On the history of Rõika, Laashoone, and Meleski
Coming from Kolga-Jaani we’ll reach the Village of Lalsi; within the village boundary on the Põltsamaa River are Rõika and Laashoone, and Meleski is within a stone’s throw. All these places are quiet and abandoned now, but they are reminders of our glorious past. The Glass Factory that operated at Meleski was the second largest in the Russian Empire and the largest in the Baltic states.
The initiator was an enterprising landlord at Vana-Põltsamaa Woldemar Johann von Lauw, who, together with Heinrich von Lilienfeldt, Lord of Uue-Põltsamaa Manor, established a major industrial centre in the Governorate of Livonia, which comprised several small enterprises, including a glassworks. From this humble beginning grew the Rõika-Meleski Glass Factory. Lauw’s first glassworks was established at Utsali, on the Pedja River, his second glassworks, called Laashoone was established in 1764 near the Rõika forester’s place on the Põltsamaa River. He had a few other glassworks and, in 1781, he built a mirror factory. There was enough wood to be used as fuel. The masters and artisans in the glass factory were mostly German, some of the workers were Estonian and Finnish, and among freemen there were also serfs. After Lauw died, the glass factory was rented out.
In the late 18th century Rõika and Meleski were owned by the Amelungs. The Amelungs had a successful mirror factory in Germany, but when Catherine II introduced high taxes on glass imports in order to promote the development of glass industry in Russia, the Amelungs’ fortunes were reversed. Some of the Amelungs went to America, Anton Christian Friedrich Amelung and his son Carl Philip went to live in St. Petersburg. And by chance new opportunities opened up. While driving home from a party at night, the coach of young Amelung ran into the coach of Rautenfeld, a Livonian landlord, and Carl Philip took the injured Rautenfeld home. This acquaintance led to the idea, first put forward by Carl Philip, to establish a glass factory in Livonia. A company was founded that rented the glassworks abandoned by Lauw. This was in 1792. After two years’ time the factory was moved to the land of Võisiku Manor.
In 1794 Anton Amelung came to Võisiku and built a glass factory on the marshy land in the forest. He brought with him 40 families (200 people) from Germany. They settled at Rõika, where there was a small flour mill. Meleski was a complete wilderness in those days. The beginning was difficult, winters were extremely cold, mosquitoes were a nuisance, and Amelung and his two sons lived, like their workers, in a shack without a floor heated by a temporary furnace.
By 1795 both the Rõika and Meleski factories had been built. One of the company’s owners was von Bock, Lord of Võisiku Manor, who allotted a piece of land and sent 60 sturdy serfs and provided wood for the factory. The factories were named after von Bock’s wife and daughter: Catharina at Rõika and Lisette at Meleski. Meleski factory had furnaces for glass melting, Rõika had polishing mills.
Võisiku landlords are described in a book entitled The Czar’s Madman by the Estonian author Jaan Kross. After Anton Amelung died in 1798 the factories were rented out and the business was in a decline.
In 1806 the factories were taken over by Carl Philip Amelung, the same man whose idea it was to establish the factory. He moved to Rõika and bought out the shares of other owners. After his death in 1817 the director of the factory was Carl Philip’s son Carl Georg Amelung, under whose management the factory prospered. For transporting the produce and the raw materials the Põltsamaa River was deepened, the Emajõgi was dredged, and channels were dug. He commissioned the first Estonian steamboat, which was used for both business and pleasure. Vigorous building activity continued at Rõika. The factory village had already more than 800 inhabitants. There were Germans, Russians and Estonians, who all worked side by side in the factory. After Carl Georg Amelung died in 1856, the factory was managed by Alexander Grauben, a relative of the Amelungs. And the factory flourished.
In 1864 the factory’s management was taken over by Friedrich Amelung, who was helped by his cousin, the famous chemist Hermann Benrath.
Rõika Glass Factory in the mid-19th c. After W. S. Stavenhagen.
In 1866 a new factory building was completed at Meleski, its granite walls are still standing. The business prospered and slowly the number of Estonians, who learned the trade of glass making, also grew.
Friedrich Amelung was a man of diverse interests. As his grandfather Carl Philip, he was one of the leading chess players in Russia. He was also a cultural historian. And he had another passion – cards. He sold his factories in 1902 partly to pay for his card debts.
The period of the Amelungs was over. They had managed the Rõika and Meleski factories for more than a century (1792–1902). This was the golden age of glass making at Rõika and Meleski. The factory was prospering and the area was well developed. The factory workers lived in the factory village, their living and fuel was free of charge, there was a sauna, and they had some gardening allotments. There were two schools for the workers’ children; there was a hospital at each factory to deal with epidemics; the elderly or disabled people were paid a pension; the bereaved employees were also supported until their children came of age. The Amelungs certainly did take care of their workers.
Meleski Glass Factory in the mid-19th c. After W. S. Stavenhagen.
At the beginning of the new century the factory continued to operate, but the breakout of WWI and the loss of the Russian market crippled the industry.
In 1914 the production of mirrors was discontinued and the Rõika factory was closed down. In 1917 Meleski was closed down as well. The new owners did not start with the production after the war and the machinery, although in perfect working order, was sold as scrap metal. Estonian glass industry stagnated. With the economic recovery, production at Meleski was resumed, although it was not mirrors but bottles, jars, glasses, decanters, and other hollowware from blown and pressed glass that was produced now. There were about 400 glass moulds. About two hundred workers were employed, and a school for glass making was opened at Meleski.
In 1924 the factory was rented out to Johannes Lorup. Under the young and educated manager with good business acumen the factory thrived until the great depression of the 1930s. In 1933, having lost all hope of reviving production, Lorup closed down the Meleski factory and, taking many workers with him, went to Tallinn, where he set up a new factory. Soon new glass industries cropped up and in order to be able to compete the Meleski and Lorup’s factories formed a monopoly. But soon Estonia underwent big changes.
In 1940 the Soviets nationalised Lorup’s factory and it was merged with the glass factories at Meleski and Tartu. The new factory was named Tarbeklaas. The factory did not suffer any substantial damage during WWII. During the German occupation period the factory did not operate. When the Red Army invaded again, Meleski factory happened to be near the frontline. The factory survived thanks to two workers, Nikolai Dreving and Otto Kass who had come home from the war and thwarted the German plans to blow up the factory buildings.
Work at the Meleski factory continued after the war, but there were frequent stoppages. It seemed as if the management was more occupied with the struggle against anti-Soviet elements and party meetings than organising things at the factory. There was a rapid decline.
In 1955 the factory specialised in the production of bottles of green glass. In 1960 the Meleski Glass Factory was merged with the Tartu Building Materials Plant and in 1965 the Meleski department was reconstructed. The then director Heino Koort tried to improve things at Meleski, but he could not do much as he left soon. The directors changed, the factory and Meleski inhabitants suffered hardships. When Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he restricted alcohol consumption, and the demand for bottles decreased. The Tartu head office decided to put an end to glass production at Meleski.
In 1987 the last bottle was produced at the Meleski factory. For a couple of years rubber panel sealants were produced instead, in 1992 the factory was finally closed down.
The factory buildings have changed owners and each owner has taken what there was to take. In 1993 the office building and the factory museum established by Heino Koort were destroyed in a fire. Currently the factory buildings are owned by the NGO Living Environment and the ruins of the glass factory are called Meleski Culture Factory.
Life at Meleski has practically died out now. And it is a pity. If you walk around the ruins of the glass factory that has the longest history in Estonia you might find a piece of glittering history lying in the grass – the flawed or defective products were used to pave the roads or as infills in the surroundings.
A very interesting account of the history of Rõika–Meleski glass factory is presented by Ville Dreving in his book The Three Centuries of Meleski Glass Factory. Our story is based on this book.
But now it is time to leave the past behind and proceed on our journey.
Daila Aas, September 2014
Ville Dreving. Meleski klaasivabriku kolm sajandit. Eesti Ajalookirjastus, Tartu 2013.