Monroe County Marble Dome
Lost your marbles?
Have no fear — you can find them again, along with a draw-string pouch full of childhood memories, in Monroe County, Kentucky.
Simply head down a country road to the Monroe Marble Super Dome, where every afternoon brings a chance to shoot homemade marbles and meet the “marbleous” men who “whipped the world” in an international marbles tournament.
The Monroe Marble Super Dome isn’t like any superdome or sports complex you’ve ever seen. To say it’s nothing fancy is an understatement; it’s more shack than arena. But one thing is certain — it’s magical.
For every day, just before sunset, time stands still while grown men and kids alike get down on their knees in fools gold-colored sand. With childlike glee, they flick homemade flint marbles with their thumbs until nightfall.
Deep in southern Kentucky, just a stone’s throw from the breathtaking Cumberland River, is the unassuming town of Tompkinsville. And there, just down Armory Road, sits a dilapidated white, wooden, barn-like structure — the “Marble Dome” as locals call it.
Although it was built in 1988, it looks to be about 100 years old.
“It isn’t really weather-proof,” says one old timer, grinning and pointing to foil-lined, cotton-candy-like insulation hanging from the rafters like fly paper. Outside an old man whittles, whistling to himself. Inside, a younger man sits making marbles. On the floor, a half-dozen old-timers play “Rolley-Hole” in the dirt.
The Monroe Marble Super Dome isn’t like any superdome or sports complex you’ve ever seen.
Custom Flint Marbles
Each player only uses one marble in this old traditional game, and some make their own marbles from little cubes of flint or granite, found in the Cumberland river, that they smooth into a round shape with a contraption made of a broom dowel and a string that makes it spin, grinding it against a rock set into an indentation in the well-worn wood of a table made from a big cable spool.
If you haven’t got a marble, they’ll make you one — but it will cost you. Local marble maker and Rolley-Hole player Paul Davis sells his custom flint marbles for $20 each.
Some are as big as a jawbreaker, others are of the standard size — whatever fits your fingers best. They come in colors from black to white with tan marbling in the granite ones. Davis carries his in a case that looks like it might hold a clarinet.
Playing Rolley Hole
It’s interesting to watch the men of Monroe make marbles, but it’s far more fascinating to watch them play. In a 40- by 25-foot yard of double-sifted, water-packed, fine yellow dirt, and under the hum of long fluorescent lights, they’ve have used their thumbs to make three evenly-spaced-apart indentations in the dirt, and they aim for these holes with the roll of their marbles.
Paul Davis shows off handfuls of marbles he's made from flint and granite from the banks of the Cumberland River.
Each two-team member must shoot for these holes, and each must get his marble into each hole three times, down the court, back and down again. All the while players try to hit the opponents’ marbles to knock them away from the holes they’re trying to hit. It’s a hard game to win.
But win they do.
In 1992, one of the players heard about an international marbles tournament in Tinsley Green, England, south of London, where men have been playing marbles for over 400 years. So members from the Marble Dome secured an invitation to participate.
A Show of Sportsmanship
Most had never even been as far as Louisville, let alone London, but they took their handmade marbles with them and off they went. When they got there, they had fun teaching others the American game of Rolley-Hole, but they had to learn on the spot the official circle-type game played in the tournaments.
In the British Marbles Championship, they played so well that the others were hardly able to have a chance, so as a sign of sportsmanship they allowed the Brits to score once before beating them.
Afternoons find folks of all ages squatting in the yellow-gold sand.
That afternoon in the final international tournament they became world champions, winning with a score of 10-0. Victorious, they returned to Kentucky where the Louisville Courier-Journal headline was “THUMBS UP Y’ALL Good ol’ boys, simply marbleous, whip world!”
Smoothing Down the Hard Edges
Women can play marbles in Tompkinsville, and some do, but mostly you’ll just find men in the Marble Dome.
Annual dues are $20 per person, to keep the lights on and cover the cost of firewood. It keeps the wood-stove burning in winter so nobody’s fingers freeze. It’s money well spent, for the rewards are great.
After the usual daily grind, the marbles of Monroe County help old timers smooth down the hard edges of life as they let roll little round balls of pure pleasure.