Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

One of the last bastions of Norman Rockwell's America endures under Beri Fox's tender care.

Fox, 63, presides over Marble King, the nation's sole surviving manufacturer of marbles. Born in an era when no kid's pocket was without its bag of aggies, the factory still produces a million marbles a day, serving the toy, industrial, and decor markets. If you love Steven Spielberg films or shop at Altar'd State apparel stores, then likely you have seen Marble King's products. If you are eligible for AARP, then likely you have played with them.

Ringed by rainbow mounds of shattered glass, Marble King's low-slung factory resides in Paden City, West Virginia. The region's abundance of natural gas and sand deposits supported glass manufacturing in the 19th century, which in turn spawned a marble industry in the 1920s. Marble King's raw material is broken and discarded glass donated by local glass companies for recycling. "We said we can give you a new life," Fox says. "You can be a broken piece of glass and we can transition you into something beautiful again."

Each day, the company's 22 employees melt 4,500 pounds of glass in a hand-built furnace. After eight hours in the fiery maw, the glass is shaped into diminutive orbs by rollers. Each marble undergoes automated quality control and inspection by hand. Marble King also manufactures small amounts of its own glass from proprietary recipes for colors it can't find elsewhere.

Across the road from the plant, buses disgorge tourists and school groups at the gift shop, which houses a 12-foot ring modeled on one at the National Marbles Tournament. (Marble King has been a tournament sponsor since 1968, each year presenting the winner with a $2,000 scholarship for post-secondary education.) In the shop, "we explain the rules, and the kids just naturally pick it up," Fox says. "I play with them, which is fun for a corporate executive."

That a place like this still exists where kids can learn Ringer (arrange 13 marbles in an X inside a circle and be the first to knock out seven) is testament to Marble King's resilience through upheavals in taste and trade, as well as personal tragedy. "When other manufacturers tried to compete on price and couldn't do that, Marble King consistently strove to be the best marble maker in the world," says Gerald Witcher, a veteran collector who owns several hundred thousand marbles, including many from Marble King. "The quality is what has kept them afloat in an environment where others couldn't compete."

"This company," he adds, "has probably seen as many changes in its history as any corporation in America."

Cat's eyes and fire

The original Marble King was Berry Pink. Pink (for whom Beri Fox is named) repped marbles for the Peltier Glass Company in the 1930s and '40s. He moved so much product that his employer couldn't keep up. So Pink and Sellers Peltier, one of Peltier's owners, set up a separate marbles-only plant, in the former Alley Agate marble factory, in St. Mary's, West Virginia. Pink was the roving ambassador: selling around the country, hosting tournaments, and handing out marbles wherever he went.

"Marbles were the video games of their day," Fox says. "Kids played in schoolyards, ball fields, parking lots. They would draw the circles in chalk or in the dirt with their fingers." But marbles weren't just for play. When they weren't playing with marbles, they were collecting them.

Pink sold chiefly to five-and-dime stores like G.C. Murphy and F.W. Woolworth. The product came in small bags, each containing several standard game marbles and one or two slightly larger shooters. Marble King was known for its brilliant colors--reds and yellows were standouts--and for patch and ribbon designs, with a splotch of color on one side and two additional circular splotches on the other.

That first year the founders hired Roger Howdyshell as office manager. He was soon running the place, and ushered in a period of innovation. Most notably he developed a process called veneering that coats an orb of inexpensive white glass with colored glass rather than using colored glass throughout. That significantly reduced costs. 

He also produced the first American-made cat's-eyes, a style that originated in Japan. Howdyshell visited Japanese factories in 1956 to see if he could import the clear marbles with their distinctive colorful inserts. When trade law prevented his securing enough, he figured out how to make them instead. 

In 1958, Marble King burned to the ground, and Howdyshell moved the business 30 miles north to a former glass factory in Paden City. "It was a temporary home," Fox says. "And we are still here."

Playtime is over

Kids played marbles--the game. They also played with marbles in games. By the early '60s, Marble King had become a supplier to companies like Mattel and Pressman Toy, which included its products in Aggravation, Hungry Hungry Hippos, Chinese checkers, and many others.

Marbles also found their way into fashion. Fractured glass marbles were heated at high temperatures and then bathed in cold water to create a crackled effect. Marble King sold them to consumers and jewelry makers for use in necklaces and earrings.

At its peak in the '60s and '70s, Marble King employed 240 people and produced around two million marbles a day. Roger Howdyshell and his wife, Jean Howdyshell, bought Marble King outright in 1981. Then came the double whammy: offshoring and video games. Game manufacturers began outsourcing production and assembly, substituting cheap Asian and Mexican marbles in the process. And demand dropped as child's play went two-dimensional.

"That was the majority of our business, and we realized it was not coming back," Fox says. "We had to develop a strategy where all our marbles were not in one bag."

Today, just 15 to 20 percent of Marble King's revenue derives from the toy and game market. About 45 percent is industrial applications. The company's marbles are used in water filtration systems, to mix paint in spray cans--even in tests conducted on board NASA spacecraft. Marble King also operates a test site for large manufacturers experimenting with new formulas for glass.

Architectural firms account for another 20 percent. Design engineers incorporate marbles into backlit murals and wall panels for aquariums, hospitals, and other venues. Recently, Altar'd State, an apparel chain for young women, installed walls--each comprising 45,000 marbles--in 58 of its stores. 

The rest of the market is chiefly decor: color-coordinated marbles for display in vases and bowls--sometimes covered in water or illuminated by LEDs--at hotels and for weddings and other events. "We've done party colors for political conventions," says Fox, who declines to specify the party.

Brushes with fame

Over the years, pop culture has occasionally boosted Marble King back to prominence. In 1985, Steven Spielberg--a marbles enthusiast--called Roger Howdyshell about incorporating the company's product as a plot point in the cult movie The Goonies. Marble King marbles later performed cameos in the films Hook and Home Alone. "In Home Alone, the boy throws them on the floor for the burglars to trip on them, which is not recommended," Fox says.

And in the late '90s, Marble King supplied 500,000 marbles a week for Pokémon games. "We knew it would be short-term, like the pet rock," says Fox. Unexpectedly, the orders continued for more than three years.

For the family, personal setbacks overshadowed industry travails. The five Howdyshell children grew up close: Roger Howdyshell's built-in test market for Marble King products. Then in 1988, Fox's youngest brother died in a car accident. The following year, a second car accident paralyzed another brother. Roger Howdyshell died in 1991. Fox, who had been his assistant, became vice president under her mother. She succeeded as president in 2003 at her mother's death.

Since then, Fox has become an evangelist for American manufacturing. In 2015, one of her speeches caught the attention of Stephen Colbert, who invited her on The Colbert Report. Martha Stewart--another marble fancier--was also a guest on that program. She invited Fox onto her show as well. There, Fox explained the marble-making process, demonstrated a musical marble tree, and distributed bags of marbles to the audience.

"Martha was terrific. Marbles were a big part of her childhood memories," Fox says. "But we did not play."

Published on: Sep 24, 2018