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An education in rolle bolle

August 8, 2010

GHENT - Growing up in the Twin Cities, I never thought a wooden peg, a wagon wheel and a vacant dirt lot could make up something so initially confusing, but so beloved in a town.

That was before I drove over to Ghent for the rolle bolle tournament during the town's Belgian-American Days.

Throughout my time here in the Independent, I had only been told about rolle bolle, but to truly comprehend it, rolle bolle had to be seen, not heard.

Article Photos

Photo by Joe Brown
Josh Welvaert, of Ghent, tosses his rolle during the rolle bolle tournament during Belgian-American days Saturday in Ghent. For more photos, go to

Altogether, it's the hybrid of several games: shuffleboard, horseshoes, bocce ball, bowling and curling. Seeing it for the first time, it looked like prehistoric bocce ball after the invention of the wheel, but before an orb was carved out of rock. Or curling with no brooms and no guy shouting instructions over the length of the lot.

"I'd say between horseshoes and curling, it's kind of the same aspects," said Chauncey Welvaert of Ghent, who has played rolle bolle for 21 years.

With players coming in from across the midwest, and even coming into Minnesota from Canada, people swarm to this tiny dirt lot outside the Silver Dollar Bar to play rolle bolle.

Sometimes, to play rolle bolle in Ghent can be a family rite of passage.

"We had alleys at my dad's farm," Welvaert said. "I started there, and when I was eight, he said I was old enough to come to Ghent. I've been happy ever since."

For a first-timer, it's hard to fathom so many people coming together to play something that can be put together in your backyard in about two minutes. But talking to the people who grew up with rolle bolle, it's engrained in their lives.

"To the people who grew up in Ghent, it means a lot," said Donita Bennett, who grew up in Ghent and currently lives in Marshall. "A lot of our grandparents and parents bolled. It's kind of like a family - a rolle bolle family."

"Everybody knows each other, even if they come from out of state," said Tammy Bilko of Redwood Falls. "It's a time we just look forward to seeing each other and everybody can get together."

The point of the game seems simple: the team with the bolle closest to the stake gets the points, much like bocce ball. But that simple explanation doesn't do it justice. There's a great deal of touch and technique to get the placement right on your bolle. A touch of grace is needed for something so crude as a bolle, which looks like it came straight off the axel of a Radio Flyer.

Experienced bollers arch their attempts like the ringer at the local bowling alley, getting the bolle to land right on the edge of the stake. But if you're against a skilled shooter, that gorgeous shot will be gone in a crushing instant.

For the experienced players, playing rolle bolle comes with its own performance enhancer: beer.

"It's mandatory," Welvaert joked. "If you can't hold a beer and bolle at the same time, you probably shouldn't be a boller."

For something that is inherently so simple, it's easy for rolle rolle to stretch across generation of families. Littered throughout the group is novice players taking a lighter take to the game. Perpendicular to the main lot are four shorter lanes for the little tikes. At that young age, the kids are learning the finer points of their shots. Even the rolle bolle lingo comes from their mouths easily. For little boys and girls, it sounded as natural as asking for chocolate milk, or pleading for another episode of "Spongebob Squarepants."

"I used to bolle with my mom and sister," Bennett said. "I try to have (my kids) have fun with it. It doesn't matter if you win or lose. We had a close game that was tied 7-7 and we lost. It was a tough loss, but it was fun."

While the game is confusing for someone coming into Ghent for the first time, it's appeal was universal. It's a backyard game that does more than bring a neighborhood together; it brings a town and a diehard community of bollers together.

"A lot of times, this is the only time you get to see people is for tournaments like this," Welvaert said. "You get to sit around and talk and b.s. with people."



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