There is a site off Highway 11-W, just a few miles outside of Rogersville, Tennessee, that has been virtually forgotten. The obscurity, however, does not diminish its history or the events that took place there. The famous “Marble Hall” once stood around four miles southwest of Rogersville, and many believe its location has been lost to time.
Marble Hall was a palatial estate in Hawkins County, Tennessee. Much of it was made from the marble quarried on the other side of Rogersville. While it has been largely forgotten, the house was famous across America during its day. Sometimes the fame was warranted and sometimes it was infamy. Marble Hall’s earliest history comes from the rock it was named after.
Dr. Gerald Troost, Tennessee’s first state geologist, documented the material some time after 1831. The earliest marble mine in Tennessee was in Hawkins County. This early quarry, around seven miles north of Rogersville, produced some of most admired marble in the nation as far back as 1838.
Tennessee marble is classified as “crystalline limestone” and is unique to eastern Tennessee. The stone is usually a pinkish gray, but can be found in gray, a brown shade called “cedar,” or multicolored (variegated) shades. While it is not a “true marble,” there’s very little difference in the final product.
The industry took decades to pick up solely because the area was so remote. Growth stagnated until the development of the rail lines, which prompted new and unprecedented development. By the 1880s, there were over eleven marble quarries in Knox County alone. By the early 1900s, Tennessee was second only to Vermont in marble production.
Today, East Tennessee marble is widely used. In Knoxville, the Knoxville Customs House and Knoxville Museum of Art both have Tennessee marble exteriors. The National Air and Space Museum, as well as the Robert A. Taft Memorial Tower, feature Tennessee marble exteriors in Washington, DC. Even the Tennessee Supreme Court building in Nashville has a Tennessee marble exterior. It has been used in countless other projects both public and private.
Orville Rice was not a Tennessee native. He was one of three cousins who came from Connecticut to the Tennessee frontier. None of them had a great deal when they arrived. Rice had a horse and carriage, and for a time supported himself by peddling tin-ware from home-to-home.
Tin led to other products and Rice grew successful. He purchased a sizable piece of property that happened to be along the old stage line. He opened a country store, a tavern, and a small “stage stand” where he could entertain travelers.
He brought in a product called a “Connecticut-made wooden clock.” These mass-produced clocks, usually tall and encased, were more affordable than their custom-made counterparts. The exotic clocks sold as soon as he received new shipments. His clock salesmen traveled throughout the southeastern United States.
Then, they discovered Tennessee marble. Rice helped open the first quarry in 1838. The Rogersville Marble Company was formed in April and Orville Rice was the first president.
Rice persuaded the Tennessee general assembly to appropriate funds for the region. He knew much improvement was needed for transporting the marble, as well as general development in the isolated area. Unfortunately, no one anticipated so much area. The money eventually ran out and the massive project was forgotten. This limited the marble industry for decades longer. Large chunks of the quarried material had to be taken to Baltimore via a six-horse wagon.
Around this time, Rice donated a block to the Washington Monument that read, “From Hawkins County.” Tennessee marble was also used in the Capitol building. Rice was sole owner of the company by 1844 and successfully continued the business for years.