The game of marbles is an ancient and universal pastime, with Roman, French, and British roots. In Tennessee, Indian burials of the Mississippian culture have yielded clay and stone spheres speculatively interpreted as game pieces. Archaeologists also discovered marbles at Tennessee’s early outposts and settlements, including Fort Loudoun, Blount Mansion, and Southwest Point. Excavation of slave quarters at the Hermitage yielded stone, clay, and painted china marbles.
Players maintained varied games through informal marble-playing, often with localized rules and vocabulary. A popular game from pioneer times, primarily played by adult men throughout Tennessee and Kentucky, became variously known as Euchre, Old Bowler, Big Tennessee, Tennessee Square, Dollar Man, and Big Marbles. It usually requires five or nine large target marbles (1 1/4 inch in diameter), all placed on the edge of a square, except for a center marble. In recent years, Macon County has emerged as the most noted locale for this game, with “marble yards” scattered beside country stores and homes.
Until the late 1960s children brought marbles to Tennessee’s schoolyards. Though many parents and principals outlawed “playing for keeps” as a form of gambling, the fantastic reward of bulging pockets tempted children to break the rules. In one version of “keeps,” an entrepreneur loaded a tin can or glass bottle with a few marbles and challenged all comers to drop their marbles into the container from belt or head height. The owner of the container kept all marbles that missed, while paying out the container’s contents for an accurate drop.
Another very common game, called Ring or Circle Marbles, required contestants to place a number of their target marbles inside a ring marked in the dirt with a stick. Each player owned a favorite marble for shooting, known as a “taw” or “shooter,” and attempted to knock the marbles out while keeping the shooter within the ring. Target marbles were usually glass or clay, although in desperate circumstances children even played with acorns.
In 1922 the traditional ring game became formalized through the National Marbles Tournament, a contest for children. In the 1930s and 1940s city recreation programs, schools, and newspapers in Tennessee sponsored preliminary competitions for this national tournament. Eddie Cox (1934), J. Will Disney (1939), and O. L. Dabney (1940), all from Coal Creek/Lake City, won the All-Southern regional championships and traveled to Windowed, New Jersey, for the final rounds with other regional champs. In 1992 Tennessee resumed its participation in the National Marbles Tournament, and two Clay County girls, Amanda Burns (1993) and Molly Reecer (1996), have claimed national championships in the past few years.
Rolley Hole, known as Three Holes, Poison, Granny Hole, or Rolley Holey, has also been widely played in Tennessee, but became especially identified with Clay County and Standing Stone State Park, which has hosted the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship since 1983. Partners Wayne Rhoton and Ralph Roberts of Clay County have won more than half the competitions, which include from sixteen to thirty-two teams.
Standing Stone State Park has also hosted an International Marbles Festival with competitions and demonstrations of marbles games from Tennessee and around the world.