A Game of Rolley Hole, Anyone?

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Wesley Thompson, five-time Rolley Hole champion, takes aim.
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Robert Emberton prepares to shoot an opponent’s marble.
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Knuckling down: It’s all in the hold for Wesley Thompson.

When a mountain shootout occurs in the neighboring counties of Clay in Tennessee and Monroe in Kentucky, women and children don’t run for shelter. Instead, they pull out folding chairs and cool drinks and settle in for a hot game of rolley hole. That’s when the smack of local flint upon flint is performed by the best sharpshooters around: marbles sharpshooters, that is.

Welcome to the world of rolley hole, where the marbles culture is serious business in adult circles. How serious? Area farmers and factory workers have won both the World Championships held each year at Standing Stone State Park in Tennessee and the British Championships held at England’s Tinsley Green in Tinsley, Sheffield. Local businesses often build outdoor rolley hole courts where employees play during breaks or after work. A favorite yard, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is located in Celina, Tennessee, near the banks of the Cumberland River.

Another popular site is the Monroe County Marble Club Superdome, in Tompkinsville, where games last as long as anyone remains to play. If the tongue-in-cheek name is grand, reality is more comfortable. It’s a multiroom mega-shanty with florescent lights, ceiling fans and couches that line the perimeter of indoor marble yards. There’s lots of dry humor and plenty of competition as men in ball caps and sneakers maneuver with all the grace and ease of 12-year-olds: from a squat, to one knee or both knees, using one hand for balance, the other to shoot. Though it’s good clean fun, it’s dirty business as clothes get covered in the dirt and dust of the Cumberland River Valley highlands. 

Rolley, what?

What’s rolley hole? Most people are familiar with ringer, which pits one player against another in a marbles ring. Rolley hole is a team sport played on a rectangular, groomed dirt marble yard, 40 feet long by 20 feet wide, with three marble-size holes positioned along a center line about eight feet apart. Incorporating elements of golf, pool and croquet, it combines strategy and dead-on aim as one two-person team competes against another. The object is for each team to move the marbles around the field, hitting three holes in succession, repeated three times. Knocking an opponent’s marble away from a hole is part of the strategy, and spanning – moving a marble the length of your hand – is permitted. To stop a marble short, players put English (backspin) on it.

“It’s possible to grow up here without playing rolley hole,” says Bob Fulcher, manager of the Cumberland Trail State Park, “but not likely, given the fact that everyone’s grandfather and almost everybody’s father played it. It would have been truly impossible 70 years ago when rolley hole was the game of the schoolyard, with marble yards at the courthouse, scattered about home places, everywhere really.”

On the wane

Still, for more than a decade surrounding the 1970s, this was a game on the wane, particularly after the deaths of legendary player Dumas Walker (made famous in a song by the Kentucky Headhunters; check your local music store or visit the Web for downloads) and marble maker/blues musician Bud Garrett. In 1983, only one active marble yard each remained in Tennessee and Kentucky. That’s when Fulcher initiated the first annual National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship at Standing Stone State Park, 100 miles east of Nashville.

Shawn Hughes, interpretive specialist at Standing Stone State Park, says, “The park constructed a marble yard and held the championship in 1983 to re-establish and maintain marble traditions in the area. This initiative began one of the most effective public sector folklife projects in Tennessee State Parks’ history. Interest among individuals and communities burst forth, so that 20 yards were constructed or rehabilitated over the next few years, and children resumed playing the game with their families and at schools. And, it still continues today.”

The annual national event, free to guests and participants, celebrated its 25th anniversary last year, drawing all ages, male and female. It drew 17 teams in 2007, plus 42 additional people in four other tournaments: ringer, Georgia rolley hole, British and Tennessee square. Players hailed from Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Maryland and Indiana, along with spectators from throughout the United States.

Guests also enjoyed live music, marble-making demonstrations, and marble-shooting lessons, games and hunts for the youngsters. Hughes says, “It’s a one-of-a-kind family experience that promotes the game, showcases marble history and culture, and solidifies the status of the local marble playing and making traditions among the younger generations. We know that when we attract younger players through exposure and participation, they become devotedly attached to it.”

In the beginning

Origins of the game point to immigrants from the British Isles. Or perhaps it’s even more indigenous as the Cherokee of North Carolina today play a game similar to rolley hole. Although played on a much grander scale with a 200-foot-long course and billiard balls in lieu of marbles, the rules and strategies are closely linked. A developing body of lore regarding the roots of the game adds to the mystery and speculation. For example, oral history of the Tennessee game predates the Civil War, and large round game stones have been found throughout the state at 1,000-year-old burial sites.

What is known, however, is that the game remains a way of life for the folks who live here.

“Rolley hole is truly a living tradition that has changed very little over time, and it’s gratifying to see that young people still have a vigorous interest in it,” Fulcher says. “These kids are learning the game the same way they would have learned it 150 years ago: from their parents and grandparents, at home or on the schoolyard. There’s vigor – a lasting power – in this tradition that will carry it into the 21st century.”

Mark Your Calendars! The 26th National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship is slated for Saturday, September 13, in Standing Stone State Park, Hilham, Tennessee.

Have you ever played rolley hole? 

Do you still play marbles? What marble games do you remember? Share your story and photos – e-mail us at Editor@Grit.com.