A new book by Gary Rider and Roseanna Keller chronicles the story of the Marx Toy Plant (described by Marx Toy Museum curator Francis Turner in our PBS film Moundsville) which operated in Glen Dale, adjacent to Moundsville, for a half-century, employing thousands of residents and fueling the town’s 20th century prosperity. It was part of a complex Ohio River supply chain rivaling Manchester in 1900 and southeast China in 2020, and pumped out iconic toys like the Big Wheel and Rock’em Sock’em Robots for America and the world. Its demise, because of a corporate takeover, the owning family losing interest, low-cost foreign competition, and market forces like children switching to video games, is an illustration of the lifecycles of capitalism. A factory might sustain a town, but none lasts forever, and transitions are difficult. The Marx toy building is now used by an oil company.
The book signing is Friday, May 20, from 3 to 5 at the Moundsville Pharmacy, 118 N. Lafayette Ave. The Turner family of the Marx Museum, Keller and Rider will all be there. There will be another signing in the next few weeks at the Moundsville Public Library. You can also buy it on Amazon.
We asked Rider to tell us more about what motivated him and Keller to research and write this book, which he calls a “labor of love” because his mom was the plant’s last secretary.
Q: Give us some details about the Marx toy plant. When was it built? How many people did it employ? When did it close?
Rider: The Glen Dale Marx Toy plant facility was the largest toy producer of the three plants in the U.S. It was famous for producing the Big Wheel. The assembly lines ran 9,000 of them each day. The labor force was seasonal as they produced toys after the toy shows and orders were sent in by the stores for Christmas sales. Many people on the work force started right out of high school and learned the toy making process as they advance through the jobs. The first plant was the old Fokker Airplane Factory which had closed in Glen Dale. At its peak the toy plant employed over 1,500 people. It closed in 1982 due to bankruptcy and that is also when Louis Marx died. The day bankruptcy became final was also the day that Louis Marx passed away.
Q: Why did Marx choose the Glen Dale/Moundsville area to build a plant?
Rider: A group of businessmen in the area wanted Marx to come to Glen Dale and use the facility of the Fokker Airplane Factory that was now closed. One businessman and a local lawyer went to New York to see Louis Marx and convinced him to use the facility.
Q: Why did the plant close?
Rider: None of Louis Marx children were interested in running a toy company. So he sold the company to Quaker Oats and they made massive changes in the quality of the toys and the management of the plant. By 1982 there was no hope to salvage the company.
Q: What are some of its most famous toys?
Rider: Marx Toys made playsets, doll houses, the Johnny West series of characters, The Big Wheel, Rock Em Sock Em Robots, train sets, the White House and President set, and metal trucks and gas stations.
Q: Who are the people you talked to for the book?
Rider: We were lucky enough to interview the son of the lawyer who enticed Louis Marx to come to Glen Dale. We spoke with many women who worked on the assembly lines making products. Men in the paint department also were interviewed as to their jobs on the line. Foremen were interviewed by Jason Turner at the Marx Museum, and videoed and we were lucky enough to be able to use those. We were able to interview men and women who were there on the day that the plant closing was announced.
Q: Why did you decide to write this book? Why are these memories important to hold on to?
RIder: Our reasoning was to preserve the history of the workers who made the toys in Glen Dale. Working at Marx was part of growing up when you wanted a job. You started at Marx until something better came along or you stayed advancing into management. The people who made the toys were the heart and soul of the plant. Their dedication to the company and production of toys for children around the world was what we wanted to show.
Marx impacted the lives of almost everyone in the area. From those still living, who worked there, to those whose parents worked at the plant. Those memories are fond memories for all. The company was like a family and they stood up for one another and helped one another in time of need.
Q: Tell us 1 or 2 of your favorite stories of people in your book.
Rider: Francis Sigler was in management. When an accident occurred, he took his coffee can with him to the site of the accident and collected the lost fingers. Why did they do this? The worker was entitled to compensation for the lost fingers. This was the way to actually account for the loss physically. When workers saw him coming with his can, they would say “Here comes the emergency room.”
The glue line for the plastic horses for the Johnny West Characters was not under OSHA rules at the time. There was no OSHA then. The women passed out from the fumes from the glue and had to be taken out of the area to recover. There were vents to help the odor escape, but they did not work as well when it rained or sometimes were plugged.
Q: What did Marx Toys give Moundsville? I know, for example, that it employed a lot of artists. Losing those people must have been a huge blow.
Rider: Moundsville benefitted from Marx Toys, as they provided employment to women who worked to help support the family. College students could find summer employment. Many workers, when it closed, were offered the chance to move to Empire Toys for jobs but refused as they didn’t want to leave the area and family. One of the biggest benefits to the area, was the generosity of the company at holiday time. They would give away toys to charities and organizations.
Q: What’s on the site of the toy plant now?
Rider: Today, the north plant is used by an oil company. They ship out products daily.
Q: Where can we find your book? How many copies have been printed?
Rider: Books are available locally at the Moundsville Echo and the Moundsville Pharmacy. People may also contact me for a copy. The books are also on Amazon books.
Q: Anything else you’d like to say?
Rider: This book was a labor of love, as my mother worked there and was the last secretary to leave the plant in Glen Dale. We also did this for the Turner family who founded the Official Marx Museum in Moundsville. Their passion for toys and was an inspiration to us as we wrote the book.
John W. Miller