MANHATTAN — Question: What do the world’s first snowboard, known as the “Snurfer,” and Kansas State University have in common? Answer: Mack Scott, doctoral student in history, who works in the university’s Chapman Center for Rural Studies.
Still confused? Well, so was Bonnie Lynn-Sherow, associate professor of history and Chapman Center director, when she got a call last spring asking if she was interested in doing a digitization project for the Brunswick Corporation, the leading manufacturer of boats, marine engines, fitness equipment and bowling and billiards products in the world — and the inventor of the first snowboard.
“I got a call asking if we had the ability to digitize a large collection of artifacts and memorabilia located in nearby Clay Center, Kan. I was curious and I followed through,” Lynn-Sherow said.
A personal visit the next day to the Chapman Center by Brunswick executive Mike Schulz and collector Joe Newell was the start of an unusual public-private partnership that both sides have found beneficial.
Most of this backstory belongs to Newell, an entrepreneur from Clay Center. Born and raised in Clay County, Newell started collecting memorabilia and ephemera — according to Lynn-Sherow, a fancy word for advertising, catalogues and other short-term publications — at the age of 9. Fast forward 55 years, and Newell’s collection includes Brunswick product catalogues — totaling in excess of 10,000 pages — and more than 900 products and materials all centered on the company and its more than 165 years in business.
Newell’s fascination with the Brunswick Corporation did not stop at collecting. He has made the preservation and restoration of the company’s products his life’s work, particularly the restoration of historic billiards tables and back bars. The Brunswick name will sound familiar to anyone who owns a bowling ball or even an outboard engine today, Lynn-Sherow said, but Brunswick is also the largest manufacturer of pool tables — which were the company’s beginning.
Lynn-Sherow describes Newell as a walking archive on Brunswick Billiards and an expert on the products themselves.
“Just to prove his stuff, one day Joe took Mike and me over to the K-State Student Union to look at the pool tables,” Lynn-Sherow said. “Sure enough, all the tables except three bore the Brunswick label, and Joe patiently explained the models, patents and accessories of every table in the place — including the cues and cue racks. He further explained that the three non-Brunswick tables in the union were knockoffs, produced by a company that quickly went out of business.”
Newell has transformed his passion and skills into a going business concern, having restored tables for countless celebrities such as golfing great Jack Nicklaus, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and past and current occupants of the White House.
“He’s also restored tables seen in more than 20 historical homes, such as the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore estate in North Carolina, as well as a number of museums,” Lynn-Sherow said.
Preserving Newell’s Brunswick collection and utilizing today’s technology to both archive the material and make it easily accessible to the hundreds of people who contact Brunswick annually for information became a company goal. Enter Kansas State University’s Chapman Center, which is well known and regarded for doing digital histories of archival documents, material and products, which was exactly what Brunswick was seeking. A bonus is that Manhattan is near Clay Center, which meant that university personnel could easily work with Newell.
In exchange for fully supporting a graduate student in history for two years — Mack Scott — the Brunswick Corporation will receive a fully digitized archive of Newell’s collection when the company takes custody of it at its corporate headquarters near Chicago.
Using a sophisticated archival processing program, and with the help of a powerful new scanner purchased by the university’s Hale Library this summer, Scott, Petersburg, Va., and undergraduate Chapman intern Katie Jones, junior in History and English , Dodge City, KS, are now building a fully searchable database of images that Brunswick can use to track its own historical inventory, celebrate company milestones and direct the hundreds of inquiries it gets each year from both owners of historic Brunswick products as well as those people who are just interested in the company’s history.
“Being able to capture and preserve this rich treasure trove of Brunswick’s past is truly a rare and outstanding opportunity,” said Dustan E. McCoy, chairman and chief executive officer of Brunswick Corporation. “It is sometimes too easy to move forward and leave the past behind, but in doing so we can forget where we have come from and why we are what we are today. That is true for individuals as well as companies. What Mr. Newell has so graciously chosen to share with us is a part of our history and a part of our legacy at Brunswick.
“And now, through the capabilities and auspices of Kansas State University, many will be able to easily access this data and better understand the evolution and resiliency of our company. We are truly honored that Joe would entrust this collection to Brunswick and grateful for K-State’s guidance and assistance,” McCoy said.
Scott is grateful for the support that Brunswick has given him as he pursues his studies. “I’m thankful to the Brunswick Corporation for generously funding my graduate work,” he said. “Their support affords me the opportunity to work intimately with primary historical material and gain practical experience with the accessioning process. As a former collegiate football player and high school coach, I am excited about this opportunity to continue working in the world of sports. But I’m most relieved that the only hazard the brunswick collection poses is the occasional paper cut.”
To which Lynn-Sherow warns, “Just stay off that snowboard.”
Kathryn Jones is a senior with a double major in history and literature and a minor in French. She will graduate in May and hopes to attend graduate school for a masters degree in applied linguistics. She is moderately fluent in French and Italian, is beginning to learn Russian and Old English, and as part of her Chapman Center project, she will work closely with Welsh. The project involves researching Welsh communities in Kansas and translating the Welsh-language remnants of their culture, such as headstones and poetry. Through this she hopes to gain insight into the persistence of the “mother tongue” among these Welsh settlers in Kansas. This internship is important to Kathryn because it allows her to produce original research through hands-on field work, an opportunity rarely afforded undergraduate students. She has been interested in history from a very young age, having been introduced to the subject through the American Girl books, which she read avidly throughout her childhood. She is excited about this semester’s project because it draws on bother her love of history and her deep interest in language.