When we were kids in Louisville, Kentucky, we played all kinds of games: hide and seek, kick the can (on Bayly Avenue), jump rope, “Peggy” (with a bat and ball), basketball (with any kind of ball available), stick ball (usually with a tennis ball), to say nothing of neighborhood struggles in football (both touch and tackle). I was later to discover these games were pretty simple, compared to those that had been played in the past in Eastern Kentucky and in other parts of Appalachia.
Traditional games here took many forms: games for large groups and small, games indoors or outdoors, boy’s or girl’s (or both) games for different age groups, noisy or quiet games, games that were slow or vigorous, mentally or physically challenging games, and a game for nearly every occasion and mood.
The names of the games could be as imaginative as the games themselves: Ante Over, Old Granny Hum Bum, Fox and Geese, Hull Gull, and Mumble Peg. The equipment was usually minimal, often simply reflecting what was available. A ball could be “store boughten” or homemade from tightly wound yarn. A bat was often a straight stick. “Make do or do without” was the universal rule. The rules of the games could vary from place to place or even from day to day. Improvisation was the key here, too.
Most older folks remember Ante (“Annie”) Over as one of the most universally played games. A low building and a ball were all that was required. The ball was tossed over, or bounced on, the roof to a team waiting on the other side. If the ball were caught, the person who caught it would try to conceal it, while other team members pretended to have the ball. As each team raced around the building the person with the ball would try to hit members of the other team with the ball and “capture” them. The game continued until one side captured everyone on the other team.
With Fox and Hounds, there were no boundaries or time limits and almost no rules. One layer was the “fox” and the rest “hounds.” The “fox” would run off through the woods leaving a trail of bits of paper or broken twigs. The “hounds” stayed on the trail until the “fox” was in sight. Then the “fox” was allowed to go on its own without leaving a visible trail, trying to make it back to the “den” (the home base), without being caught.
Any number of children could play Red Rover, a schoolyard favorite. Two teams locked hands and lined up facing each other: “Red Rover, Red Rover, send [name] over.” The named player would run and try to break through the hands of two players on the other team. If successful, he “captured” those two players. If not, he had to stay. the team that captured all the other team members but one, won.
Old Granny Wiggins Is Dead was perhaps the silliest game of all, but great fun. Players would stand in a circle while the “lead” person cried: “Old Granny Wiggins is dead.” The next person would say: “How’d she die?” Next person: “She died this way,” and then they would do something like waving a hand up and down continuously. The next person had to start waving in the same fashion. The phrases were repeated for every person in the circle until everyone was waving. Other movements were added until feet, heads and hands were all in motion. The real fun came, when, at a signal, everyone fell over “dead” on top of each other to end the game.
Old Granny Hum Bum was an exercise in pantomime. One player acted like an old woman, while the others would say: “Old Granny Hum Bum, where did you come from?” Answer: “Pretty Girl’s Station.” Reply: “What’s your occupation?” Then “Granny” would act out an occupation, like sewing, which the other players would try to guess.
Horseshoes was an eminently social game in the Appalachian region. A typical layout was a fifty-foot long court with pits about four-feet square, with iron takes int he center of the pits. Players could pitch from either side of the pits and scored one point if they tossed to within six inches of the stake and three points for a “ringer.” “Leaners,” in some locales, earned two points. Stacked ringers cancelled each other out. The winner was the first team to reach an agreed upon number, or the team with the highest score after fifty pitches.
Marbles were played by almost all the school-aged boys, and some of the girls, with Bull Ring the most common version. A circle about eight feet in diameter would be drawn in the dirt. After agreeing on how many marbles to play for, players would roll, “lag,” a marble to a line to determine who went first. Players shot with a “taw,” a large marble, or a “steely,” a steel ball bearing. Players tried to knock marbles out of the ring without physically touching another marble, and without the “taw” leaving the ring.
Men played Mumble (“Mumbly”) Peg. In one version, two players with pocket knives tried to stick a blade upright in a circle drawn on the ground using a sequence of twenty or so positions. The first player to complete the sequence won the game. The loser had to retrieve, with his teeth, a small peg that had been driven into the ground with a couple of licks from the winner’s knife handle.
That certain games persisted for many generations, “tested by time,” seems to indicate that there is something in the human spirit which is satisfied through the continuation of these simple rituals. Videos, computer-generated games, and organized team sports have seriously eroded interest in the games we used to play, and the games I’ve listed here don’t begin to exhaust the list of games we used to play.