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In Appalachia, Putting a New Spin on Marbles

  • Mike Osborne

On a warm, late-summer Saturday morning in the tiny community of Etoile, Kentucky, a small crowd gathers under a shade tree to watch a game of marbles.

The playing field is a flat piece of old carpet measuring roughly six meters on a side. Two, two-man teams are playing a game called Tennessee Square.

Getting down on hands and knees, they fire grape-sized stone marbles from between the thumb and forefinger with tremendous force. Their goal is to earn points by striking much larger lemon-sized marbles and knocking them out of the square.

Preserving tradition

Here in the hill country along the border between the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, marbles play remains a popular sport among men of a certain age. Enthusiast Buck Houchens says there used to be lots of marble courts in the area, but only a few are left.

“The old timers before me were playing in their backyards here, I know, 60 years ago," Houchens said. "We play different games, but this game we’re playing here today, it came up in the '30s."

Most of those still playing today are older men, many in their 70s and 80s, and there is a feat that the game will die out. But just across the state line in Clay County, Tennessee, Brian Cherry is introducing the game to a new generation.

“Most of the time the kids really get into it at about the age of 10," said Cherry, who coaches marbles teams in schools. "From 10 to 14, they really begin to develop their power and their spin. Once they start playing they really love it.”

Marbles tournament

Standing Stone State Park, in nearby Hilham, Tennessee, is also helping preserve traditional marbles play. For more than 30 years the park has sponsored a national tournament for a marbles game called Rolley-Hole.

Ranger Shawn Hughes calls it the king of marble games. “If you consider marble games like chess and checkers, all the other marble games would be like checkers and Rolley-Hole would be like chess. It’s quite strategic. Not only do you have to make shots, but strategy is almost more important than the shotmaking.”

A good player can shoot a marble so hard that even the best marbles can often be chipped or cracked. Many serious competitors make their own marbles.

Timothy Walden makes his out of a local variety of milky quartz.

“Pick it up out of a creek where water’s been; rivers, creeks. Around dried lakebeds is a good place; sand bars in the river where the river’s dropped down and washed stones into the river," Walden said. “You cut that piece of stone into an inch square and then go into the process of rough cutting it with a diamond cut wheel to get the corners just barely round. That’s just a repeat process. “

Both making and playing marbles are skills that take time and determination to develop. Ranger Shawn Hughes says it would be a shame to see them lost.

“It used to be a sport played on every playground, school ground and homes, and it’s gotten lost throughout the years," he said. "We don’t want marbles to die.”
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