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The Bowling Capital of America

Milwaukee Color

Jul. 15, 2009
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Bowling began its reign as Milwaukee’s sport of choice in the mid-19th century, when Germans started immigrating to America en masse to escape political and religious upheaval in their homeland.According to Doug Schmidt, Wisconsin’s pre-eminent bowling historian and author of They Came to Bowl: How Milwaukee Became America’s Tenpin Capital, modern bowling can trace its roots to Germany. Considering its rudimentary goal—throwing one object to knock down another—the sport has ancient origins and many incarnations.

During the third century, Germans carried a “kegel,” a type of club, for protection. A man would set up his kegel, which symbolized a heathen, and throw a stone at it. If he toppled the kegel, he had defeated the heathen and was believed to have a pure Christian soul. Skittles was another manifestation of the sport, where players would toss a circular piece of ironwood called the “cheese” down a 21-foot run in an attempt to knock down nine skittles, 14-inch long birch pins that weighed about 8 pounds apiece.

Through the church, kegeling became a staple activity at outdoor German events during the Middle Ages. As it gained popularity, the sport moved indoors to kegelbahns, which were often connected with taverns or inns. It’s debated when and why bowling shifted from nine to 10 pins, though one very believable theory is that an extra pin was added to skirt laws banning the ninepin game because of its gambling element.

The abundance of manufacturing jobs in Milwaukee attracted scores of working-class immigrants. In 1850, Schmidt says, “two-thirds of Milwaukee’s residents were born in Europe, and two out of three hailed from Germany or Austria.” When Germans arrived in America they established combined gymnastic and cultural centers called Turner clubs, which often included bowling lanes.

Abe Langtry was the first entrepreneur to establish a bowling emporium in the middle of Milwaukee’s commercial district. In the 1890s he opened 24 bowling alleys in a building at Second Street and Wisconsin Avenue. He was recognized as one of the most successful bowling proprietors in the Midwest, attracting the attention of the newly formed American Bowling Congress (ABC). Langtry and Mayor David Rose convinced the ABC to host its 1905 national championship tournament in Milwaukee. Langtry was elected secretary of the ABC two years later, and ran the organization from his office on Wisconsin Avenue. He continued to govern the ABC for the next 25 years, securing Milwaukee’s legacy as the center of the entire industry.

By 1980, when the combined membership of the American Bowling Congress and the Women’s International Bowling Congress peaked at 9 million, the total included more than 100,000 league bowlers from Milwaukee alone, extraordinary given that the entire population of Milwaukee County numbered approximately 636,000.

After decades of growth, bowling in Milwaukee yielded to cultural and economic changes. Sanctioned league participation declined a n d many of Milwaukee’s bowling lanes had no other option than to close. Some say enthusiasm for bowling wavered with the breakdown of the family, change in lifestyles and decentralization of the country’s population from urban to suburban areas. Others think it’s because posting high scores became too easy or because the public’s attitudes toward alcohol and smoking, two common elements of bowling, were less tolerant. Milwaukee has remained home to several of the oldest alleys in the country, like those at the Holler House on the South Side, which opened in 1908. Though they weren’t certified until 1913, the six alleys at Falcon Bowl are thought to have been installed as early as 1899.

Will Milwaukee ever redeem its title as America’s Bowling Capital? That’s up to you…

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