Time Machine: Clermont Pin Co.

Family business rolls strikes in refurbishing bowling pins

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In 1953, there were two places in the country where wooden bowling pins could be reconditioned and repaired. One was in Detroit, the other was in Clermont, a small Fayette County town in northeast Iowa.

Malvin Johnson and William J. Nelson were partners in the Clermont Pin Co., a business based on machines that Johnson built, rebuilt or altered to fit the needs of the business.

Johnson, then 62, was a gifted, self-taught mechanic. He was also known around Clermont for building his own airplane after Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927.

He designed his factory machines to operate on a production line basis.

Will Nelson, also a machinist, was mayor of Clermont from 1945 to 1964 and was mayor when he joined Johnson in starting the pin factory.

The first of Johnson’s creations was a lathe that was capable of re-forming a bowling pin during the repair process. From there, he rigged a dual-blade saw and a traveling chain that pulled the pin between the blades. In a two-step operation, two sides of the pin were sheared off uniformly at the same time.

how it worked

The process of rebuilding wooden bowling pins began with collecting old pins from bowling alleys — all within a 150-mile radius in 1953.

The old pins were sent through a saw that squared the sides, removing the chipped and broken parts.

Four pieces of hard maple were glued to each squared-off pin, making it look like a box.

A lathe, guided by a template, formed the reconditioned pin. The next step was sanding. Then two coats of white and one of clear finish were applied.

When the pins dried, the bottoms were cleaned and leveled.

A red stripe and the Clermont label were the finishing touches.

A FIGHT & A FIRE

The reconditioned pins were used only for recreation, given that the American Bowling Congress would not approve rebuilt pins for league play.

“Our pins are the same size, the same weight, same height, are matched and all that,” Johnson said at the time. “But ABC still won’t approve rebuilt pins as long as there’s any part of the old pin in there.”

In 1957, a fire swept through the two-story brick factory in Clermont, starting in the basement and heavily damaging part of the main floor. Johnson owned the building, which also housed two apartments, and Nelson was listed as the business owner.

Nelson estimated he lost $4,000 in bowling pins in the fire but predicted the factory would be up and running in about two weeks in a part of the building that wasn’t damaged.

In time, the factory’s 150-mile collection radius doubled to 300 miles.

The process of rebuilding the pins had improved by 1960, when the company’s rebuilt pins gained approval from the American Bowling Congress. The business began plastic coating of new pins as well.

Soon, the company’s customer base included 49 states and Japan.

Nelson died in 1975. Johnson died in 1983 at age 92.

OWNERSHIP CHANGES

Nelson’s nephew, Kenneth J. Nelson, bought the business in 1968.

Kenneth was born in the caretaker’s house at Montauk, the mansion built in Clermont in 1874 for Iowa’s 12th governor, William Larrabee.

Kenneth was only 49 when he died in 1990. The company continued to operate, headed by his wife, Judith, and daughter, Tami.

In 1998, Kenneth’s son, Barry Nelson, came up with a new idea. Pins that couldn’t be reconditioned were turned into souvenir footballs, complete with team logos laser-engraved on the side. The new company, called GridWorks Inc., set up shop in Elgin, where Dale Hageman was the manager.

With licensing agreements established, the company’s output was soon 1,000 balls a day and growing rapidly.

In 2004, Barry and his wife, Connie, bought the company.

Changes in the popularity of league bowling eventually resulted in fewer pins needing to be repaired, and bowling alleys replaced pins every one to two years instead of every six months.

The company expanded to refurbish the used pins into novelty pins for birthdays and other special events.

In 2007, a fire caused by faulty wiring resulted in $750,000 in damage at the Elgin novelty factory. In September 2009, GridWorks’ assets were auctioned off.

Financial problems resulting from the fire forced Barry to move all of his operations to a building he owned in Elgin.

STILL GOING

The Clermont Pin Company still operates in Elgin at 252 Center St. It refinishes and rebuilds wooden pins, produces novelty pins — especially birthday pins — and buys used bowling pins from anywhere in the United Sates.

Because Barry Nelson lives in Des Moines, Tami Guyer runs the Elgin factory.

It’s the longest running pin refurbishing factory in the nation, according to Barry, who puts the family-owned business at almost 50 years old, from the year his dad bought it in 1968.

The company is running smoothly again, he says. The only difference is the novelty birthday pins are now made from virgin wood, since alleys keep pins longer and, more often than not, they are too battered to be reused.

“Everyone in the business knows about us,” he said. “And if they don’t know about us, they haven’t been in the business very long.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8338; d.fannonlangton@gmail.com

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