By Ari Goldblatt – Sometimes the history of our country and key fixtures of American Culture, what we call Americana, are best told through the life of individuals who become intricately connected to them. While it’s a good bet most of you have not heard of Benjamin Nelson, known as Ben to friends and family, for over 65 years he has developed a lifelong passion for the Carrom Game Board and the Carrom Company, and amassed a Carrom Game Board collection of over 200 games!
A former special education teacher of 30 years for mentally and physically challenged children, Ben Nelson was born in 1952 in Scottville, Michigan, just around six miles from Ludington, where our factory and headquarters is located. Ben Nelson’s life started off in typical Western Michigan fashion. He grew up in a traditional family setting with his parents, older brother and younger sister, who both still reside in Michigan to this day. Like most families in Scottville, he had a Carrom Game Board and recalls playing starting to play Carroms at a young age.
What makes Ben so unique and interesting is he has over 200 different Carrom Game Boards and games made by the Carrom Company. With such a large collection comes a rather deep knowledge pool of all things Carrom and, as a result, Ben served as the Carrom Company’s unofficial historian. Before the internet took off, he would field regular phone calls directed to him by the Carrom’s main office anytime someone had a unique question about the history of a particular product or the company itself.
Ben Nelson, was always an avid Carrom Game Board player and enthusiast, courtesy of his older Brother Dan’s motivation to groom a worthy opponent. However, his true passion and desire to learn more about the Carrom Company and its game board started when he attended college.
In 1974, Ben attended Grand Valley State University with his good friend Tom McCumber. Not having all the money in the world to spend at the local bars in Grand Rapids, Ben and Tom were looking for something to keep themselves occupied between their hours of studying. One day Ben and Tom walked into a local Goodwill Store and came across a rather large collection of beautiful Carrom Game Boards. Both being reminded of their childhood playing carroms with their respective families, they bought a couple boards and figured with a six pack of beer they could have a good enough time.
It should come as no surprise by anyone who attended University, when you get college age kids together with some beer and a mutual focus of interest in a particular game or activity, these days Beer Pong, Quarters, and Cornhole are popular, life long memories have a tendency to be created. In this case, Ben and Tom not only passed the time with good laughs and competitive challenges, they both developed a connection to the Carrom Game Board that has stayed with them their entire lives, and in Ben’s case, a true hobby with a deeper meaning.
For Ben, the Carrom Game Board represents a wonderful wholesome family game that enables him to conjure those feel good memories that date back all the way to his childhood. However, the historian in him appreciates the Carrom Game Board’s connection to local history and its proud representation of his humble community’s culture.
To get a better understanding of the deeper meaning of the Carrom Game Board’s place in his community and culture, we need to go further back into the Nelson Family’s history, which is a journey through the Carrom Game Board history.
Ben recounted his family history and called out some really interesting details. The earliest known Nelson descendants in his family tree date back to the 1760s, when they lived on the east coast. Ben’s Grandfather was born in Michigan in 1882 but it was Ben’s Grandmother who has his family’s first intimate connection with the Carrom Company.
Ben’s Grandmother, Mary Julia Nelson, was born in 1893 and in her early twenties she actually knitted the fishnet pockets for the Carrom Game Board. His grandmother’s integral involvement in the manufacturing process for thousands of Carrom Game Boards at the turn of the 20th Century certainly influenced Ben’s personal connection to the Carrom Company.
Growing up, Ben recounted how his brother Dan primarily initiated most of the games in the Nelson household with his mother also jumping in when she wasn’t occupied with her factory job in Ludington and tending to the home. Dan is two years older and a very skilled player in his own right but Ben held his own at the kitchen table, developing his own pointer finger shooting technique.
Because there were only three TV channels in Scottville in the 1960s, and every household had a Carrom Game Board, the local families naturally developed a mutual love for the game. Even though it was double sided, and offered the abundance of games, according to Ben, Carroms was the primary game played at his home and locally. Crokinole wasn’t nearly as popular as Carroms in Scottville. So invested was the community of Scottville in the Game Board, they even established their own brand of carroms rules, ultimately called, Scottville Rules.
The Scottville Rules (essentially 8 ball pool) is proudly featured as the second entry of the Official Carrom Game Board Rule Book, which was drafted by, you guessed it, Ben Nelson. You can read those rules for yourself at this link as they are intricate, unique and speak to what appears to be the town’s high proficiency and skill in Carroms. Basically Carroms was not hard enough for Ben, Tom, and other Scottvillites, they had to invent their own, much more challenging, game.
Ben’s Carrom Game Board collection of 200 games includes around 150 Carrom Company games and Carrom Company manufactured Game Boards. The other 50 game boards are made by other companies but they all offer something unique and special. Ben recounts the Carrom Company used to aggressively pursue patent and copyright violations to protect the intellectual property unique to the Carrom Company; the first company patent was registered in 1892. Of the 150 Carrom games, around 40-50 represent truly different styles and models, indicating he possesses multiples of a lot his collection.
Details about Ben’s Carrom Game Board Collection:
- Carrom Style J Baseball Game: This game featured a pitching machine. Ben has the board but not a complete game with all the pieces.
- Carrom Style T tennis Game: Produced between 1939 to 1941, it is a very unique tennis themed game featuring a ramp that serves up a disk and players use paddles to hit it back and forth.
- Carrom Golf: Made in 1960, it was a golf themed game where players played 9-hole golf on the wooden course.
- Carrom GI Nut Cracker: Manufactured after WWII, and utilizing various sized pieces of wood that can move on a plane within a frame, participants need to move the empty space from the bottom of the board to the top. This game is a prime example of how Carrom often came up with new games to figure out how to make use of by product wood from other games.
- Carrom Lunar Tic Game: Manufactured in the late 1950s, it featured popular space vehicles at the time such as Sputnik, Explorer 1 and other crafts.
- Lew Fonseca edition of The Carrom Baseball Game: Lew Fonseca was the first baseman for the Chicago White Sox between the years 1931 and 1933, and played in the majors between 1921 and 1933. This game showcases one of Carrom’s only product endorsement deals with a popular regional professional baseball player, versus one with national prominence, like Babe Ruth or Lou Gehrig.
Looking to the future, Ben feels there is still a relevant and meaningful place for the Carrom Company. Just like he saw different technologies come into play during his life, such as video games in the 80s and the internet in the 90s, Carrom Company classics like the Carrom Game Board and Nok Hockey have managed to maintain relevancy. And now with so much of children’s lives on mobile and digital devices it makes sense responsible parents would, at times, want to unplug their kids and encourage them to enjoy other non-digital activities. Just like parents tell their kids to not play with matches or eat too much candy, it makes sense for parents to tell their kids to change up their activities so it’s not ALL digital experiences.
As for the Carrom Game Board, its 130+ year lifespan is a testament to the games and product itself. It’s simple and easy enough to teach to an 8-year-old but challenging enough to maintain a lifetime of interest and fuel motivation to perfect one’s skill. Not every game can hold this balance between easy and complex, while being fun, and scores of generations have positively reacted the same way to the Carrom Game Board.
Ben will keep playing Carroms and collecting game boards because that is what he loves to do. Friends from all over give him tips and leads on new boards and Carrom games he doesn’t yet have. Ben is certain there are more games he has never seen and that is part of what fuels his passion – the search is half the fun and it’s never fully over.
Regarding Ben’s primary passion in life, he and his wife Gena have four children – three daughters and a son. While all his kids enjoyed playing on the Carrom Game Board with their parents, it is Ben’s youngest daughter Dana, who lives in Alaska and works in environment conservation, that truly loves the Carrom Game Board. In fact, just recently she got herself a new board and has been passing along the Scottville passion to her friends in Alaska.
When asked what he intends to do with his Carrom Game Board collection when he’s done collecting, Ben says he would love to figure out a way to turn his collection into a museum for the town and community of Ludington. Ben won’t find a more ardent supporter of such an idea than the Carrom Company. For people visiting Ludington, Michigan, what would be a more appropriate fixture of local Americana than a Carrom Company museum? Not only is Ludington the birthplace of such a historic and beloved game, the company continues to operate and help contribute to the local economy, as it has since the late 1800s.
Hopefully in the coming years we might be able to provide an update on the plans for a Carrom Company Museum. Until then, Ben Nelson will enjoy playing Carroms, and all the other games with his friends and family and enjoying his retirement where it all started, Scottville Michigan. Just make sure to learn Scottville rules before you drop in for a game.
Ben Nelson, firstname.lastname@example.org