The Secret Life of Marbles


Child’s toy tells a story of a forgotten aspect of farm life

Chris Kale and Granddaughter show Marble Collection.

Photo courtesy of Farm Journal/Chris Bennett

Childhood secrets are hiding in the dirt. Months after crops are harvested, the slanted rays of morning or evening sunlight fire large circular patterns of crushed glass spread across farmland. The shining glass along field edges is all that remains of sharecropper and tenant farmer sites once dotting Southern farmland. The shotgun houses and clapboard shacks are gone, but a child’s toy waits patiently, lingering in the rows. Time, tillage and rainfall reveal the sharecropper’s last testament: forgotten clusters of magnificent clay, agate and glass marbles.

On a clear day in early May, Bernie Wright is walking rows, eyes down and head moving gently back and forth. A single inch of rain has parked Wright’s cotton planters, but it hasn’t kept him out of the fields. “There’s something special about the marbles in these fields, and I love finding them. They meant a lot to somebody long ago and maybe that’s why I enjoy looking,” he says.

Bernie Wright, farm manager at Longino Planting Co., in Jonestown, Miss., checks a field for marbles prior to cotton planting.

Wright doesn’t need sun on the horizon to fire glass reflections because he already knows where the old homes stood. Most of the tenant houses were torn down in the 1960s and Wright, farm manager at Longino Planting Co., in Jonestown, Miss., remembers the locations from childhood.

Before the advent of heavy machinery, the flat vista of Mississippi Delta was heavily pocked with houses lining turn rows and county roads. The tenant system required on-site workers, and the accompanying logistics translated to a range of housing layouts, from an isolated handful of dwellings on a back road to scores of homes concentrated around a commissary and schoolhouse. Necessity dictated tenants live and work at the same location. “People have forgotten how many houses used to cover farm ground,” Wright says. “Sharecroppers had to live on their parcel of land.”

The old house sites offer a mix of glass shards, stoneware chips, bricks, buttons, coal, mangled cutlery and cork-top bottlenecks—the detritus of a farming day long since passed. Yet, in stark contrast to the other crushed remains, time has been kind to marbles.... (Read More) @ FarmJournal