Mountain Marbles
November 12, 2007 9:40 PM   Subscribe

Has anyone here heard of "Mountain Marbles"?

I discovered this term in an issue of Mechanix Illustrated magazine from 1965. I've posted a photograph of the passage on Flickr here.

I'm curious if anyone has heard of using flowing water to "machine" a small stone into a sphere. I've read some of the Foxfire series books, and the Whole Earth Catalog, but I don't recall seeing anything about this. From the text I gather this is an Appalachian craft. Everything I know about this subject is what I've read in this tantalizing passage. Is it possible to create a stone sphere regular enough to actually play marbles with? Has anyone here done this, or even read about it elsewhere?

Perhaps Frank Wynne was pulling our leg...
posted by Tube to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (14 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know about actually manufacturing marbles this way however it is quite possible to find very round stones in their own little hollows where water flows over rock. There is a name for these but I can't for the life of me remember it. I would have thought it would take longer than a few weeks to form them though.
posted by tomble at 9:46 PM on November 12, 2007

My father has a bucket of marbles that belonged to his father who grew up outside of a very small town in Tennessee in the very early 1900's. They are perfectly round and made of some sort of sandstone, I think. They are beautiful. They vary in size from about as big as a brussel sprout to as small as a pea. I was told that my grandfather and his brothers made them. I wasn't told how they made them, just that they did. There are a few in the bucket that seem to be unfinished. Those are rough and not completely rounded. I'll check with my mother tomorrow and see if she knows more, if you are that interested.
Oh, my brother and I played with them a few times. They worked fine.
posted by colt45 at 10:06 PM on November 12, 2007

Colt45, that would be fantastic! Yes, I'm very curious, as my natural skepticism arose when I read this, though I didn't dismiss it as being impossible. I'm assuming that you would need a softer sort of rock, perhaps sandstone...
posted by Tube at 10:48 PM on November 12, 2007

There is a little bit of information about something similar here, although he's talking about sandstone being ground into spheres by the wind rather than water.

Colt45, it would be very interesting to see pictures of the marbles if you have some!
posted by meadowlands at 11:40 PM on November 12, 2007

This book has a chapter on marbles in the south, I'm 90% sure with mention of fabrication techniques.

These guys know all about how marbles were made in the past.
posted by Leon at 11:54 PM on November 12, 2007

From that Amazon page "...and he follows the success of a backwoods marble team who shaped their shooters in the granite-strewn streams of Tennessee...". I'll see if I can find my copy.

Yeah, here we go:

"One folklorist showed me a picture of two stolid German craftsmen, lying on their stomachs in bib overalls, carefully touching marbles to a grinding wheel. "Now, the hillbillies, they didn't have time for this," he said, grinning. "They'd just go out to a stream somewhere, drill a hole in a rock, drop a stone in it, and wait about six months. When they came back, the river would have rolled it round.""

Typical materials seem to be flint and marble.

"The rolley holers didn't have it that easy. Only flint could withstand their crack shooting, and no stream could shape a flint marble fast enough. [...] Once they found a good, hefty nodule, they would rough out a blank and grind it down with a bow drill, specially adapted from the ones Indians used to start fires.

"Nowadays technology can speed things up [...] he rounds it off roughly with a chisel. Then he takes a grinding stone embedded with diamond fragments - one in which he's drilled a hemispheric hole - sets the piece of flint in the hole, and holds it up to a sander, letting the marble jiggle and spin like a ball bearing in its casing."
posted by Leon at 12:13 AM on November 13, 2007 [1 favorite]

BTW, the magic google search phrase is "Roley Hole".
posted by Leon at 1:01 AM on November 13, 2007

Since the question seems to be answered, and the marbles' making described, I thought I'd mention dorodangos, another way to get a small round polished-looking ball.
posted by Tuwa at 5:28 AM on November 13, 2007

I spoke with my dad this morning. He never got all the details from my grandfather about how they were made, but knows that it was some sort of process involving water. He thinks that they did something similar to what was described in the article. I'll see if he can get pictures for me to share. The marbles are a couple of hundred miles away, so I can't do it myself.

The marbles themselves are amazing. They are smooth as smooth can be and are just simply stunning.
posted by colt45 at 8:49 AM on November 13, 2007

Possibly related to this are speleothems sometimes called "Cave Pearls". These are formed in caves where you have pools of very slight running or dripping water.

The water picks up calcium as it moves through the limestone due to the presence of CO2, making the water a weak carbonic acid. The water drips into the pool, or runs along the floor, and CO2 degasses from the pool, causing calcite to sublimate out, and form a shell of calcite around particulate matter in the water. This is the same chemical process that gives you stalactites and stalagmites, but in different physical form.

If there's just enough movement to get some agitation of the resulting spheres, you'll get perfectly round balls of calcite. Beautiful things, but I'm not sure as to the material strength for the purposes of marbles. I think they would be to brittle for actual use.
posted by griffey at 9:09 AM on November 13, 2007

Thank you all very much for the input. The Noodling for Flatheads sounds like an interesting read, I may pick it up. Funny, I just learned about "noodling" recently, after seeing an Internet video of two guys catching a catfish barehanded!
posted by Tube at 7:39 PM on November 13, 2007


My parents have informed me that the marbles are, in fact, made of agate. They are not painted. They were made by my grandfather sometime between 1917 and 1925.
posted by colt45 at 2:25 PM on November 30, 2007

OMG! those photos are fantastic! Thank you and your family very much for going to all the trouble to post this! This is really outstanding!
posted by Tube at 10:26 PM on November 30, 2007

Those are great. Have you thought of putting captions up explaining where they came from and/or how they were made?
posted by Tuwa at 5:03 AM on December 1, 2007

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