All thumbs in Bend: marbles players compete

Des Chutes Historical Museum’s tournament now 5 years old

By Scott Hammers / The Bulletin

Mibsters, both young and not so young, knuckled down behind the taw line to take aim at the cat’s eyes Saturday at the Des Chutes Historical Museum’s annual Summer Shootout marbles tournament.

Kelly Cannon-Miller, director of the museum, said the idea for the now 5-year-old tournament was born out of an old newspaper article.

Museum staffers were picking through an old paper from the 1920s on a research assignment, she said, and got sidetracked by an account of a marbles tournament in which the winner rode off on a new bicycle.

Further research revealed several local marbles tournaments held clear up to the early 1970s, Cannon-Miller said, and once Gear Peddler signed on to provide some bikes as prizes, the museum launched its own tournament.

“We’d found that it wasn’t really all that long gone, and we wanted to bring marbles back,” she said.

Cannon-Miller said most of the kids who’ve competed in the tournament are first-time players, or players who only pick up a shooter when the tournament comes around.

Aiden Crossen, 8, of Bend, said he’d played with marble runs, a toy where marbles are sent rolling down a series of roller coaster-style tracks, but hadn’t ever played straight marbles, where players use their thumbs to flick a larger shooter marble at smaller marbles to knock them out of a ring.

After winning his first game, Aiden said he was learning fast, picking up on how the playing mats sloped from west to east and just how hard to flick his shooter to keep it from rolling out of bounds.

Charles King said he makes “a bad ringer,” despite being the most veteran player in the tournament Saturday.

A Beaverton resident, King said he’s only played a little since his sixth-place finish in a state tournament in 1956 and has probably lost some of his power since he ran a power saw over his shooting thumb several years ago.

King, 73, grew up in Prineville playing marbles with his classmates at Ochoco Grade School. By the third grade, he was regularly beating all of the younger kids at school, so at recess, he’d sneak around to the other side of the playground to take on the fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders.

Prineville kids played for keeps in those days, with the winner taking home the loser’s marbles. King eventually compiled a collection of more than 6,000 marbles, he said, which his family still has and plans to donate to Prineville’s Bowman Museum eventually.

“I’d take one shooter and 10 marbles with me to school, and come home with one shooter and 20 or 30 marbles. Every day,” King said.

Father-son team Keith and Riley Johnson, who split their time between Bend and Japan, said Saturday was their first shot at marbles in quite a while. Keith Johnson, 56, said his son got a bag of marbles at Christmas maybe six years ago, but they’ve long since disappeared.

Riley, 15, said he’d found a perfectly legal performance-enhancing substance to elevate his play, grinning to expose his red-flecked teeth to reveal his secret.

“Red Vines,” he said. “Keep eating Red Vines.”

The Johnsons made it to the final round Saturday, but finished second and third, falling short of taking home the bicycle awarded to the top older player.

The elder Johnson said they’d redouble their efforts in the future.

“We’ll be back next year,” he said with a laugh. “We’re gonna go home and practice every day, and we’ll be back next year.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0387, shammers@bendbulletin.com