- The Washington Times - Monday, June 27, 2005

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. - Howard Powell scales the mounds of rubble at the former Akro Agate factory site, occasionally bending over to pick up a glass marble that catches his eye.

He never knows what he’ll find, and for Mr. Powell, that’s the best reward.

Marbles are easily found on toy store shelves and at flea markets, but Mr. Powell and his wife, Julie, prefer digging for their treasures, hoping to unearth another rare piece to add to their collection.

“You have to be careful. There are places that are banned,” said Mr. Powell, who was arrested once for crossing private property to dig near a creek bed. “If we get kicked out from one place, we will go to another place.”

The Powells spend hundreds of hours traveling, digging, cleaning and cataloging the marbles they find at former marble plants, many embedded in concrete or covered in dirt, some broken and misshapen. Their collection is so vast they have marbles tucked away in chest drawers, packed in the basement or sitting in bowls waiting to be washed and sorted by company, date and location where each was found.

“We just can’t stay away from it. It’s like an addiction,” Mr. Powell said.

About 21 active marble clubs are scattered across the country, with members keeping tabs on the latest finds through video and live Internet auctions.

It’s not so simple to identify the value of a piece. Prices can range from a nickel or dime for a common marble to more than $3,000 for a rare, old-style, handmade marble.

“Prices have gone very high as many sellers have no clue as to what they have, but want to sell high thinking their marble may be a rare one,” said Michael Johnson, chairman of the Marble Museum in Yreka, Calif.

At one time, 15 of the 21 marble plants in the United States were in West Virginia, mostly along U.S. 50 from Clarksburg to Parkersburg.

Two plants remain in operation in West Virginia, and they operate part time. Most went out of business in the 1950s after less-expensive Japanese imports and increasing costs forced the companies to stop production.

Until the mid-1990s, only researchers were interested in digging for marbles to document what a company had made. After that, dealers saw a market, moved in and began destroying the sites.

“It is illegal, but they do it under threat of arrest because they are selling,” Mr. Johnson said. “It’s more important around certain areas of West Virginia than coal mining.”

The worth of a marble nowadays depends on its origin, age, condition, color scheme and sometimes the name it’s given based on its color. Cub Scouts, copperheads, Supermans, steelies and cat’s eyes are some of the easiest to identify. But not all diggers are looking to turn a profit.

“I haven’t dug for a while, but I still like to go sometimes,” said Sam Hogue, who has collected about 50,000 marbles. “I’m just interested in [digging for] them. It’s fun.”

About a third of Roger and Claudia Hardy’s estimated 1-million-piece Akro Agate marble collection was discovered during the past 35 years while digging on the former company site in Clarksburg. Their excavations have produced complete box sets of unbroken tea sets and other Akro products.

“I’ve been obsessed all my life collecting stuff,” said Mr. Hardy, whose collection is stored in a locked room off his antique shop. “I could talk all day here about Akro marbles and not tell you everything.”

Mr. Johnson said the world of marble collecting is relatively small and most advertised collectors know of each other.

“There are about a million what I call passive collectors — people who have marbles who know nothing about them,” he said. “There are marbles hidden away in the attic or a trunk or in the sewing machine drawer that have always been there and there they will stay.”

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