schreiber that August.

She had a fresh copy of Pure Sea Glass. My book had only been in print for two months, but Joanne was convinced that if I came to speak, she could attract 100 to 200 people to her inaugural event. Her infectious enthusiasm echoed the confidence of a woman on a mission. I agreed to participate, and she began contacting me more regularly to discuss various ideas. During our second call, we discussed changing the event name before the press releases went out. The title of the Gloucester Sea Glass Festival seemed too local, whereas the Northeast Sea Glass Festival could expand her potential reach to nearby Boston and states beyond. Joanne and the committee agreed, and they got busy announcing the first-ever sea glass festival.

Vendors and collectors came from as far south as North Carolina and as far west as Ohio. Most of us met for the first time that Saturday morning as we poured into a charming historic schoolhouse with two modest rooms. The larger of the two housed about a dozen vendors and special collectors that Joanne carefully selected. The smaller room was a dining and kitchen area that served as the lecture hall and the craft hall, where local children sat with parents to create their own sea glass art. Joanne had a very strong team assisting her, yet it was clear she spent countless hours preparing and planning, even reluctantly turning away eager vendors due to limited space.

While the committee hoped to host 100 to 200 visitors, Joanne was elated and exasperated when over 500 showed up. She had to abandon her booth for most of the day to assist with crowd control and manage everyone’s needs. In the end, all left with a smile, new inspirations, and many memories. In her summary email to participating vendors, Joanne’s formal count was 550 paid attendees—a rousing success! Of the few collectors’ exhibits that were set up, one hosted local twin boys about 8-years-old with a stunning and diverse collection of well-worn pieces in rare colors. Their sea gems were neatly displayed on scalloped foam, similar in form to a large egg carton. Every piece was neatly protected, yet gloriously presented. The next time I saw the boys, they were attending a national festival and preparing for college.

One of the most gallant efforts to reach the Rockport gathering was by a team of four dedicated individuals from Nags Head, North Carolina. They boarded a train in Norfolk, Virginia with a massive 1950s-era steamship trunk that shocked the contemporary Amtrak staff. Inside the trunk was a copious portion of the most extraordinary sea glass and artifacts collection ever gathered from the Atlantic shores. From the 1920s until the 1980s, Nellie Myrtle Pridgeon traversed the beaches and dunes of the Outer Banks daily to assemble what I later referred to as the “immaculate collection.” Since she never married, one might consider beachcombing her true love. The collection displayed not only massive jars of rare sea glass but miscellaneous objects that echoed the history of our country, plus artifacts from Europe and beyond. Included was one of the rarest pieces I have ever seen, the neck of a German Bellarmine jug showing an unmistakable face and flowing beard that once graced the pages of National Geographic. It was in that magazine Nellie discovered the unique match, confirming the piece’s origin as from a ceramic vessel from the late 1500s to early 1600s that was either lost at sea or its contents consumed nearby.

Chaz Winkler and Dorothy Hope did the heavy lifting during their journey for Nellie’s aging daughter Carmen Gray and husband Billy Gray. The latter were seasoned veterans of many years on the Outer Banks and were never able to attend another sea glass festival before passing away a few years later. Chaz said the two veterans always spoke very fondly about their great adventure to Rockport.

Another group of long-distance travelers were jewelers Jennifer and Terri Reed of Relish in Erie, Pennsylvania. They arrived with a proficient, metro-style flair that shined brightly within the modest schoolhouse. Most of us simply placed our wares on provided wooden tables, while they came far more prepared. The Reed sisters were one of a few early pioneers in sea glass jewelry prior to 2004.

The other author in the room was Carole Lambert, who brought copies of her book Sea Glass Chronicles featuring an array of information on local glass and ceramics from her New England collection. This was my first opportunity to meet her, and she graciously said the release of my book was also helping hers sell at that time. Together, they were stimulating widespread interest in sea glass collecting. During the festival, she shared her booth with a faithful friend—her dear old, long-haired dachshund who was too ill to be left home.

sea glass festival lectures

Joanne asked me to lecture on sea glass and invited local historian James Craig to lecture on the China Trade that was so prevalent in nearby Gloucester. Vast numbers of colonial ships once landed there to offload their wares in this North Shore harbor, about 40 miles northeast of Boston. As a result, the region was likely the most prolific place for finding ceramic pieces in North America.

After the event, most of the vendors joined Joanne at Captain Carlo’s seafood restaurant. She was exhausted and short of breath. I recall her saying she needed air, so I went outside with her where we shared a bench. Joanne was having trouble breathing, a deep cough, maybe it was even an early fall cold. We both had no idea it was something more serious. During the next five to six months, we searched for new larger venues in the region. Joanne seemed sold on the Topsfield Fairground building and was getting close to signing a contract when she got the diagnosis of lung cancer that May. Joanne put up a chivalrous fight, and many members of the sea glass community, including numerous sellers not even at the show, donated items for an auction to raise money for her. Just before Christmas of 2005, I got a call from Charles Peden who wanted to speak about starting a national sea glass organization. But days later, on December 30th, Joanne succumbed to her illness.

Many years and several computers later, I managed to find one of Joanne’s emails that resonates her excitement just after the first sea glass festival. It was her message to the vendors a week after the festival on Sunday, October 17, 2004.

Hi Y'all,
Pretty fantastic festival all the way around with 550 attendees traveling from 14 states across the country and even Canada to participate. This doesn't include exhibitors. Whohoooo! I want to thank you all for being part of this historic occasion. I have already started planning for the 2nd annual Northeast SEA Glass Festival for next year. I will probably hold the festival around the same time of year...mid-Oct. Also stay tuned for other events I will plan for the Spring for local sea glass enthusiasts. I would like to hear from you. Can you please tell me in a couple of sentences or so, "What was most memorable about your first sea glass festival?" I will be including some of your responses in the next issue of the Between the Tides Network Newsletter.

Joanne, you remain the “most memorable” pioneer of our colorful hobby and creative industry.

sea glass festival organizers

2004 Sea Glass Festival Players

This article appeared in the Glassing Magazine July 2017 issue.

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