Bowling Alleys of America

Americana, Featured Article, History, On the Road, This Week in History, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on January 29, 2013
Bowling pins at the Holler House in Milwaukee, WI.
David Mudd Bowling is the nation’s No. 1 participation sport, with 71 million people bowling at least one game a year, according to the U.S. Bowling Congress.

Since 1913, the sounds of cheering bowlers, rumbling balls and crashing pins have remained a constant at America’s oldest bowling center, Garden Bowl, though the business and its clientele have changed.

“This used to be a workingman’s country club,” says Joe Zainea, 78, about the downtown Detroit, Mich., bowling center that his father bought in 1946, and which he operates today with his sons, Dave, 51, and Joe, 45.

“The man at the counter reserved your bowling ball, checked your coat and had your favorite cigar rolling on a machine,” Zainea recalls. “He rented you bowling shoes and took yours to polish while you bowled. He cleaned and blocked your hat while you bowled and served as your bookie, too.”

Zainea’s brother, George, 80, who bowls in leagues four times a week, remembers in the 1940s and 1950s when every industry and business sponsored bowling teams.

“Bowling was all wrapped around corporations, teams and clubs,” George says. “Now bowling centers are designed more for family activities and parties.”

Through the decades, the Zaineas have bought adjoining buildings and added attractions, and today the family operates the Majestic Theatre Center, an entertainment complex with 16 bowling lanes, a cafe, pizzeria, billiards, live-music lounge and concert theater.

History to spare
A form of bowling has been played since 3200 B.C., as evidenced by objects uncovered from an Egyptian grave. Variations of pin games were played in various countries, and immigrants brought their versions to America. New York City’s oldest park is named Bowling Green because the area was used for lawn bowling matches by Dutch colonists during the 1700s.

By the mid-1800s, the game of ninepins was so popular that wealthy families installed bowling lanes at their estates and the first public indoor alleys were built in New York City. When some states outlawed ninepins because it encouraged gambling, the modern game of tenpins evolved to skirt the laws.

America’s oldest surviving bowling alley was built in 1846 by businessman Henry Chandler Bowen in a carriage barn at his Gothic Revival-style mansion, Roseland Cottage in Woodstock, Conn., and enjoyed by President Ulysses S. Grant during a visit on July 4, 1870.

“Mr. Bowen was a temperance man—no smoking, drinking or card playing in his house,” says Laurie Masciandaro, 56, Roseland’s manager. “Grant chose a ball, rolled it and bowled a strike. He wanted to celebrate and pulled a cigar out of his pocket, and Mr. Bowen asked the sitting president of the United States to step outside to smoke.”

Millionaire George Jay Gould, son of railroad tycoon Jay Gould, installed bowling lanes in 1899 inside a recreation building at his lavish estate, now Georgian Court University in Lakewood, N.J.

The three restored lanes, built by the Brunswick Balke-Collender Co., are America’s oldest operational lanes. Student bowlers sit on a wooden ledge at the back of the lanes, hop down, reset the pins and return the balls on their wooden and metal rails.

Rules and regulations
Tenpins didn’t have standardized rules for equipment or play until 1895 when the American Bowling Congress was founded.

“Bowling balls varied from the size of a softball to a basketball, and pins could be fat in the belly or short and thin,” says bowling historian and author Chuck Pezzano, 83, of Clifton, N.J.

Churches, YMCAs, firehouses and private clubs built regulation-size bowling lanes during the early 1900s. The 1909 Elks Club Bowling Lanes in Fond du Lac, Wis., claims the oldest certification granted by the American Bowling Congress, now the U.S. Bowling Congress. Elks member Kelly Brzezinski, 43, has bowled at the elegant 1904 brick clubhouse for nearly 20 years.

“I enjoy the camaraderie with the other members,” she says. “We get mad at the pins when they don’t fall down.”

Until the 1960s, Elks members set pins by hand, which remains the method at Holler House in Milwaukee, Wis. Built in 1908, the tavern’s two basement lanes were certified in 1910.

“The boys put the pins in a rack, pull a cord and the rack sets up the pins,” says owner Marcy Skowronski, 86, who has tended the bar and bowling alley for 58 years.

Lots of lanes
During bowling’s heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, when automated pinsetters began replacing pinboys and television made superstars of professional bowlers, as many as 12,000 bowling alleys operated across the United States. Although half that number remain, today’s centers are grander with more lanes and entertainment, including video game arcades and sometimes bumper cars and miniature golf courses.

The largest bowling alley is the 90-lane Thunderbowl in Allen Park, Mich., opened in 1962, which has hosted the Professional Bowlers Association World Series of Bowling. Stardust Bowl in Addison, Ill., and Freeway Lanes of Wickliffe, Ohio, each boasts 84 lanes.

Bowlers get some exercise before they ever reach the 1916 wooden lanes at the second-story Saratoga Lanes in Maplewood, Mo.

“It’s 27 steps to heaven,” says Rodney Jones, 53, who has bowled on a league at the cozy eight-lane alley for 20 years.

“It’s an excuse to get together with the guys,” Jones says. “Otherwise, I might not see these people but two or three times a year.”