Not long ago I received an email titled “I Know More About Cribbage Boards Than You Do.” It was from a man named Peter Leach, a fellow St. Paulite with a penchant for pegging. A few weeks earlier, I was invited to speak at the annual Cribbage Board Collectors Society convention in Grand Haven, Michigan, but instead had to settle for sending them an open letter. Peter responded with gusto—he invited me over for a beer and a sandwich on a chilly Friday evening, and we swapped a few stories before breaking into his collection of boards. “When I started, I never–underlined and capitalized ‘never’–I NEVER could have envisioned the variety,” he says, “There’s no end to them, simply no end.” After seeing his collection, I have to agree with him.
In the late 90s, board collecting became a hobby and then an obsession for Peter. Over the years, he’s amassed more than 700 items in his collection, although through board trading, sales, and a few giveaways he never has more than a few hundred in his collection at any time. A potter for more than 40 years, Peter’s broad hands engulf the smaller boards as if they were pieces of candy. He has a booming, sonorous voice, an Old-Testament fire-and-brimstone bass, and it was a pleasure to hear him speak about a favorite past time. “When I first started out, any 2×4 with holes in it, I thought ‘oh, cribbage board, I gotta have it!’ ” His mania has since tempered, though, and he no longer considers himself an active collector–it would have to be a rare board indeed to make him think about buying it. Nonetheless, he has a remarkable collection of cribbage boards, each with their own story and history, and he keeps the majority of them in a special room.
The Board Room, of course.
In the main hallway between his living room and the stairs to a lower entryway lies an inconspicuous little door with a polished brass oval labeled “Board Room.” The plaque itself doubles as a cribbage board with about ten holes on each side. The door is cracked open, and the light from behind it spills around its frame. Lit thus, I feel like I’m entering some ethereal heavenly realm; I’m somewhat mistaken.
“It’s just the guest bathroom,” Peter says. “It’s no fun having a collection if it’s all packed away in boxes. My wife [Nan] was amenable to doing it.” It’s not just a bathroom, though—it’s a history center, a cribbage museum.
There are boards on every wall. Boards above the sink. Boards above the door. Brass boards and wood boards and marble boards, a hedgehog board and a button board, boards from the U.P., from L.A., from NYC. A board that proclaims “Use England’s Glory Matches,” and another–“Lash’s Bitters”–for “dyspepsia, indigestion, and biliousness.” A cast aluminum board shaped like a conch shell and a wooden board like a boat. A board carved with a jackknife. The board he learned on, a fraternity board from the University of Wisconsin, with the Greek letters of “Sigma, Alpha, & Epsilon” painted across the face. So many boards.
Hedgehog boards were patented by John Gill during the Civil War. Made of cast iron atop a polished wooden base, they’re extremely heavy, and instead of two pegs to score each point, the board has all 120 pegs embedded on top of it, and more for keeping track of games. Whichever point you’re on, you simply pull the appropriate peg up. Peter took it apart once and learned how it works: the pegs keep their tension because a template within the board holds them upright and straight, while layers of felt help the peg remain immobile whether it’s pulled upright or kept in its starting position. “150 years you think the felt would have disintegrated, turned to dust, whatever?” He works the hedgehog pegs up and down. “They all work just fine.”
Next to the hedgehog board is the button board; like its neighbor, it was also made in the 1800s, and it works without traditional pegs. Rather, each player has 60 buttons affixed to a sliding track. When a point is scored, a button is moved halfway up the track. Moving all the pegs one one end of the track to the other constitutes half the game, and back to where they started constitutes the full game.
“You could be traveling somewhere, sitting in an airport terminal, be in a bar or on a train–you take out a cribbage board and sit with it for awhile, somebody sooner or later will come buy and ask for a game.” If you had some of these, it wouldn’t take long.
Like any collection, certain brands carry certain pedigrees. Peter is a Horn/McCrillis man; W.C. Horn, Bro. & Co. was the largest North American distributor of cribbage boards throughout most of the 20th century. Ronald F. McCrillis began making homemade boards in Norwalk, Ohio about 1910, and later got in touch with Bill Horn, a wholesale firm in New York City; they started selling under the Horn name about 1920. Each board is stamped with the make and model number, and also “McCrillis: Made in USA.” Horn’s main rival was the Drueke company, a family-owned business for more than 50 years under William F. Drueke & Sons, started in Michigan. Bought in 1990 by a company named Carrom, the boards are still manufactured today under the original name. Among collectors, you’ll find loyalists from both sides; as with the Michigan Wolverines and Ohio State Buckeyes historic football rivalry, so with cribbage.
“It’s always amazed me,” he muses, “if you got into salt-and-pepper shakers, or something like Coke bottles when they used to have the city, the bottling plant stamped on the bottom of it…[these clubs] have zillions of members and big fancy magazines and so on. Cribbage board collecting seems to be much more esoteric; most people would recognize a cribbage board. So why aren’t there more cribbage board collectors? It is difficult to find them. You can go through an antique mall and see dozens of old salt-and-pepper shakers, and dozens of old quilts, and you name it, and if you’re lucky you might see one board or three boards, which often are the most commonplace boards. You really have to kind of get into it and get over the hump.”
Our conversation leads to a good question: why do people collect stuff? What’s the point? Why fill one’s home with multiple versions of the same thing? Children outgrow their baseball card collections; adults often lose collection fever in lieu of jobs, family and future. I like to believe the act of collecting something, anything, tells us a little about ourselves. In some ways, our collections remind us of what’s important to us, or of possibly what’s desirable, or even undesirable. Collections gather dust so we don’t have to. It’s an excuse to get out into the world, to hear stories, to ask others why. Here’s a feeble admission: I used to collect Monopoly games. My friends can attest. At one time I even had a chocolate version, so you couldn’t really play with it. I still have them all, although most are in storage. On my game shelf, however, you’ll find Vegas Monopoly. You’ll find Transformers and Coca Cola Monopoly. You’ll find a 1950s-era reissue. Don’t ask why: the answer above is the best I have. Naturally I’m thrilled when Peter hits upon this: “Games are popular,” he says while we munch, “and cribbage has developed a sort of table-talk, a chit-chat that goes on, I don’t know…it’s like Monopoly. There are a zillion board games, but very few Monopolies, and there are a zillion card games, but very few as enjoyable as cribbage.” Tonight, that’s good enough for me.
I’m surprised to hear that one of Peter’s favorites is in fact a Drueke board. It’s called Racetrack Cribbage, and he found it from a thrift shop in Racine, Wisconsin, where he grew up. He purchased it for $4.00, and neither Peter nor anyone he’s met has seen another quite like it. “Who knows?” he says. “This may have been some manufacturer’s prototype, although there are printed rules from the guy who patented the board. They wouldn’t have gone to the business of patenting it if there had only been one, and there were Drueke instructions.” At the CBCS meeting a few weeks earlier, the host, Cecil Bradshaw, asked Peter to name his price for it. Peter refused. “I think any collector is pleased if you have the only one…if every member of the CBCS had one, it wouldn’t please me as much.” On the racetrack board, players have the opportunity to peg into a track that is 10 less points than the starter for a slight bonus. For a larger bonus–10, 15 or 25 points–players have to hit a specific hole within the same inner track. Things can quickly get out of hand if a player is lucky enough to do all three.
Somehow, I manage just that. As we finish our subs and sip our beer, I hit the inside track, then the 15-point bonus, and finally the 25-point bonus. In my terrible record against interviewees, I can actually notch a mark under the “W” column; a skunk by 48 points. “That’s how it sometimes goes,” he laughs. “Some of my friends refuse to play on this one!”
On the way out, I’m surprised by a simple gift from Peter–a mid-20th century homemade board, item number 163 in his collection, bought from an antique store in Red Wing, MN, for $5.00, as well as an original Horn/McCrillis lamination, a thin slice of wood with 87 individual pieces glued together. Peter tells me the board was modeled after the earliest Horn laminations. It is a fine gift, one I am thankful for.
I know I”ll see Peter again–we didn’t have enough time to even scratch the surface of his remarkable collection. Later, when I got home, I took a moment to regard the few Monopolies on my shelf. I probably won’t be purchasing any more soon–I haven’t for years–but I did play a game with a friend shortly thereafter, the mania taking me once more.
As I tie my shoes, Peter sits in a rocking chair and tells me one more story of a man he refers to as a “super collector” who had as many as 1500 boards at one time. Many of those boards, however, were repeats; of the Horn C-5 models, one of the most common, “he had 25 C-5s, alone.”
“That seems unnecessary,” I say.
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What drives you? What do you collect? Let me know below or on the Cribbageland Facebook page. And I’m always on the lookout for one more crazy cribbage board!