[This article is an expanded version of one which originally appeared in the V. 36, No. 3 edition of the MCHS newsletter.]
Depending on which source you believe, what we now call bowling has its origins either in ancient Egypt, or some time in medieval Germany. While bowling is certainly not the first sport to have disputed provenance – looking at you, baseball – the popularity of bowling in its many variations stretches across centuries of human history.
For purposes of our story, we will skip to late nineteenth century America, as the popularity of what is called “ten pin bowling” – what most people associate with the sport, was growing quickly thanks to the ability of alley proprietors to appeal to the general public, along with standardization efforts by the American (later United States) Bowling Congress.
The explosion of alleys across the nation began shortly before and in the immediate years following World War II. No town was too small to have an alley in its business district.
Finding the earliest bowling alleys in Morrison County proved challenging due to the lack of phone books and directories for the area.
Newspaper references provided a few clues. Such as August 15, 1901, which stated that an “R. C. Berry” was going to build an alley in Little Falls.
In the March 13, 1913 Little Falls Herald, the results of a match between Little Falls and Royalton was detailed. No locations were given for where the match was held.
Jumping ahead, the 1939 Little Falls phone book had the first listing of an alley – the “Bowling Center” on First Street SE, located in the Buckman Hotel. For almost a decade that was the only alley listed in the county.
In 1948 and 1949, there was a B&B Recreation listed in Pierz, but we have no information on that business.
This left the Little Falls alley as the only outlet in the county until 1962, when a new alley opened in Pierz, going under the name Bowling Center & Fun House.
The Little Falls Bowling Center opened a new home in 1964, at 211 First St SE, right next to the Buckman, allowing for eight lanes of action. Perhaps to eliminate confusion, the Bowling Center in Pierz in 1972 renamed itself as the Pierz Lanes.
In 1978, Jubilee Bowl opened at 501 LeMueir St in Little Falls. It included an eatery and lounge. That same year, the Bowling Center moved to its new home on Highway 371, right next to the Highway 10 overpass, under the name Little Falls – Morrison County Bowling Center. Jubilee Bowl appears to have closed around 1983/84.
The popularity of bowling at a national level was easy to see. Millions of Americans took part in leagues. The PBA (Professional Bowlers Association) events were a ratings hit on Saturday afternoon sports t.v., seen from 1962 – 1997 on ABC a part of their Wide World of Sports broadcasts.
Bowling was often used as metaphor for community togetherness and commitment. Alleys were a central hub of socialization for people of all ages.
That metaphor of bowling and community togetherness was turned on its head in the 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, by sociologist Robert Putnam. In it, Putnam used bowling as the vehicle to show how the decrease in community togetherness was harming the nation’s social fabric.
While bowling has not been included in popular entertainment as much as baseball or other sports, it does have its share of movies worth noting. They range from the feel-good – Dreamer (1979), the comedic – Kingpin (1996) and The Big Lebowski (1998), and the schlocky horror – Sorority Babes at The Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama (1988; and yes, you can just as well skip this one…).
For one season, 2001-02, the cable channel Comedy Central featured the show Let’s Bowl.
Let’s Bowl started in 1998 as a low-budget syndicated cross between Judge Judy and Bowling for Dollars, where contestants of varying skill used bowling to settle disputes. Several alleys in the Minneapolis area were used as locations for the show.
Changes in how people viewed bowling and macro changes in how people entertained themselves led to a serious decline in the overall number of alleys. At one point, Minnesota had nearly 600. In 2022 that number was about 180. This mirrored the decline at the national level, which saw in 2022 just under 3000 operating alleys, down from 12,000 in the mid-1960s.
There are still leagues in many communities. In Minnesota, there is a concerted effort to engage youth in bowling. And the Minnesota State High School League has as one of its recognized activities Adapted Bowling, for students with special needs.
Both alleys in Morrison County still operate. The former Pierz Lanes has been since 2002 the Pierz Ballroom & Lanes, a popular venue for wedding receptions and other events. The Little Falls Bowling Center, after a sale to new owners in August 2022, now goes by the name Bennington’s Entertainment Center.
While bowling may not occupy the recreational and sporting life of people the way is did in post-World War II America, it is still is a popular outlet for fun and socialization.
Additional images from the MCHS collections: