Oldest Bowling Alley in America Turns 100

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The walls of this tiny bowling alley are so close together you'd think a bowler would feel claustrophobic.

But stand before this pair of lanes, in the same spot where bowlers have been lacing up since before World War I, and the strongest reaction you feel is captivation.

The lanes are real wood, not the synthetic wood of modern lanes, and it's so resilient it's never been changed since it was set in place 100 years ago. Pin boys reload the manual pin mechanism by hand, and numerous photos on the walls document the history of the nation's oldest bowling alley.

In a city that became synonymous with beer and bowling, the Holler House tavern and bowling alley has been an enduring landmark. Hundreds of former patrons returned to this working-class Milwaukee neighborhood on Saturday, the Holler House's 100th anniversary, to relieve a century of good times.

"I've bowled at other places but this was always the best place to come," said Barbara Kwarcinski, 68, of Milwaukee.

She smiled and added, "It was fun — you could swear at the pin boys because it's their fault you're bowling lousy."

Between the lanes run two rails, like the track of a tiny roller coaster, on which the pin boy rolls the ball back to bowlers.

"Sometimes the customers put some money in the thumb hole and I'll take a couple of extra pins away for them," said Kris Stuckert, 26, a former pin boy who still occasionally works with larger parties. "You make pretty good tips, but sometimes you get someone who doesn't tip much. Then I just let Grandma know."

You wouldn't want to mess with this grandma. Marcy Skowronski, 82, is only 4-foot-11 but the feisty owner of the Holler House isn't afraid to speak her mind.

"I just say, 'is that all you gave him? Come on, you can do better than that,"' she said. "But most people are good about it. People who come here, they're like family."

In preparation for the weekend celebration the Holler House got its first thorough cleaning in almost 40 years. Among the gems unearthed during the cleanup were five wooden bowling balls, each with only two finger holes and weighing about 15 pounds.

One casualty of the cleanup was a naughty collection that used to grace the walls and ceilings of the tavern upstairs. About a thousand bras used to hang from every available object, each signed by the woman who left it.

"About 40 years ago we were sitting here drinking and, I don't know, I guess we started taking our clothes off," said Skowronski, sipping a vodka tonic. "It just became a tradition that women would leave a bra the first time they came here."

Many brassieres began falling apart over the years and Skowronski had the rest boxed up.

"I'm sure it won't be long before we have a whole new collection," she said.

From the outside, the Holler House looks like any other bar in this quiet working-class neighborhood. But walk inside and you get an idea of what "Cheers" might have been like if the bar in the popular TV sitcom had a pair of bowling lanes in the basement.

Matt Hersel, 49, came to the Holler House when he was 17 for his first beer and has been a regular ever since. The Milwaukee salesman met his wife there, and was also a regular bowler for 23 years until back problems forced him to quit.

He recalled the old-timers who drank there over the years, men who lived through the Depression and told stories of their World War II exploits.

"Guys here were tough as nails," Hersel said. "You didn't come here to party, you came to get to know guys like that, hardworking guys, guys that taught you things about life."

Signs on the walls recall life in that bygone era. Original handbills dating back to 1912 and 1916 announce upcoming bowling tournaments, and other signs advertise a hot beef sandwich for a nickel and a half-gallon of beer for 25 cents plus deposit.

Skowronski's late husband Gene was born in the apartment behind the bar, where in 1952 Marcy moved in as a 26-year-old bride. Quick with a smile and a story, she recalled how her in-laws hid liquor under her husband's crib during Prohibition because they knew it was one place the feds wouldn't check.

The tavern was originally named for Gene and Marcy Skowronski, but was nicknamed the Holler House about 35 years ago because of the persistent sounds of raucous reveling.

As charming as the tavern is, the bowling alley below is something special. There are about a dozen pairs of mismatched shoes, although bowlers are welcome to raid shoes from bowling bags left on a shelf by the regular customers.

There are no chairs, and bowlers keep score on paper hanging from the wall. The close quarters lead to thunderous echoes as the balls rumble down the regulation lanes, each of which has absorbed about a million tosses.

Skowronski, whose personality can fill a room, says she has no intention of retiring, even at 82.

"Nope, I'm going to die behind the bar," she said. "Why would I leave all this? These people, we all care about each other, we're all extended family. No, this is where I belong."