#WhatIsIt: Holding Down the Fort over the Holidays

We posted a photo of a mystery artefact on twitter the other day, and asked if anyone could identify it. Unfortunately, no one even had a guess. Remember: you can’t win if you don’t play the game. Admittedly, though, this was a difficult one.

Imagine this: You’re a child living in late 19th century Guelph. Having just finished Christmas dinner, you and your cousins excuse yourselves from the table, leaving your elders to deal with the mess of dishes and dirty pots. What sort of entertainment would you seek out? Remember, video games haven’t been invented yet.

Snowball fight? Maybe. But, after that?

Perhaps, as you warmed yourself by the fire, you’d pull out the Game of Fort. Never heard of it? It was invented by a Guelph man, Dr. Cowan, and we have a version of it in our collection at the museum. Check it out:

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It combines aspects of bowling and pool on a miniature scale. Players take turns using a stick (or cue) to shoot marbles at the wooden game pieces, which are set up inside the frame. The winner is the first to knock down the King and Queen, which are the tallest pieces, and strategically placed in the toughest spots. To hit the King and the Queen, you might have to use the walls of the fort to ricochet the marbles in the correct direction. The idea (I assume) is that you’re an army and you’re besieging your opponent’s fort, firing cannon balls at the royal family.

The Game of Fort bears some resemblance to a better-known game, also invented in Ontario in the 19th century—crokinole. Whereas the Game of Fort blends pool and bowling, Crokinole combines elements of curling and shuffleboard. It’s a cherished past-time in farmhouse parlours and small-town bars across the province – especially in the chilly winter months. If you don’t know crokinole, check out this YouTube video.

The simple, ascetic pleasures of the crokinole table are currently being discovered by a new generation. It’s surging in popularity. There’s even now a World Crokinole Championship held in Tavistock every year.

If Crokinole can make a comeback, maybe the Game of Fort is next (the World Championship would be in Guelph, obviously).

If I were a child living in 19th century Ontario, I’d probably ask for a crokinole board for Christmas. But if, under the tree, I found the Game of Fort instead, I’d still be stoked.

We often bring out the Game of Fort as part of our Deck the Halls exhibit, so drop by sometime and stay for a game!

Posted by Sarah Ball on December 5, 2014

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