By: Terry Simpson
It’s a family tradition.
One passed down, not only through Timmy Walden’s family, but also through the family of his wife, the former Mary Ann Bowman.
It’s an art as old as stone, marble to be exact. An art and a past time.
His shop is dusty — a thin powder covering the room and its contents.
Rocks and stones of many shapes and sizes are piled on shelves, stacked in old cola bins and in buckets. Some rough, some recently cut into squares and some smoothed into spheres.
A grinder stands in the center of the room with fans on each side to alleviate some of the dust. It holds four blades, each smaller than the next. Sitting at the controls is Monroe Countian Timmy Walden.
Walden has been collecting the stones in his shop for years. He gathers them from locations across Eastern Kentucky, buys some on eBay and has had some given to him.
“Sometimes I will be out walking or riding 4-wheelers with my son, Ben, and something will catch my eye. I will take a hammer and bust it open and see if it is something I am interested in,” he says.
He prefers agate, a quartz rock usually layered or striped.
Some varieties have “eye” markings, or specks of color, some have fossilized inclusions, and others are solid.
Known as the Earth rainbow, agate forms in nearly every color, including a colorless form, and it is perfect for marble making.
Walden has been making marbles for years. It is an art he has also passed down to his son, who has perfected a modernized handmade machine with everything needed for his craft.
The elder Walden, however, prefers his simple grinders using silicon carbide and diamond blades.
He was taught to love the game of marbles by his uncle, Reggie Coffelt.
He notes that his uncle had a marble yard in the late 60s and early 70s, “back then they didn’t let kids play—just watch if you were lucky. They did things a certain way, things are different now.”
He explains that the game of marbles, played with spheres of glass, agate, jasper and other materials, is similar to croquet.
It is played on a dirt yard. Players pitch their marbles across the clay trying to get closest to a hole the same size as the marble. In doing this, they will also try to knock their opponents marbles out of the way. Walden notes that the best way to play is to get down on the ground to pitch the marble. He says players of today have gotten lazy about this, but he prefers the old ways he learned while watching his uncle and his father-in-law, Colonel Bowman, a master marble maker and the 2003 champion.
He demonstrates how to shoot a marble, “You have to roll it back and forth on your thumb a bit and position it on your knuckle. Then use your thumb to give it a thump—shoot it. You need a lot of practice to hit someone else’s marble.”
He shares a box he has handmade for practicing. It has a bell at one end and he notes if you practice and learn to aim and hit that bell that you will be able to hit opponents’ marbles in a game. He aims and shoots ringing the bell for reference.
The practice box is also where he tests the marbles he makes. It is a long process getting each unique, handmade rock just perfect. It begins with the rocks which he cuts into squares.
From there, he grinds each corner down until it is a perfectly smooth marble.
He notes that his uncle used an old washing machine when he made marbles, and that some even used the hubs of automobile wheels.
He noted that he thought it better to use a bench grinder with different size blades than sandpaper.
After cutting the rock into squares he starts on the first grinder, noting that you have to push hard against the wheels to get it started. He does as much as he can on the bigger blade before moving on. It is an art to watch as the dust flies and he twist and turns the stone while the blade spins in fury.
The square stones slowly turn to a circular shape as he works it through each wheel. Each one smaller and more accurate. He pauses here and there to check his work, dipping the rock in water to wash off the dust for a better view.
He notes that he does not just go by looks, but sounds as well.
The last grinder is the smallest and is used for fine detail. It spins away as the dust flies and the smooth rock becomes hot to the touch.
Walden notes he has cut his fingers many times, but it has not deterred him from the art he loves.
He explains that you have to be very careful through the process as well. Some stones are softer than others and can break them if you aren’t careful.
He said “If I lose my marbles, I just make another one.”
Walden has been making the marbles for 30 years and says that while you can buy them mass produced, you will not find any like his.
“There is only one place you are going to find a Timmy Walden marble. You can’t buy it in a store. It is handcrafted—can’t be rushed and you have to have a lot of patience. I take pride in my work and my heart and soul has gone into every one,” he added.
After grinding, each marble is measured, cleaned and then put into a tumbler. This will toss them around putting the finishing touches on the marbles. They can stay in the tumbler for several days up to several weeks. He also notes that putting the marbles in his pocket and having them there with his change and keys also smooths them down over time.
The marbles sell from $5 to $10 with some going for up to $25 and $30, but they are in high demand as players are particular about their marbles. Sometimes, the winning player is also given the opponent’s marbles.
The games are played all over the country with a “Marble Dome” right here in Tompkinsville, located just past the fairgrounds.
The game has held onto its popularity over the years. The popular game here is known as Rolley Hole and has a following of children up to older gentleman who come out for the tournaments held during the Watermelon Festival and other events in town.
Walden has many marbles of his own. Those he has made, some he has collected, some he has won and others he buys to repurpose. He has over 200 in a collection is his home besides what is scattered around his shop.
Folks from as far away as Texas have came to have a “Timmy Walden marble” specially made.
While it can be written about all day, one could never fully understand or appreciate the love and labor that goes into this craft. Nor can you describe the sheer amazement at seeing the rough stones turn into a beautiful, smooth, perfectly round sphere — just the right size for a regulation marble game.
Walden noted that as the popularity of the pastime comes back, and as is passed on to younger generations, he hopes to see more children involved and that scholarships to colleges are even available for this game he loves.
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