The area along the Kentucky-Tennessee border including Clay County, Tennessee, and Monroe County, Kentucky, maintains a remarkable marble-playing tradition focused on a game known locally as “rolley hole,” “three holes,” or simply “marbles.”
In this region, rolley hole is played primarily by adult men on cleared “marble yards,” often constructed from sifted loam soil, forty to fifty feet in length and twenty-five to thirty feet wide. Historically, such yards have been constructed and maintained by private individuals beside their homes, country stores, and woodlots or cooperatively maintained by interested players at public spaces like school yards and parks. A marble yard was kept on the Clay County courthouse square early in the twentieth century, and the Monroe County Fairgrounds is currently the site of an active “indoor” yard.
The development of tournament play by the Monroe County Fair in the 1950s probably led to formalizing some of the game’s rules, such as the number of players on a team, the number and arrangement of holes on the course, and the question of “knuckling down” while shooting. Many variations of minor rules continue to be debated among experienced players.
Players now exclusively use locally made flint marbles, although prior to the use of electric or gasoline-powered grinding equipment, limestone marbles were also common, as they were more quickly made with water power.
The contemporary game pits two teammates against two opponents. Each player has one marble and must work through a course of twelve holes, made by going up and down a line of three holes that are dug into the yard with the aid of pocket knife and a quarter-dollar coin. A team wins when both partners have completed that course. Along the way, players prevent the progress of their opponents by shooting at their marbles, and knocking them “out of edge,” or out of bounds. Essentially the same as in croquet (a Victorian game which was probably inspired by the marble game), rolley hole players earn extra shots by hitting opponents’ marbles and “making” holes.
The origin of the game and the reason for its sustained popularity in one small region are moot points. While there were numerous British and French games dating to the seventeenth century that involved rolling marbles into holes, no clear antecedent has been documented. To confuse the issue, it has recently been found that the Cherokees of Delaware County, Oklahoma, play a game with uncanny similarities that many claim to be a pre-removal tradition.
Their game, called “Indian Marbles,” is played on a “marble field,” up to two hundred feet in length, often with five holes. They now use billiard balls as marbles, although they were pecked and ground from stone until the 1950s. Stone spheres of similar size have occasionally been found in Mississippian Period burial sites from Tennessee and Kentucky and have been interpreted by archaeologists as game pieces or marbles. Oral tradition places the rolley game in pre-Civil War times, at least.
The site of the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship is Standing Stone State Park, located between Livingston and Celina, and is held each September. The event includes scoreboards, announcers, and interpreters to assist visitors in understanding the game’s intricacies and history.