When North Dakota 'lost its marbles'

It was 1937, playing marbles was a big deal, and a state tournament pitted the best of the best against each other. Then came controversy.

two boys shoot marbles on the ground in this historical black-and-white photo
Boys shooting marbles in Woodbine, Iowa, in May 1940, in what appears to be a much lower-stakes game than the controversy of 1937 in North Dakota. Photographed by John Vachon, a photographer with the Farm Security Administration.
Courtesy / Library of Congress

All across North Dakota in 1937, boys and girls age 14 or younger were preparing to go head-to-head in a great marble tournament.

Depending on size of the community, schools held tournaments first; then cities held their own tournaments, waiting for the best player to shoot his or her way to the top. Next, county tournaments separated, and then, tri-county tournaments. Finally, the top shooters were sent to Grand Forks on May 15 to compete for district and state championship.

Several children who won a marbles tournament stand in line in a historical black and white photo in a newspaper clipping
Clipping from The Bismarck Tribune, May 11, 1937.
(Courtesy / Bismarck Tribune via

Marble Champs were “out for blood” in Bismarck. There were reports of expected “kibitzing” from the grade-schoolers. “If the excitement of the school tournaments last Saturday is any indication, police squads will have to be called out … to quell the inter-school riots as fans root for their champs,” the Bismarck Capital reported.

It was a big deal in Ashley, too. After the paper printed a listing of rules, and a listing of awards to come, in the results of a long tourney, one boy and one girl were to travel on to the tourney for McIntosh County. It was on this day that Ashley hosted a vicious, county play-off against Wishek. Wishek won; then the problems began.

Some of those involved in the tournament found that it was unfair: “Members of the committee, consisting of four boys … protested on the grounds that the county marble tournament was not satisfactory, and because of the cold weather, should never have been played.”


a newspaper clipping from May 1937 about the terminology involved in playing marbles
Newspaper clipping from the Mandan Morning Pioneer, May 1, 1937.

Indeed, the weather was particularly bad that week, and papers across the state reported roaring gales that carried sleet, snow and dust with them to different parts of the state. Whether or not that affected the outcome of the tournament was debatable—but it was debatable enough that they decided to leave all decisions about the tournament’s outcome up to the county supervisor.

It didn’t matter in the end, though. The big game in Grand Forks—and, in fact, every game he played there—was won by 11-year-old William Stroh, from Mandan. He beat Howard Moen, a 13-year-old from Mayville, by 3-1 in the final match. Third place went to Cornet Haroldson of Aneta, fourth to Dale Butterfield of Stanley, and fifth to the “southpaw” Bob Odney of Grand Forks.

In this case, one tournament caused the whole state to lose its marbles.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from Humanities North Dakota. It is edited for presentation on Forum Communication Co. sites by Jeremy Fugleberg, editor of The Vault. See all the Dakota Datebooks at,  subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at

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