A decidedly low-tech game with plenty of local flavour is seeing something of a resurgence lately, which suits crokinole board-maker Willard Martin just fine.
He took over his father’s business in 1993, and since then he says things have grown exponentially.
“I remember when we started 50 years ago, when my dad started making boards, he was producing about one-tenth of what we do now every year,” he said. “Now, there are a number of different manufacturers that are making crokinole boards. I know one manufacturer who is back-ordered two months. I am not that bad, but I am working very steadily.”
In recent years, the game has spiked in popularity. Martin says he thinks the public is trying to disconnect a bit from the technology that surrounds us.
“I really think people are getting fed up with batteries and screens – those kinds of games. It is just great for the family and it is really fun. I think some people are trying to move away from the screens. It is really difficult to do. They are everywhere,” he said.
He points to the invention of Crokicurling – a game recently installed at The Forks plaza in Winnipeg by Public City Architecture. It adds a new slippery spin to the game with an ice surface in the shape of a crokinole board with pegs and all, but big enough for curling rocks.
“I think that is very cool,” said Martin, adding that combining curling and crokinole isn’t a new idea. “Even way back when my dad was making them, Detroit Curling Club was buying our crokinole boards, putting them in their clubhouse and calling it tabletop curling. Even then, there was this relationship between curling and crokinole. Winnipeg has done a wonderful job, and apparently, it is huge. I saw some people playing and golly, it is a big rink.”
The game is thought to have been invented in the Tavistock area in the mid 1800s, and while the origins of crokinole are up for debate, Martin likes the idea of creating boards close by to where the game came into existence.
“I am willing to leave it at that, and from there, it was really quickly adopted into family homes,” he said, mentioning the game was quickly picked up by more conservative populations. “It has never been attached to gambling, it has never been known to be in pool halls or places with bad reputations.”
He has been making boards for over 30 years now, and as he gets closer to a possible retirement, Martin says the act of crafting a board is what keeps him going.
“I am on a slide where I would like to take it a little easier, but I just want to make the next board better than the last. I just keep going at it. A lot of it too is respect for my father who started it. Now, my younger brother Bruce is making them too,” he said, mentioning the family tradition of craftsmanship. “The orders just keep coming in. The Willard boards are now world renowned. We make the boards for the World Crokinole Championships (in Tavistock), the Danish Crokinole Organization uses our boards. In 2011, the organization did an analysis of different crokinole boards, and we were rated number one.”
To make a crokinole board Martin can be proud of, he first has to source out Canadian maple wood. That wasn’t always the case, however.
“The thing that makes the best crokinole board is also the most difficult to find: to acquire good wood. That is very, very difficult. Twenty-five years ago, I could get good wood almost anywhere,” he said. “Now, it is really difficult. We have had to change production. We always used Russian Baltic Birch, but that wood has gone so downhill now, coming out of Russia. Now, we use Canadian maple. It is actually better than the birch became.”