The state with the oldest sanctioned bowling lanes in America offers offbeat, small-town alleys that are ripe with nostalgia.
By Manya Kaczkowski
When you’re traveling, the best way to get a good feel for local flavor is to hang out with the locals. In Wisconsin, indoor sports become hotter when the weather turns cool, and many locals enjoy bowling.
But not at one of those modern-day gargantuan 36-laners. Try smaller places right out of the past, from a time when bowling was the thing to do on a Friday night. These are the kinds of alleys that resist change, and consequently, a good thing stays … well … good. You won’t find auto-scoring machines or silver monitors hanging above your head showing a neon diagram of where to throw your second ball. At these alleys you’ll find rustling paper score sheets and dots on the approach guiding your strikes. Here, crashing pins and rumbling ball returns form a harmonious background to the slap of high-fives and the occasional “Whoo-hoo!” If you’re really lucky, the bowling center will have a jukebox full of your old favorites and tiny pencils perfectly sharpened and ready to mark as many Xs as you can muster.
Why Wisconsin? According to the American Bowling Congress (now part of the United States Bowling Congress), it has more old-fashioned bowling alleys than any other state in the Union. It also has the oldest sanctioned lanes, and they’re still operating. Like endangered species, however, the number is dwindling, as facilities with six lanes or fewer are dwarfed by the Brunswicks and the AMFs. So toss your ball into the coach now (or wait to borrow one when you get there) and head for Wisconsin, where you can satisfy your urge to strike.
In this lesser-populated area of the state, you’ll find plenty of lakes, rivers, and funky sights such as the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame & Museum in Hayward, with its very own likeness of a muskellunge in 143-foot-long splendor. Bowling alleys tend to be a popular source of recreation here, especially during the winter months.
Amery, a clean, quaint little town surrounded by lakes and the Apple River, is home to Club 53-Bowling (715-268-8921). This cheerful little four-laner is brightly lit and sports a red-and-white color scheme. A reminder that “It’s tough to lose, but it’s tougher to be a good loser” is stenciled on the far wall above the pins. You can watch your ball speed back toward you on the above-the-floor ball return. The alley is separate from the tavern, but bar patrons can watch the bowling action through a window. Herb, who’s been at the lanes since 1959, can fill you in on the history of the place, including the fact that these alleys received the first synthetic covering in the state of Wisconsin 35 to 40 years ago. The pins were set by hand until the late 1950s.
Black & Orange Lanes (715-866-8650) in Webster has four lanes with a mean hook and funky carpet: glow-in-the-dark balls and pins on a black background. On certain evenings you can sing karaoke in the connecting lounge, a room that used to be an old hardware store. A game room and pool tables round out the amenities.
Anglers Inn Bar & Grill (715-634-4700) in Hayward is a favorite with locals and tourists alike, not only for the cute little bowling alley, but also for the great food and atmosphere in the restaurant. While dining on the outdoor patio you can watch tourists stroll along Main Street. Inside, the walls are filled with wildlife decor, and the lanes are in a separate room on the left. Main Street offers plenty of browsing opportunities, including a spectacular candy store, several galleries, and interesting gift and antique shops.
The Tomahawk area has been a family vacation destination for ages, with its many lakes, glorious fishing opportunities, and rich American Indian heritage. The alleys here are a reflection of life in small towns such as Gleason, Rib Lake, and Prentice.
Gleason Bowling Center (715-873-4588) on State Route 17 in Gleason is a friendly spot. Towns don’t get much smaller than this, and the bowling alley is one of only a few businesses in Gleason. But owners Gary and Becky Giese said that after six months there, they had more friends than they did in their lives previously, when they worked in a paper mill and a bank, respectively. Since they’ve been in charge, they’ve made renovations, such as cutting a window through from the bar, so the lanes are no longer just a room in the back. The bowling center doubles as a hall in the off-season, with a special floor that covers the lanes completely for weddings and other large events.
Little Bohemia Bowl & Café (715-427-3355) in Rib Lake dates to the late 1940s and has been owned by the same family for 26 years. Renovations over the years have included turning the bank building next door into a part of the bowling alley “” now it’s a lounge. You can get an up-close look at the authentic bank vault door, which has been left intact. Automatic scoring machines have never even been considered for these four lanes.
In between Rib Lake and Prentice, our next destination is Timm’s Hill County Park, Wisconsin’s highest point above sea level at 1,951 feet. Stop here to check out the view in between bowling adventures.
The slightly haunted Country Lanes Bowling Center & Restaurant (715-428-2444) in Prentice has a roadhouse feel. It’s located on County Road A outside of town; just look for its tall, lighted sign swaying in the wind. Inside the 75-year old building is a tavern, a dining room, and four lanes. The menu contains cleverly named hamburger selections such as the “Impossible 7-10,” the “Pins and Swiss,” and the “Spare.” The restaurant offers a fish fry on Fridays.
Mandy Hurst, who runs the tavern with her husband, William, will tell you all about the supernatural presence in the building. When she’s downstairs getting ice for the upcoming evening, she said she sometimes can hear slow, measured footsteps from upstairs, as a ghostly being takes a walk around the spot where the bar used to be prior to remodeling. The large, heavy doors throughout the place frequently slam shut without provocation. And once, all of the liquor bottles, right after being neatly arranged, suddenly moved around on their own back to their original disarray. Visit, brave ones, and see for yourself.
This is home to the green and gold, where you can attend a Green Bay Packers football game, visit the shores of Lake Michigan, golf at Peninsula State Park, or get your fill at a traditional fish boil. And, of course, bowl in one of the many old-fashioned lanes.
Strikers’ Sports Bar (920-754-4904) in Reedsville boasts four lanes, mysteriously numbered 11, 12, 13 and 14. This place is old, built in 1867; the only modern touch is the use of black light bulbs in the overhead lamps for moonlight bowling. Pins were set by hand until 1972. Here you’ll meet people such as “Smiley,” one of the regulars, who can amuse you with anecdotes about the different sets of former owners. The best days to bowl at Strikers’ are Saturdays and Sundays, when an entire family can bowl as many games as they wish for $10.
Legendary Sister Bay Bowl (920-854-2841) in Door County lures vacationers during the summer months, so they often fill its six lanes to capacity. The original building burned down in 1912 and was rebuilt; a dining room was added in 1964. You can see the original menu from that first year displayed on the wall, with prices such as a T-bone dinner for $3.75 and shrimp for $1.90. On Fridays in summer, 650 to 700 people are served in the dining room, many ordering the special: fresh white perch. When you’ve had your fill of bowling, you can visit some of the intriguing little shops and restaurants that make Door County a special place.
Where can you find a 25-cent peanut machine except at Suster’s Arcade (920-863-2488), in Denmark? In this powder blue-and-white set of lanes, run by the third generation of family owners, you’ll find chubby pencils, dozens of bowling bags waiting for league night, and a refreshing lack of corporate-sponsored ornamentation. No beverage signs adorn the room that contains the four lanes, although a place to quench one’s thirst is nearby. In the dining room you can order a three-piece broasted chicken dinner to complete your Suster’s experience (or, on the first Wednesday of each month, try the pork hocks, sauerkraut, and dumplings).
Milwaukee is “Bowling Central.” You simply can’t make a tour of old-fashioned lanes without coming to Wisconsin’s largest city. It offers plenty of other things to see and do also: attend a festival, catch a monster-sized salmon on the Milwaukee River, or visit one of the many museums and galleries within the streets of downtown.
There’s room for an entire family at Long Wong’s Chinese-American Sports Bar & Restaurant (414-454-0040). The front of this unusual place is all tavern; the back is a huge game and party room, with several pool tables, air hockey and pinball machines, comfortable couches, and two of the site’s original eight bowling lanes. Long Wong’s still employs pin boys, because, according to owner Paul Wong, “A lot of people get a kick out of it. We bill ourselves as the only Chinese-American sports bar and bowling alley around.”
Falcon Bowl (414-264-0680), in Milwaukee’s eclectic Riverwest neighborhood, offers more than bowling. It’s an old-fashioned sports club, providing out-of-the ordinary pastimes such as cribbage and dart-ball. The alley itself is downstairs, and you can hear the floor creaking from patrons walking upstairs as you bowl. On Wednesdays, Falcon Bowl offers open bowling during the league season and provides coached kids’ leagues on Saturday.
The owner of Holler House (414-647-9284) is Marcy Skowronski, a diminutive 79-year-old gal with a feisty sense of humor and plenty of stories about the goings-on at her bowling alley and tavern.
This is the oldest sanctioned bowling alley in the United States, started by Marcy’s in-laws in 1908. She ran it with her husband for 40 years, and has carried on by herself since he passed away. “I don’t want to move to Arizona and retire,” she said.
The local ironworkers make it a habit to stop in, and you’re certain to find someone to chat with if you relax in the bar after throwing a few balls down the twin alleys next door. The pinsetters are kids from the neighborhood, including Marcy’s grandson, because, Marcy said, “A good pinsetter is faster than a machine.” Today, the lanes are resurfaced using modern equipment, but in the old days, Marcy’s mother-in-law scrubbed them on her hands and knees with steel wool. Wow.
The following is not a complete list, so please check your favorite campground directory or the FMCA Business Directory, published in the January and June issues of FMC and online at www.fmca.com.
Campgrounds open year-round are noted below; those not noted as such are open seasonally and should be contacted for details.
Trail’s End Resort & Campground
8080 N. County Road K
Hayward, WI 54843-2161
Summer Ridge RV Park/Rainbow Reservoir
7018 Highway D E.
Lake Tomahawk, WI 54539
Rib Mountain State Park
4200 Park Road
Wausau, WI 54401
Reservations: (888) 947-2757
Aqualand Camp Resort
Highway 57 and County Q
Sister Bay, WI 54234
Quietwoods North Camping Resort
3668 Grondin Road
Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235
Wisconsin State Fair Park
601 S. 76th St.
Milwaukee, WI 53214
Yogi Bear Jellystone Camp Resort
8425 Highway 38
Caledonia, WI 53108
Is It Luck, Or Just A Habit?
Bowlers can be an odd bunch, taking on unusual techniques to get them through a game. Following are a few wacky behaviors bowlers have been known to perform as they try to get luck on their side. Any sound familiar?
- Wear the same socks every bowling night.
- Pull your thumb out of the hole to hear the “pop” before throwing the ball.
- raw “stops” on the score sheet.
- Wipe your right hand on your pants each time you pick up the ball.
- Wear “automatic positioners” from elbow to fingertips.
- Place your left foot on a particular approach dot, then step over exactly three inches to the right.