Finding Akron’s Marbles
One part of this story begins in the 1980s, when Akron toymaker Michael Cohill met an 18-year-old archeology student named Brian Graham at a party. Michael told Brian that he had been digging up marbles at his toy workshop, which decades before had been a marble factory.
Naturally, Brian the archaeologist was intrigued. They made a date to continue excavating Michael’s factory, and then they expanded the search to dig through the catacombs in downtown Akron for hidden treasure. They succeeded in finding four little clay marbles. But when a parking deck downtown was removed years later, they found the ground littered with marbles and old penny toys. They also found the oldest penny toy in their now large collection, a small Santa figurine.
The other part of this story begins 100 hundred years earlier, in the 1880’s, when a man named Samuel Dyke started the production of penny toys in Akron. Before this time, toys were handmade and very expensive, a luxury afforded only by the rich. With Dyke’s mass production of toys, though, a new toy-buying demographic was created. Kids with a penny or two in their pocket now had something other than sweets to purchase. Samuel Dyke’s business boomed until he was making over a million marbles per day and shipping them around the country.
The business became so successful that other local entrepreneurs opened up their own marble factories. At one time there were at least 150 toy companies in Akron.
The last marble company left Akron in the 1950’s. “In the 1950’s they started asphalting over the playgrounds because they didn’t want the little boys and little girls to get dirty knees,” said Brian. “All the great old games — top throwing, jacks and hopscotch — these were games that originated because of dirt…These games are in danger of extinction,” said Michael.
The two stories came together when Michael and Brian founded the Akron Toy & Marble Museum in the 1990s. Now, they are both toymakers. Michael came into the booth with clay under his nails from making reproductions of the prized blue Santa they found in one of their digs. Brian has become a glassblower and makes fine marbles. They have both became masters of arcane ceramic, glass, and stone marble making methods. “When I step into my glass shop and I make marbles the same way that they were made 100 years ago, it is as close as I am going to get to a time machine,” Brian said.
Alas, StoryCorps is leaving Akron, but we are leaving with the feeling that we have found something special here: a world of curiosity and play. Maybe you could even say we have found our marbles.
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