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Piece Of Anacortes History, December 23, 1991


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Anacortes seemed to have reason for optimism in 1991. A 1990 article had discussed the improvements they were making, new equipment they had ordered.

Then in early 1992, a few months after the following article ran, marble production ceased. They could still have been profitable -- they had enough orders to keep them going -- but according to AMMM, the marble side of the business was negatively impacting the more successful rope making side of the business. So, they stopped making marbles.



By Jon Hahn P-I Columnist

Monday, December 23, 1991

Section: Living, Page: C1

Sullivan & Ryan have got all their marbles, and then some.

And they've set out to corner the U.S. marble market from the Northwest corner of the country, in the top, left-hand corner of Anacortes (population, 11,700).

They've got so many marbles that if you opened the door of their warehouse at the far end of Commercial Street and let their marbles roll south down the main drag, they'd start an avalanche that would wipe out Mount Vernon and Everett before burying the north end of Seattle (population, 518,000).

Sullivan & Ryan run, and in fact, are the Vitro Agate Marble Corp., one of only three big commercial marble makers in the United States. ``We've got maybe 100 million marbles in stock right now," said Jack Ryan, the affable marble mogul who wears the vice-president's hat even though he admits he ``never was very good at marble-shooting."

Which apparently has nothing to do with making marbles. Vitro Agate's furnaces roll out from 300 million to 500 million marbles a year. Many are classic playing marbles and others are decorative, used by floral arrangers or for aquariums.

Ryan and Tim Sullivan, who wears the president's hat, previously were vice-presidents for a corporation that owned Vitro Agate back in Parkersburg, W.Va. Ryan ran the division that included the marble company.

The pair left and formed their own rope company - in competition with their former employer - and sold that when they moved here to open Puget Sound Rope Corp. It is located in the other half of their huge warehouse. Two years ago, they bought the $1 million-a-year marble operation and brought it to Anacortes.

Their translucent ``cat's eye" and ``classic" shooters are in stores up and down the West Coast and across the country. Their industrial marbles have rolled even farther. But not a whole lot of people in town know what goes on inside the big metal warehouse near the docks at the north end of town.

Huge amounts of broken glass - much of it from Puget Sound industrial sources - are mixed with tiny amounts of coloring chemicals, then cooked to a molten orange 2,200 degrees in a pair of gas-fired blast furnaces. The furnaces are only turned off for maintenance twice a year, so they're rolling out marbles 24 hours a day, almost every day.

A constant stream of gravity-fed molten glass pours out through ceramic bushings and is mechanically snipped. The resulting blob is plopped in either of two reciprocating steel funnels, which in turn deposit the marble-in-the-making onto precision-grooved steel rollers. Uniformity tolerances for size and roundness of marbles are down to three places beyond the decimal point.

If the marble needs colored swirls, a bakery decorator-type nozzle dribbles colored goop onto the molten stream just before it's cut into the blob.

As the marble is rolled between the opposing grooved rollers, it is shaped and sized. The twisty-turny path up and down the rollers also twists any colored-glass strands and swirls that were added by the nozzle.

Others get a bonding spray of iridescent coating farther down the line.

Rejects are hand-picked (with tongs) or fall into the reject bin. The others roll into cooling pans. And still others bypass the rounding rollers and, instead, plop directly onto a flat steel surface. These so-called ``nuggets" are big sellers in the decorative and floral trades, as well as for aquariums, etc.

The smaller marbles are allowed to cool in single-layered metal troughs. The larger marbles cool off slowly in buckets overnight, which makes for a sort of natural annealing and stronger marbles.

Of course, something can always go wrong, which argues for constant monitoring, Ryan said. ``If you're changing a ceramic bushing at the bottom of the tank, and the stream gets away from you, watch out! When molten glass begins flowing, it takes on a life of its own."

Knock on wood, because nothing has. Life in the marble factory usually just rolls along, as the millions of mibs get hand-culled, eyeballed and inspected before they're either packed in small, retail-size packages or into 3,000-pound bulk, industrial type hampers.

The quality control process culls out any cracked, discolored, or mismatched marbles, as well as small pieces and any nuggets with sharp edges or protrusions.

A small, but efficient work force shift jobs frequently to avoid production line boredom. They hand pack playing marbles in net bags of 25 or 45, along with one larger ``shooter." Larger packs include 72 playing marbles, with three shooters.

Decorative marbles are packed in 100 and 350-count plastic jars or 1,000-count poly bags.

``Classic" playing marbles look very much like the mibs of our childhood, in 5/8-inch diameter. Small retail packs also include a couple of 7/8-inch ``shooters." There's also a ``tournament grade" 3/4-inch shooter.

Decorative marbles come in two basic sizes, 9/16- and 7/8-inch diameter, in six basic colors (with the iridescent option) and another six custom translucent colors, as well as plain white or black.

Industrial grade marbles come in several sizes and any number of yucky colors.

They usually run those, Ryan explained, when they're purging one color of glass from the furnace and beginning to run another, which results in some pretty strange shades.

Have you heard that little thing banging around when you shake the aerosol paint can? Good chance it's one of Ryan & Sullivan's marbles.

With only two other major players in this country, Ryan & Sullivan get some competition from Mexico - which ``probably accounts for 50 percent of the world marble market" - and from Taiwan, Pakistan, India, Portugal, Turkey and China, according to Ryan.

``Most marbles are casual purchases, but if you see American marbles side by side with imports, there's no comparison ... ours are much better!" he said.

Marbles haven't changed much over the years, but someone's always trying. Ryan noted one recent study in which someone tried to introduce plastic marbles.

``They had a big test group of kids, but the acceptance of plastic marbles was a big zero," he said.

``Marble players want real marbles; they've got to feel `cold' and have a good weight or heft in the hand."

Now who ever heard of a plastic jasper or aggie?

Staff columnist Jon Hahn writes three times a week in the P-I.


This article contained at least one photo or illustration as described below:

Type: Color Photos

Description: MIKE BAINTER/P-I photos -- (1) Vitro Agate co-owner Jack Ryan runs his hands through a 3,000-pound pile of marbles.

(2) A handful of marbles shows the variety of color that rolls out of the manufacturing plant at Vitro Agate in Anacortes.

(3) A marble is born when a blob of molten glass is dropped onto precision-grooved steel rollers that will shape it into a ball.

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