Over the course of 25 years, Paul Davis has developed a precise method of making flint marbles that includes the use of electric and gasoline powered grinding equipment. He has improved the process over time and now includes tools and techniques that take fine measurements and further perfect the marbles. These marbles are part of the indigenous folk marble tradition found in only a few counties of Tennessee and Kentucky. The most significant game in this marble tradition is Rolley Hole. A game similar to croquet, Rolley Hole is played 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/her marble through a course of twelve holes. The Annual Rolley Hole Marbles Tournament is held every September at Standing Stone State Park in Overton County, TN. Today, players exclusively use locally made flint marbles, the sort which Paul and a few others continue to make. Part of the strategy of this game involves strong shots that knock your opponents marble far from the given hole. Store bought glass marbles cannot handle this action. The best marbles are the strongest flint marbles with the fewest blemishes.
Apprentice Kenzie Adams has marbles in his family history. “I learned about marbles and the Rolley Hole tradition from my father, uncles, and grandfather,” he explains. “They were all marble makers and some worked some with the legendary Bud Garrett. I have also learned a great deal more about the history of Rolley Hole and marbles in this community from Bobby Fulcher, the folklorist and park ranger who really helped restart the interest in this tradition in the early 1980s.”
As part of the training together, Paul and Kenzie will undertake the full marble making process. This will start with harvesting the stone in area waterways. Paul will show Kenzie how to find the densest and smoothest flint that can withstand the force of impact on the marble. They will also discuss some of the earlier methods like the whirligig and water methods. Paul will eventually instruct Kenzie in the style he has devised, including the use of diamond saw and grinder. They will also use a digital caliper to make sure that their marbles are within two to three thousandths of an inch to a perfect sphere.
This team is funded through a special partnership with the South Arts’ initiative In These Mountains: Central Appalachian Folk Art & Culture.