A renowned poet in our midst

Nelson Ball, 1942-2019 — Image credit: niagarathisweek.com

The Paris Museum & Historical Society recently received a treasure trove of Canadian literature from the estate of Nelson Ball; a poet, publisher, bookseller and 34-year resident of Paris. The books were donated by his executors, Catherine Stevenson and Suzan Yates on Jan. 30, 2020.

Ball was born in Clinton, Ontario. He moved to Seaforth, Waterloo, then Kitchener for the first 20 years of his life. In 1965 he married Barbara Caruso, a visual artist from Kincardine, and founded Weed Flower Press to publish his poetry and the work of other Canadian poets.

The couple enjoyed their bohemian existence, but it didn’t produce enough income to pay their bills so they moved to Toronto in 1967, where Ball found steady work as a library assistant at the University of Toronto and made extra money as a cataloguer at the Village Book Store. That allowed him to launch William Nelson Books, with a shop and extensive mail-order catalogue. As his business grew, he needed ever-larger quarters. By the mid ’80s, he was priced out of the Toronto real estate market.

He and Caruso searched from Owen Sound to St. Catharines for the right property. One afternoon, driving through Paris, they spotted an ad in a real estate broker’s window for a three-storey structure built in 1928. The office/laboratory, owned by Domtar, had been deserted since 1984; an industrial relic in a residential neighbourhood.

31 Willow Street

For the couple, it was a perfect “home”. It had plenty of room for Ball’s vast collection of books plus a large studio – with a view of the Grand River – where Caruso could paint and store her completed art. A convoy of two tractor-trailers and a special fine-art van was needed to transport their possessions to their new home at 31 Willow Street.

They thrived in their new setting, enjoying the pace of small-town life. Each sparked the creativity of the other. Ball returned to writing after a 20-year hiatus, producing his “Paris” poems. Tragically, the partnership ended on Dec. 30, 2009 when Caruso died of cancer.

Ball, a self-described loner, didn’t go out much after Caruso’s death. He spent most of his time making sure Caruso’s paintings were sent to as many galleries as possible. One afternoon, seeking nature’s solace, he took a walk in the gardens of the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead in St. George, with Catherine Stevenson, a documentary maker and her friend Suzan Yates.

The two women became Ball’s companions, his advocates as his health declined and ultimately the co-executors of his estate.

It took them many months to find homes for his 30,000 books. They saved the “Paris” poems (plus one earlier volume) and donated a complete set – plus two dozen spares – to PMHS.

The museum kept the set as part of the town’s cultural heritage. It put the duplicates in its gift shop. Members of the public are welcome to them for $10 a book. (Commercially, the same titles sell for $17 to $50, if they can be found.)

In Ball’s lifetime, few Parisians knew that a renowned poet lived in their midst. Today, they can meet him through his poetry, drive past his unusual home or purchase a piece of his legacy at the Paris Museum.

by Carol Goar