At ninety-two, Dick Claeys is the oldest active rolle bolle player in Iowa and something of a local legend. In the interview I conducted with him, he spoke about his ninety years of experience playing the game that his father brought over with him when he emigrated from Belgium in 1911. This interview was conducted on July 3rd and has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Probably two years old. We always had these little wooden bolles. I was about two, and we had had a bolle court, it was made of dirt, and I just went out to boll. Of course we had chickens running around and sometimes we’d have a little action on the bolles with the chickens, because they’d run all over. But that was just part of the hazard of playing bolle with chickens. It was entertainment, and it kept me out of mischief. And I just got into the bad habit of playing bolle; I’ve played all my life since then.
And the wooden bolles that you had, did your parents bring those over from Belgium?
Yes, my dad, August Claeys, he brought a lot of them over around 1934. He came over in 1911 as a single man, and he bummed around here, and worked here and there, and in 1917, during World War I he enlisted in the army and that’s how he got his citizenship papers. He and my mother, Erma—her maiden name was Van Hamme—, got married in 1918 while he was in the service, and she came over during World War I on a Canadian trip ship. They had known each other over in Belgium. My dad came from around Ghent, and my mother from Oosteeklo, a very small town. They said they were about five minutes apart, but that meant by bicycle.
So they were both from a region where rolle bolle was being played?
Yes, Ghent, that’s kind of the hub of rolle bolle in Belgium. It’s not played all over, just in a small area, like in this country, it’s just certain localities. Over there, they just played in that region, and here they play where the Belgians immigrated. We always had a lot of them around Victor, Hartwick, Marengo, Belle Plaine, and Brooklyn. That’s where a lot of the Devilders and Demeulenaeres and Desmets and Gryps were from. So it’s a lot of people coming from the same small area to another small area.
And you know, it’s small country, Belgium. It’s only a third the size of Iowa, but it’s very densely populated. They don’t have any 160-acre farms, they have two or three acres, but they make a living out of it. So it’s kind of hard to advance very much monetarily, so they came over here, and they worked hard, and they all accomplished quite a bit, they made out pretty good. They all owned farms, and they were fairly well-to-do.
When you started to play when you were two years old, did you just teach yourself?
Yeah, those days, the Belgians got together at somebody’s house every Sunday and played bolle. Everybody had these wooden bolles. We didn’t really have many tournaments at that time. Very few, not like you do right now, where there are tournaments all over. It was more recreation, getting together on Sunday afternoons. Gather the family together and the kids would play games. The men would be out playing under a shade tree playing on plain dirt courts.
The women wouldn’t play bolle at the time. They’d go visit and make lunch, and they’d bring some home-brew. Sometimes the men would have too much home-brew, and they’d send the women home to do the chores and the men would just keep playing bolle. But not very often. You know, they worked hard and the partied hard. They’d do that as long as it was warm, and then in the wintertime, they’d get together and play this card game called bean.
When you were growing up did your parents speak Flemish at all?
Oh, yes. When I went to school, I actually had to learn English. That was my parents’ native language, and they gradually learned to speak English, but everyone conversed amongst themselves in Flemish.
And later on, when you got married, did your wife and children play?
My wife did play. She was Irish, so when she was born, she didn’t know what bolle was, but she was born in a Belgian neighborhood, and she watched, and she learned how to play it later on. And my son and two daughters all played it really good.
So all three of your children play; how many of your nieces and nephews play?
Well, a lot of them play occasionally. They all really know what the bolle game is about.
Have you been playing consistently throughout your life, or did you ever have to take time off from it?
Well, I wasn’t playing for two years when I was in the army. But ever since then, I always made tournaments, even when I was farming. I’d work half the night to have Saturday afternoon off—we used to have our tournaments on Saturday afternoon—and I made a lot of the tournaments. I missed some of them in Minnesota because I couldn’t be away. We used to milk some cows, and it’s almost impossible to get somebody to milk cows. I missed a few years because of that, but the big tournaments I always made it there. It’s my passion.
And now are you playing about once a week?
Yeah, I play every week. Tonight, there’s going to be a game at Marengo. Tomorrow, it’s in Belle Plaine.
Were you somebody who played on one team consistently or did you switch it up?
I played consistently with Gene Van Gampleare, and then I used to play with a guy named Fred Devilder, and he passed away pretty young, around fifty. And then we played with Donald Blomme, that would have been a nephew of Gene and his team. And then when we won the world, I went with Gene and my cousin, Maurice Van Hamme. And we played two years after that. And then I played with Bill DeBrower some and Josh Van Thournout and that’s when we won the international in Minnesota, and we won the carpet bolling in the spring, in Marshall, Minnesota.
I’ve had a lot of good partners. It takes three, it’s just like any good team, you’ve got to have everybody contribute a little bit.
Is there a position that you usually play?
I was usually the lead-off man, and then Gene was the middle-man, and Fred Devilder was the shooter. Then Donald Blomme replaced him as the shooter. And I could shoot it, I was a left-handed man. There was a couple of years, I was a second shooter, because I was left-handed and the other guy was right-handed, and that gives you a little bit of an advantage.
Is it usually the best player who plays first?
Oh, I don’t know about that. Somebody has to be the goat! No, I played it enough I could figure out the courts pretty quickly. The courts are all a little bit different, and basically rolle bolle is a matter of two S’s: Spot and Speed. You pick your spot in the middle, you know how your bolle going to break, and it’s just about hitting the spot and how much speed you put on it. It’s just like bowling. Then you have to have your rhythm, it’s a combination of a lot of things. And to improve, you have to think about what you did wrong and you just adapt a little bit here and there.
Are they places around here where they used to play it where it isn’t being played anymore?
Hartwick used to have it, and they don’t play there anymore. And Clutier, they say they’re going to have a tournament there, but they never had good tournaments, they played on a side hill. We made do. But at one time we had about ten places, and that would work for the whole summer. Our participation is down; now we have about 35 people playing consistently, but we used to have 100, 120, 130 people, but people have to have the same interest.
You know, when I was young, I was the sole money-earner. My wife, she taught school, and would substitute a little bit, but raised the kids and mostly she stayed home. And so I did what I did and she’d come too. But now both people are working, and they have different occupations and different leisure activities. Eventually sometimes they drift away and they come back every once in a while. But we have a few die-hard ones, and we get some people from Illinois, they’ll drive a hundred miles or so in the winter to play at B’s. So we’re trying to keep it going, but it’s kind of a tug-of-war where you’re on the light end.
Since you’ve been playing for such a long time, can you tell us any older players we should know about?
I’m the oldest active bolle player around here now. Leroy Bral is about a year and a half younger. They call me the legend, I don’t know why, but I guess…I do remember a lot of these older bolle players. Younger guys, like Bill and them, they weren’t around when some of these older players were around. Bill’s about sixty, I suppose, and he’s a young buck. Very good bolle player, and he really promotes it. But there’s gotta be hundreds of bolles around. At one time, I sold rolle bolles, and I know I sold about 400 of them.
Did you make them?
No, I got them from a guy out in Illinois. At that time Frank Maddelein was the man who was making the bolles, and he made good bolles. And then somebody else took it over, and they were crafted at Henry Engineering in East Moline. They had the formula, and they put the stuff—whatever they were made out of, it’s kind of a secret—and then for some reason or other, I don’t know if they started substituting, or changing it, but the bolle quality went down.
When did you meet the DeBrowers and the DeNeves for the first time?
I used to run a lot of these bolle games. And shortly after I got out of the service, probably when I was in my twenties, I used to write down all the names. And I remember Art [DeBrower], when he’d come in. He’d give me a ten-dollar bill—it cost a dollar to play—and maybe he’d get a dollar back, because he had about eight or nine he had to register. There was John, Frank, Tom, Dave, Doug, Dean, Harold, and Bill. And then Craig Rhinehart was an in-law. And he’d pay for them all, and ten dollars was a lot of money back in those days, it’s like maybe fifty now. Billy was a good bolle player, he always was. He was kind of the baby. I knew him before he married Linda.
You probably knew him from very young, because he was the youngest in the family when you were in your twenties.
I knew him when he was seven or eight, memory kind of fails me on that. I can say I’ve known him most of his life. He’s been my bolle player. And we’re still the best of friends. When we’d play league bolle up at B’s, he and I were partners up there, and my daughter. And we tied for first up there, and we got second with carpet bolle. I enjoyed playing with him. We had a lot of fun times.
What do you think is so special about rolle bolle?
The camaraderie, the friendship. You get to meet your friends, and I met a lot of my best friends through rolle bolle. And it’s from a large community. I know a lot people who come and play from Minnesota, and Illinois, and Canada. And we’re just all there for entertainment. It’s like any sport, you’re gonna have a bad apple here and there, you know, but not too many. Some of them play the sport a little stricter, but you tolerate it, because you’re out there to have a good time. You don’t do it for the money.
It is fun that you usually win something, though. That’s motivating.
Not all the time, but if you want to see the trophies they’re over there in the back room over there. The biggest thing about it, though, is I probably met some of my best friends through rolle bolle, and my wife did too. And if you didn’t you wouldn’t keep going on back and playing all the time. It’s kind of nice to see them every week that way. The friendship, and just the joy of getting together and playing.