The flags were still waving along the main road in Paden City, West Virginia when I visited a few days after the 4th of July. One of the patriotic themes lived out every day in this small Ohio River town is making and buying things in America. When I had the privilege of touring the Marble King factory with owner Beri Fox, she explained to me why she had a framed shadowbox from NASA on her office wall. The US space agency wanted to do some scientific tests on glass and decided that marbles would work precisely right for the mission. As a thank you, NASA created a special gauge for the National Marbles Tournament that Marble King sponsors each year.
|Marble King CEO Beri Fox|
Fox explained, "Kids come from all over and we measure their shooters using those special NASA gauges. And they've also helped us be able to answer some questions as it relates to technology and the changes in our processes, and who better to have as a friend and affiliate than NASA?"
A quality engineer on staff regularly tests the products for chemistry, density and various tolerances. Even making toy marbles is a precise manufacturing process. Over the past 15 years, Marble King has been diversifying into various industrial and household uses. Marbles go into the bottom of spray paint cans and vats of fermenting wine. Artists use marbles in mosaics and steppingstones. You can use marbles when rooting plants or decorating with candles. At home, you can place marbles in the bottom of nearly empty spray bottle in order to raise the level and get the last few ounces to spray.
Fox says, "Marble King was the first toy manufacturer to become made in the USA certified, and that's where you go through an audit process and they actually audit all of your incoming supplies, audit your facility, what you can do, your shipping and realize that everything is made in America." The marbles are tested to ensure being lead-free. They come with the typical warning that any choking hazard would, to not be allowed for children under 3 years old.
Marble King marbles are shipped to 17 different countries. The company has received special recognition from West Virginia's governor for its leadership in manufacturing and exporting. Yet, Fox is concerned about the future for this and other US industries that provide jobs. Fox stressed during her appearance on Comedy Central's Colbert Report that tariff-free imports of marbles made overseas create an unfair advantage for a small business like hers, "What we're asking is that instead of free trade that it be fair trade and that everybody has the same rules to follow."
Fox thinks buying her products and others made in the USA is an important decision for consumers to make. "I think everybody does need to care. That was part of the reason that I agreed to go on Colbert. It was a wonderful opportunity to try to focus on saving American jobs, because it's critically important, especially with the economic downturn here in America. It can be directly related to the manufacturing processes, the number of manufacturing jobs that we've lost in this country that have gone to China and elsewhere overseas. I think one thing that a lot of people don't know is that for every one manufacturing job, it creates four other jobs."
Fox and her West Virginia-made product have been well-traveled this past year. She also made an appearance on Martha Stewart's show. "We were both guests on the Colbert Report and then she asked me if I would be on her show, which I was, oh it was great!" Fox was thrilled that Stewart featured the musical marble tree and talked about her love for vintage marbles.
The plant I visited melts down between three and four tons of recycled glass per day to create the classic toys. The process, some of which is a trade secret involving just the right temperatures, recipe and cooling procedure, has not changed much since the early years. The original Marble King himself, Berry Pink, founded the company with a partner in 1949. Young Beri was named for the man who hired her father, Roger Howdyshell, to help run the company. The late Howdyshell, after buying Marble King, would eventually leave the responsibility to his daughter.
Fox has taken her responsibility seriously, working to maintain West Virginia jobs while encouraging others to support American manufacturing. She says it's a matter of self-sufficiency and innovation. "We as Americans, we need to continue to make things here. It is critically important to our survival as a country, and I firmly believe that."
Tomorrow: our family's visit to the Marble King gift shop!