Many visitors to, the Home Page of Phil and Polly Brown’s extended family may not be immediately familiar with what precisely a ball roll is. This was certainly my situation almost thirty years ago when I became romantically attached to one of the Brown sisters. At that time my idea of a vacation included things like deep sea fishing or going to the top of the Empire State Building or Pike’s Peak rather than a leisurely, unstructured two weeks at the beach without TV or phone or places to have a lavish brunch. As the years passed and the children arrived I came (slowly) to appreciate not only the peaceful rhythm of hanging out at the shore but that what I had originally thought of as sitting on the beach doing nothing actually included a number of activities orchestrated by my father-in-law, Phil. One of these, of course, was the construction of a ball roll.

The classic ball roll consisted of a modest, conical mound of wet sand. Once Phil and the grandchildren had the mound up to a foot or eighteen inches, Kate would produce a little rubber ball and dig a ball-sized track around the little hill. The ball would then be dropped onto the top of the track by whichever grandchild was deemed to have achieved the appropriate level of hand-eye coordination needed to reach the top of the track without tumbling onto the mound. An early refinement was the digging of a little catch basin for the ball. A small plastic bucket full of seawater was placed in the basin and this both caught the ball and washed it off so it was ready for the next run. Another was the decoration of the ball roll with random bits of seaweed. From these modest innovations sprang the mighty technological marvel that is the Brown family ball roll today.

Despite our family’s long time interest in the ball roll I can’t say I noticed lots of other people building them. Was it something Phil had seen other people doing on the Eastern Shore beaches or had he learned the techniques growing up on Lake Ontario? I’m sure someone can fill us in on the history of the ball roll.

Phil’s most untimely death occurred about the time the older grandchildren were getting to the age when they might naturally have been leaving the places and activities of youth behind them. Happily, the annual trip to Bethany Beach has remained pretty much a constant for the Brown family cousins and one of the highlights of the reunion is the construction of the ball roll. One of the most gratifying aspects of the ball roll is its thoroughly collective nature, a product of the close relationship between the cousins. Still, as the outlines of the post-Phil ball roll traditions were taking shape in the early 90s it was possible to see each cousin filling a particular niche. Andrew, as the family engineer, and an early riser to boot, was the one who conceived the annual ball roll as a really big operation and has been responsible for pushing the envelope in both size and complexity. Amanda, whose contribution to the project was perhaps more moral and spiritual than physical in the early days was often accompanied by one suitor or another. These lads, anxious to make a good impression on the family could be counted on to move substantial amounts of sand. Duncan, a sculptor, often arrived at the beach with plans or sketches and has been most responsible for the remarkable esthetic effects achieved. The expansion of the ball roll tradition coincided with Corey’s years as a camp counselor and he became the head of crowd control, establishing procedures where the random kids on the beach could play on the ball roll without wrecking it. Sam and Liz started off as young acolytes, pitching in where they could but by now have established themselves as key members of the team taking leadership roles in design, labor and project management. We trust that Bitsy and Rosemary will be the first of many in-laws and grandchildren who will provide the next generation of Brown family ball rollers.

If you’d like to see the ball roll in person, come on down to the 2nd Street Beach, Bethany Beach, Delaware, first week of August. We’ll be there.

-Michael Stevens