Museums feature childhood treasures

MARIETTA – Remember “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots,” “Big Wheel” tricycles and “Johnny West” adventure sets? Or did you prefer constructing your own toys with LEGO brand plastic building bricks?

Two museums within a couple hours of the Marietta area are well worth the drive for toy enthusiasts of all ages.

“People are nostalgic about toys. They enjoy seeing toys from their past-things they played with when they were young-and we have that here,” said Francis Turner, operator of the Marx Toy Museum in Moundsville, W.Va. Louis Marx and Company produced toys for 61 years, and became the world’s largest toy manufacturer with 11 factories around the globe by the 1950s. One of those facilities, employing up to 2,000 people, was located in Glen Dale, W.Va., just south of Moundsville.

“In the 1950s and 1960s a third of all toys made in the U.S. were Marx toys,” Turner said. “There were three factories in the Eastern U.S. The first opened in Erie, Pa., in 1933 and employed 750 people. The second and largest opened in Glen Dale in 1934, and the third opened in Girard, Pa., in 1935, employing 950 people.”

And by the early 1950s the company opened one of its first overseas factories in Birmingham, England.

Marx stopped manufacturing toys in 1980, and closed its facilities, including the Glen Dale plant. But in 2001 Turner opened his Marx Toy Museum just a mile-and-a half north of the old factory site at 915 Second St. in Moundsville.

“We originally opened as a private museum with my personal collection, but about a year ago we became a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization under a board of directors supported by an advisory board,” he said.

Housed in an unassuming-looking former grocery store building constructed in 1957, Turner said visitors are always surprised when they step through the front door.

“It’s not much to look at from outside, but they’re speechless once they walk inside,” he said. “The museum encompasses about 4,000 square feet and is wall-to-wall toys and memorabilia.”

Just to the left of the museum entrance is the 1950s room with toys from that era as well as a soft drink and refreshment area. The main room contains a variety of Marx toys and a history of founder Louis Marx.

“Next is the prototype room where there are original drawings, model carvings and other one-of-a-kind items from the Marx plant,” Turner said. “And then we have a timeline of toys from the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and so on.”

Other areas of the museum feature dolls and doll houses and a western room with an entrance designed like the front porch of a building from the old west.

“You walk up on the porch and through the doors, and there’s a whole roomful of western-themed toys, toy guns and playsets,” Turner said. “Beyond that is our train room, and in the back is the transportation room with toy cars, trucks, planes, and service station playsets.”

Toys like the Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, first built in 1964, and the Big Wheel tricycle in 1969 became some of the company’s highest profile toys. Turner said Big Wheels were built at the Glen Dale factory.

“They were building 7,000 to 8,000 a day at one point,” he said.

But Turner said the Marx playsets, originally made with metal figurines, but later of molded plastic, were probably the company’s most popular product.

“They came in various themes, including farm, service station, cowboy and Civil War sets,” he said. “And all of those playsets were made at the Glen Dale factory.”

He said the metal playsets were manufactured through 1948 when they were replaced by plastic which could be formed faster and more economically. A special treat for visitors to the museum is a display of country music artist and Glen Dale native Brad Paisley.

“His aunt worked at the Marx factory and he grew up in that neighborhood,” Turner said. “We have a nice collection of his childhood toys, including his Big Wheel.”

The Marx Toy Museum has been featured in travel pieces seen on Public Broadcasting, and Turner said the PBS series “American Pickers” has contacted him about appraisal prices and background information on Marx Toys.

The museum is open Tuesdays through Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. April through December. Group tours are also available. Admission prices are $8.50 for adults, $7.50 for seniors and $5 for children.

Across the Ohio River and a few miles north of Moundsville, in the small town of Bellaire, is another treasure for toy lovers-The Toy and Plastic Brick Museum.

“We’re the unofficial LEGO museum-the largest private collection of LEGO in the world,” said Jon Bizzsari, who manages the museum for collector Dan Brown.

Brown, originally from Rochester, N.Y., moved to the Ohio town several years ago where he opened the Toy and Plastic Brick Museum in the former Gravel Hill Middle School.

“He’s been collecting LEGO for quite some time and all three floors of the school are completely full of toys. There are 23 themed rooms, in addition to the hallways,” Bizzari said. LEGO constructions in those rooms include everything from life-sized models of cartoon characters to zoo animals, boats and Star Wars characters.

“There’s a life-sized Darth Vader figure, and a large Scooby-Doo figure that was built from scratch by a 16-year-old boy in Texas,” Bizzari added.

He said the museum also contains a special room where children can build their own LEGO figures, some of which are put on display.

Visitors to the museum can also see animatronic LEGO exhibits on the school auditorium’s stage.

“If you’re into LEGO, you can make an entire day of it here,” Bizzari said.

The museum is just two minutes from the Ohio 7 South exit off I-470 at 4597 Noble St. in Bellaire.

The facility is open noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays beginning in May.

Off-season hours are Saturday and Sunday, but visitors are advised to call the museum first to verify those hours.

Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for seniors, and $5 for children under 5.