A bowler's ball comes to a stop on the streamlined ball return at Club 53 in Amery.

A bowler's ball comes to a stop on the streamlined ball return at Club 53 in Amery. Photo By Jerry Luterman

Wisconsin's classic bowling alleys

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There’s nothing better than bowling, unless it’s bowling and beer, and the best of both is right here. Wisconsin has more small, old-fashioned lanes than any other state in the union – the no-frills kind where rumbling strikes roll down wood lanes, scores are marked by hand and balls speed back on above-ground returns. You can shoot the bull with the owner, who just might buy you a cold one, since he’s probably tending bar.

Visit these gems now before they all disappear.

MILWAUKEE

Milwaukee, known unofficially for years as “the bowling capital of the world,” was home to the United States Bowling Congress, the governing body of the sport of bowling, until it moved to Arlington, Texas, in 2008. Milwaukeeans mourn the loss, but bowling in Cream City lives on.

The Holler House (2042 W. Lincoln Ave.) is as famed for its feisty 87-year-old owner, Marcy Skowrinski, as it is for being the nation’s oldest bowling alley. She’ll tell you about the time her father-in-law hid the booze underneath the crib during a Prohibition raid, “because the Feds wouldn’t touch a baby!” She’ll grin and pull out a dictionary of Polish slang – she’s got the pages with “dirty” words marked for easy reference.

Marcy likes things just the way they are in her establishment. “We don’t have pool tables, we don’t have gambling machines. I want people to talk to me,” she says. Call ahead if you want to bowl on the 105-year-old pair of lanes downstairs – she’ll find a neighborhood kid to set pins for you. Sports writer Frank Deford, professional bowler Earl Anthony and musician Joe Walsh have all felt the draw of the Holler House.

Although Falcon Bowl (801 E. Clarke St.) was certified in 1915, the lanes date back to the turn of the century. There are six of them in the basement, which proprietor John Okobinski prefers to call “the lower concourse.” Upstairs, dart-ball leagues are in full swing every Wednesday during the winter, and there’s also a competitive cribbage league. The alley is named for the Polish Falcons, a fraternal organization that still comes to “nest” in the building. 

Landmark Lanes, on Milwaukee’s East Side (2220 N. Farwell Ave.), was built in 1927 as part of the Oriental Theater & Bensinger’s Recreation. It’s a small underground sports arena: three bars, 16 bowling lanes, nine pool tables, darts, foosball, a 30-game arcade and one of those electronic dance machines so you can get your groove on.

“It took a lot of time to clean this place up,” says owner Slava Tuzhilkov, “but we preserved the old atmosphere.” Over the years, the likes of Gloria Steinem and Ringo Starr have visited.

Refuel: Have a Hopped Up ’N Horny brew and a sandwich while you watch folks cruise the Kinnickinnic River at the Horny Goat Hideaway (2011 S. 1st St., Walker’s Point) in the old Milwaukee Pump House.

Recharge: Chill out at the hottest property in town, The Iron Horse Hotel (500 W. Florida St.). It caters to bikers – underground cycle parking and boot benches – and to anyone else looking for a boutique hotel with a sexy, sophisticated edge.

NORTHEAST

Next stop, Fond du Lac, where the Elks Club (33 Sheboygan St.) celebrates its 105th anniversary in 2014.

“When they put in the lanes,” says Kelly Brzezinski, bowling manager, “they actually dug up a human body!” Skeletons aside, the bowling alley has been nicely maintained, but there are no plans to install auto-scorers. “We do it old-school,” says Brzezinski. “I think a child should be able to use his brain.” Indeed.

The great thing about The 10th Frame in Appleton (618 W. Wisconsin Ave.) – besides bowling – is the food, with Ma’s Famous Friday Fish Fry and the 10th Frame Double, a 1/3-pound brat patty with cheese.

Chad Van Daalwyk bought the 75-year-old lanes in 2002. “I actually worked and bowled here when I was a kid,” he says. “The original owners, the Hahns, were like grandparents to me.” Van Daalwyk and his family have made the business thrive – after 13 lenders turned him down for financing. “No one wanted to give a 26-year-old a loan,” he recalls.

“Mom and Dad started here in 1950,” says Sharon, one of the owners of Sister Bay Bowl in Sister Bay (504 N. Bay Shore Drive). “Back then it was the Sister Bay Hotel: a lodge, bar and dance hall.”

In 1958, they turned the dance hall into a six-lane bowling alley. The original menu from the 1960s is displayed on the wall – T-bone dinners could be had for a mere $3.75. These days, they pack ’em in for the Friday night perch dinner.

Refuel: In 2008, a fire destroyed The Cookery (4135 Highway 42, Fish Creek), one of Door County’s best restaurants. But they reopened, better than ever, in June 2009, with a renewed emphasis on sustainable, local agriculture, a second story and a wine bar. Try the tilapia fish tacos.

Recharge: In Sturgeon Bay, the high-Victorian-style Scofield House (107 S. 9th Ave. Sturgeon Bay), is adorned with stained glass and elaborately carved trims. Reserve “The Room at the Top” – a suite with skylights built into the cathedral ceiling and a private entrance.

NORTH CENTRAL

The Gleason Bowling Center (N5353 State Highway 17) is one of the few businesses in the tiny town of Gleason. Open since 1946, it’s still going strong. Current owner Todd Schram kept the wood lanes, but added new windows, and opened the bar into the bowling alley, where six lanes are polished up and ready for strikes.   

In nearby Rib Lake, check out the classic set of four lanes inside Little Bohemia (806 McComb Ave.). Family-owned for some 30 years, the lounge used to be part of the bank next door – look for the old vault door.

Don’t miss the photo op down the street: Pose for a picture with the 8-foot-tall Ice Man, “Ugh.” For real.

Just outside Prentice is Ds’ Burger & Bowl (N5250 County Road A), built in 1947. The roadhouse-style bowling alley is rumored to be haunted – liquor bottles rearrange themselves, doors slam – although the current owners haven’t experienced any chills since they purchased the property a year ago. “We haven’t seen any evidence of that,” says Dorie, who co-owns the place with her sister
Darlene. There are four lanes, a huge horseshoe-shaped bar, and a nice dining area. They also have a car show and corn roast every August.
 
Refuel: Try a burger or plate of ribs at The Happy Snapper in Tomahawk (1315 S. Tomahawk Ave.). You’ll find terrific views of Lake Mohawksin, a 2000-acre body of water known for muskie and smallmouth bass.

Recharge: At the Riverhouse in Tomahawk, relax in front of a fire and watch the Wisconsin River roll by through the floor-to-ceiling windows of this log-plank home. The main house sleeps up to 10, and there’s a cute carriage studio over the garage that sleeps five, so bring the gang.

NORTHWEST

The really great thing about Anglers Bar & Grill in Hayward (10547 Main St.) is that folks can sit and have a drink at the bar, and their kids can bowl right in the next room. Everybody’s happy! The four lanes are as old-fashioned as they come, and the lodge-like atmosphere in the attached bar/restaurant is charming, especially if you enjoy taxidermy trophies.

Black & Orange Lanes in Webster (7462 Main St.) is a funky, happening place, starting with the carpeted walls, adorned with florescent balls and pins. Owner Tim Vasatka is ramping up the business: he’s added a poker room, horseshoe pits and a volleyball court. And then he went and bought the nearby Webster Motel, where there’s a free drink chip in every room. Visit soon – auto-scoring machines are on the horizon.

Club 53 Bowling in Amery (125 Keller Ave.) still sports the gentle reminder, “It’s tough to lose, but it’s tougher to be a good loser” on the wall at the end of the alleys, but, alas, they’ve given in to the times and have installed auto-scoring machines on their otherwise quaint four lanes.

Owner Jim Leisz can tell you about the old days. “Dad put in these alleys in 1953,” he says. “But there used to be two lanes in the basement, and I’m not even sure how far back those went.” Bar patrons can watch the lane action through a window behind the bar.
   
Refuel: Cumberland’s 5 O’Clock Club (2639 7th St.) provides one of the best dining experiences in this part of the state. The food is sublime: fresh seafood and, when available, cream of morel soup – full of earthy-rich flavor. From the deck behind the bar, you’ll see spacious, flower-filled grounds and a walking path to Granite Lake.

Recharge: Wissahickon Farms Country Inn (2263 Maple Drive, St. Croix Falls), a rustic, one-room former general store-turned-B&B, with its plank flooring, two-person whirlpool tub and Remington cash register, is about as eclectic as they come. You’ll love it, especially when you’re relaxing in front of the gas fireplace with a bottle of wine on a cold winter night.

Manya Kaczkowski is a freelance travel, food and lifestyle writer from Menomonee Falls. Her book, "Milwaukee’s Historic Bowling Alleys," was published in 2010.

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