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Wisconsin home to many vintage bowling centers

In a Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017 photo, bowlers participating on a tour of vintage lanes organized by the Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin prepare to board a bus following a stop at Ley's Bark River Lanes in Rome, Wis. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Bowlers on a tour of vintage lanes organized by the Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin prepare to board a bus on Oct. 29 following a stop at Ley’s Bark River Lanes in Rome, Wis. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Wisconsin State Journal

IRON RIDGE, Wis. (AP) — Yvonne Bennett hasn’t been trained in cartography, but she’s done a pretty good job of mapping the deep roots of Wisconsin’s bowling heritage.

Not surprisingly, her plat of throwback bowling alleys — with eight, six and even two lanes — is concentrated in some of the state’s smallest villages and towns.

There’s Stars & Strikes in Princeton and Lambeaul Lanes in Red Granite, with four lanes each. And also Stubby’s Bowl in Waterloo, with six lanes. And Fireball Lanes in Lancaster, which has eight lanes for bowling.

The Wisconsin State Journal reports that the path along Highway 29 between Green Bay and Chippewa Falls is studded with a string of small bowling centers that serve as entertainment hubs in places like Stanley, Boyd, Thorp, Athens, Gleason, Birnamwood and Tigerton.

“If you’re into old stuff and bowling, it’s a pretty cool place to drive,” said Bennett, executive director of the Pewaukee-based Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin.

So when the Green Bay Packers had a bye last Sunday, Bennett broke out her map, chartered a bus and organized a tour of four small, vintage bowling centers in Dodge and Jefferson counties. The 11.5-hour excursion, designed to promote and showcase older alleys, had 11 bowling enthusiasts traveling about 135 miles. Each of them paid $119 and, together, bowled 75 games, all scored in pencil.

There were rounds of Bloody Mary’s and Old Fashioned’s, a healthy dose of nostalgia and a fair number of strikes and spares in historic settings far removed from the state’s largest bowling center, the 72-lane AMF Bowlero in Wauwatosa.

The tour is believed to be the first of its kind in the country. The hope is that it will lead to similar events in other parts of the state, where bowling lanes are part of small businesses that can also include bars, supper clubs and dance halls. Wisconsin is home to 308 bowling centers, giving it fewer than only two other states: Pennsylvania, which has 318, and New York, which has 317, according to Bennett.

Roger Dalkin of Greenfield, right, celebrates on Oct. 29 after picking up a spare during a visit to the lower-level bowling lanes of the Fort Atkinson Club in Fort Atkinson. The club was one of four stops on a tour of vintage lanes organized by the Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Roger Dalkin of Greenfield, right, celebrates on Oct. 29 after picking up a spare during a visit to the lower-level bowling lanes of the Fort Atkinson Club in Fort Atkinson. The club was one of four stops on a tour of vintage lanes organized by the Bowling Centers Association of Wisconsin. (John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

Although Wisconsin might not have the most bowling alleys, it is uniquely flush with small venues. The state has 84 bowling alleys that have only between two and six lanes, the most in the country. Many of them have lanes made of wood rather than synthetic materials, manual scorekeeping systems and exposed ball returns.

The Bowling Centers Association’s tour took us to four of them:

At the Iron Ridge Bowling Club, we were greeted by the owner, Robin Ehrensberger, who had football playing on the televisions as we piled into her narrow building. It was put up in 1904 on the main drag of Iron Ridge, a village of 937 people southeast of Horicon in northeastern Dodge County.

The first lanes in the building were built in the basement but were later moved to the first floor of the building, which at one time was also home to a barbershop and meat market. In 1907, the Mayville News reported the Iron Ridge Bowling Club was holding a five-day tournament. Entry fee: $2.

Ehrensberger, 53, bought the business in 2005 and has added three outdoor horseshoe pits and indoor darts, for league and recreational play, as well as a concrete pad for outdoor parties. All that has helped diversify her business, which lies just across the street from the Iron Ridge Inn supper club and hotel.

To visit the four lanes here is to step back in time. The ball returns are exposed, the Brunswick hand dryers are made of chrome, and the pin-setting machines were salvaged decades ago from a bowling alley in West Bend. More than 100 people take part in Ehrensberger’s bowling leagues, which is more than 10 percent of the village’s population. To accommodate local farmers, one of her leagues’ starting times is pushed back to 9 p.m.

“I’m constantly recruiting,” Ehrensberger said. “I have people that come from all over.”

This is a place where a sign on the front of the building touts Old Style beer, wooden doors to the restrooms are barely two feet wide, and beer steins painted by the famed wildlife artist Terry Redlin can be bought. A large calendar from Persha Equipment Sales in Mayville hangs on the paneled walls and, once a year, Ehrensberger holds a leister tournament where scoring is modified and awards given to those who would have had the lowest score in a regular tournament.

Ehrensberger, a former accountant, is only the fourth owner of the building and believes the size of her alley gives her an advantage.

“It’s a lot easier to fill four lanes than 24 lanes,” Ehrensberger said.

Services had just ended at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church when the tour bus pulled up to the corner of highways P and Y in downtown Rome, an unincorporated community of roughly 600 people east of Jefferson.

Part of the building that houses the bar, restaurant and six-lane bowling center has stood on this corner since 1844. The site was a dance hall and former meat locker. Bowling wasn’t added until 1956.

Larry Leys, 72, who had a career installing security and phone systems, bought the business in 2003. This is home for Leys, who grew up next door, where his father repaired radios and televisions. His grandfather had a hardware store across the street from the bowling alley.

“There’s no through-traffic here,” said Leys, shortly after serving the group homemade pizza, one topped with bratwurst slices and Swiss cheese. “If somebody comes through Rome, they either took a wrong turn or they knew where they were headed.”

The bowling center, with advertising banners for local businesses like Pelican Plumbing, Pal Steel and Biggy’s Decorative Concrete Edging, plays host to league play four nights a week, doesn’t allow the use of powdered resin and accounts for about 20 percent of his business. The rest comes from the bar and restaurant.

This grand building, modeled after the Wisconsin Building at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, was put up for $10,376 along the Rock River and has had quite a run since opening in 1913 in this city of 12,541 people.

The original club members were men who paid $18 a year to use the three-story, 6,000-square-foot building for drinking brandy, eating, smoking cigars, playing billiards and, in the basement, bowling on its two lanes with pin-setting boys. The club was bought in 1930 by the Billings Masonic Lodge, which had its own leagues. The Masons sold it in 1986, after which it was used primarily for storage until being bought in 2011 by Joan Jones, who set up a nonprofit foundation to raise $2.5 million and restore the building for public use.

The result is stunning, with its dark woodwork, hardwood floors, a second-floor solarium that overlooks the river, a commercial kitchen, meeting rooms and the ballroom. It’s now a venue for poetry readings, concerts, weddings and other social events. The bowling lanes were restored earlier this year for about $20,000.

“It’s part of the history of the building. It’s part of the integrity of the architecture,” said Renae Mitchell, director of the club. “We decided that it was better to restore it and have it as something people can do. It’s part of living history, in a sense.”

The village of Palmyra was settled in 1842 and has a colorful history that includes a period of time — the 1870s to 1920s — in which people from around the world came to visit the natural springs in the area. The bowling alley sits on Main Street, across the street from the Carlin House, which was built in 1845 and is now a museum that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The four-lane bowling alley is in the basement of a building that was put up in 1901 and, for years, was home to a movie theater. The first two bowling lanes were added in the 1920s and, sometime before 1965, two more were added. The movie theater eventually closed. The space was then used for a variety of businesses, including an Italian restaurant, archery center and clothing store. The bowling lanes remained, but fell into disrepair over the past 25 years.

Lori Hale bought the building in 2015 and turned its first floor to the Cornerstone Restaurant. She held a fundraiser to bring in $5,000 to restore the lanes, which hadn’t been resurfaced in 20 years or used in 10. The decor was given an older look: 45 rpm records now hang on the wall around the juke box. A game of bowling costs $4, and shoe rental is $1.

Hale’s daughter, Jennifer Gutierrez, who runs the bowling operation while working full time as an office assistant in Waukesha, has brought league play to the alley, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. One of her business’ biggest difficulties is getting people back into bowling after the sport had been absent for about a decade.

One strategy paid off big a year ago when the bowling alley’s float in the Christmas parade took first place.

“So we get Santa on our float this year,” Gutierrez said. “It took a while for the town to get to know us, but we’ve really made a name for ourselves out here.”

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