The National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship and Festival survives today as the living culmination of one of the most successful and sustained folklife preservation projects in the United States. Held annually since 1983 at Standing Stone State Park in Overton County, the Festival centers on the folk marble game of “Rolley Hole.” Indigenous to just four counties along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, the mysterious game is most similar to croquet. While rules and customs might vary in community settings, the Championship has established a standard system of play. The game occurs on a cleared dirt yard, constructed from sifted loam soil, that measures 40’ by 25’ with three holes placed ten feet apart. Teams consist of two players, each attempting to put his or her marble through a course of twelve holes. A team wins when both partners have completed the course. Along the way, players prevent the progress of their opponents by shooting and displacing their marbles. Players exclusively use locally made, highly scrutinized flint spheres.
The annual festival is designed to simultaneously inspire and encourage fierce competition, appeal to those who grew up with the tradition, and educate fascinated new audience members. Throughout the day, roaming interpreters assist visitors in understanding the intricacies of the game, while local marble makers offer demonstrations, each seated at their self-fashioned cutting and polishing machines. In addition to the tournament, a full music festival is held, maintaining the deep regional connection between the game and other expressive cultural practices. For many in attendance, the event’s focal point is the frequently updated, handmade, manually-operated scoreboard. Committed to serving all, the event also includes kids’ games, a swap meet, a marble hunt, craft activities, and regional food. The competition draws the country’s greatest marble aficionados to an intense scene where players match wit and skills on a smooth dirt surface well into the dark night.
At the time of the festival’s inception, only one active marble yard remained in Tennessee. Through determined fieldwork and community programming led by renowned folklorist and state park employee Bobby Fulcher, the endangered marble tradition was reinvigorated. Renewed interest burst forth, so much so that twenty marble yards were rehabilitated, and children resumed playing the game. In the nearly four decades since its inauguration, the Rolley Hole Marbles Championship has fostered the talents of hundreds of marble players, marble makers, and musicians. In 1986, the Rolley Hole tradition was selected to be featured at the Smithsonian’s 1986 Festival of American Folklife in Washington D.C. Tennessee players and marble makers set up the game on the National Mall, and educated visitors from around the world about the extraordinary tradition. In the years since, the tournament has received more national and worldwide media attention than any other event in Tennessee State Park’s history, thus stimulating the tradition’s growth and preservation. “The National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship is a one-of-a-kind event, unique to Tennessee,” stated David W. Salyers, Tennessee Commissioner of Environment and Conservation. “The event is an extraordinary model for how park staff can help preserve a rich cultural heritage through interpretation and thoughtful resource management. The Rolley Hole tournament and tradition is a great source of pride for us and all Tennesseans, and we hope it will continue to be a source of pride and wonder for years to come.” Today, under the leadership of Ranger Shawn Hughes, the Championship and the tradition thrive, as school youth camps and weekly programs at Standing Stone continue to lead young people to the game. The National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship and Festival stands as a singular example of sustainable folk culture and offers a model for similar efforts and programming to communities across the country.