The Ghosts of Marble Hall

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Marble Hall

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.


Tennessee Marble

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.


The Marble Mine

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.


The History of Marble Hall

Marble Hall was constructed in 1846. The date was chiseled atop one of the marble drains. It was a towering structure with 22 rooms and 3 floors, not counting the basement and attic. A circular stairway reached from the first floor to the last. Orville Rice constructed the home four miles southwest of Rogersville, beside what is 11-W today.

The primary building material was brick, but marble was used throughout. Rice decided to name the place, “Marble House.” Not only did marble money build it, it was the main accent. The home had marble throughout its entirety, lintels for doors and windows, flooring, fireplace mantels, windowsills, exterior drains, the balustrades, finials, shelving, and a host of other details.

Orville’s son, Horace, was born in 1835. Orville named his son after his brother. Horace eventually became Colonel Horace Rice. The Confederate leader participated in some of the largest Civil War battles, including Chickamauga. Col. Rice also fought at the Battle of Franklin, where he was shot and taken prisoner in November of 1864. He survived the bullet wound, but was then held prisoner until May of 1865.

As a result of his son’s participation in the war, Orville’s property and assets were seized by Crawford W. Hall, a Lincoln-appointed U.S. District Attorney. The government didn’t stop with Rice, they also seized properties from George and Samuel Powell, as well as Audley Anderson.

It took months of paperwork as well as an attorney’s assistance. All of them even contacted President Andrew Johnson to ask for pardon. Samuel was pardoned in October 1865, but his brother George wasn’t until July of 1866. Rice wasn’t pardoned until January of 1866. Anderson likewise had to wait on the sluggish system.


Another Sudden Loss

Rice’s property was returned to him, but he wouldn’t enjoy it for long. Rice was always looking for the next investment and thought he found one in Southwestern Virginia. He used the majority of his assets to purchase huge pieces of property in the neighboring state. He was convinced that copper was the next big industry and hoped to find several copper mines on his new property. Unfortunately, it was a big assumption that didn’t pan out.

He lost everything. Debtors sold Marble Hall in 1972. He even lost his quarry. Rice and his wife moved to a small house on Caney Creek. Horace recovered from the old war wound and moved on, but tragedy came to the family again in 1871. Horace died in Lexington, Tennessee, in September of 1871. He’d just been elected to the Senate, but died before he took his seat.

Orville was buried in the Presbyterian Church in Rogersville, in 1879. His wife, Margaret, died in 1881. The Rice family had completely moved out of Hawkins County by the middle of the Twentieth Century.



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