The Backstory: "Seductive wooden balls" (or, the controversial history of bowling in Ann Arbor)

Want to improve your circulation? Aid your digestion? Stimulate your appetite? You can do all of this with the "healthy and exciting exercise that can be played during the winter!" What is this amazing sport? Bowling, of course!

That's all according to an ad in the December 17, 1884, edition of the Ann Arbor Courier, one of the earliest records of what has proved an enduring hobby in Ann Arbor. Bliss' Bowling Alley put its money where its ad was by offering a contest for those making the most points in 25 games between December and January 1884. First prize was a $10 medal, second prize was a box of cigars, and third prize was one dollar's worth of bowling tickets.

A.C. Bliss and Company encouraged folks to come to their newly spruced-up place, decorated in "good style" and located across from the courthouse. When the bowling alley opened in September, the Courier boasted of an exhibition on display there. A painting depicted a "rare work of arctic art," showing Native Americans and "the beautiful scenery of the torrid, temperate and frigid zone … that must be seen to be appreciated."

In January of 1885, the Bliss bowling alley was temporarily hampered by a fire caused by a burning chimney. Fortunately, the damage was limited to the paper on the wall near the chimney. Despite the minor damages, the Courier reported in April that the bowling alley had been moved to Turner Park, located on West Madison between Fourth and Fifth streets. (While the park is now gone, there is a road named Turner Park Court near its former location.) The Courier was silent on exactly how this happened; however, Bliss possibly replaced a previous bowling alley. The roof of an existing bowling alley in Turner Park caved in in February 1885 due to heavy snow.  

Bowling alleys were also found in other organizations. In April of 1891, the Ann Arbor Argus reported that the YMCA's new board of directors proposed the building of a clubhouse. Estimated to cost around $10,000, the facility would include a bowling alley along with a billiards room, card room, and smoking room. The hope was that the city's young men could spend their evenings in a place of "pleasant surroundings, with elevating influences."

McMillan Hall, a gathering place on State Street for student spiritual activities, also had its own bowling alley, according to the Ann Arbor Argus in December 1891. The double bowling alley was scheduled to open in February of 1893, with a $1 fee to use it; the expectation was that $200 would be raised. The paper reported that it was hoped that ladies would buy 50 of those 200 tickets, as the ladies would be allowed to use the gymnasium one-fourth of the time it was open.

Located at the corner of Huron and State and "equally distant from the university and the business part of the city," Hobart Hall boasted its own 14-foot-by-70-foot bowling alley. There also existed a Hobart Guild, comprised of male and female students connected with St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. Its clubhouse in the renamed Harris Hall, formerly Hobart Hall, included parlors for music and literary entertainment, a kitchen and dining room, bathrooms, billiard rooms, and a bowling alley. A member could bowl for free, but had to pay extra for billiards and bathrooms.

In 1898, the Ann Arbor Argus-Democrat reported that shoe merchant William Rheinhart was new champion of the city in bowling. In bowling a game called "four back," he scored 83 of a possible 100, beating the previous record of 80/100 held by a Mr. Lehr.

The good times came to a bit of a halt in 1898, when Ann Arbor's common council passed an ordinance requiring bowling alleys and billiard halls to pay for a yearly $5 license and to close at 10:30 p.m. Alderman Richards thought this was an "injustice" to the bowling alleys and that Ann Arbor should have more of these types of business, as the proprietors paid taxes and rent. Conversely, Alderman Koch opined that bowling alleys made too much noise, and Alderman Stevens thought the $5 license was too small a price to pay.

The Ann Arbor Argus-Democrat reported that because of this ordinance, a man who "handles one of those seductive wooden balls after the witching hour of 10:30 standard time will be breaking the laws of the municipality" and expressed irritation at how the council was "regulating the amusement of the people."

Despite these new restrictions, Ann Arborites' love for bowling continued into the 20th century. In 1952, Huron Lanes opened at 320 E. Huron Street. The 16-lane alley featured then-state-of-the-art technologies such as Tel-e-score equipment that projected scoresheets on large screens. Another innovation was the automatic ball return, which could also be adapted to allow people to practice bowling with no pins. The business added a restaurant in 1962, but was sold in 1967 and later demolished. Also in 1967, the Ann Arbor Recreation bowling alley at 605 E. Huron was demolished to make room for the Campus Inn.

Some bowling alleys remain, including Colonial Lanes (now known as Revel and Roll), which was built in 1961 and continues to thrive on South Industrial Highway. Bel-Mark Lanes on Jackson Avenue provides not only lanes and pins, but karaoke and live music.

From the folks who bowled with the Bliss Brothers to the students at Hobart Guild to people currently unwinding at Colonial Lanes or Revel and Roll, Ann Arborites have been making their own bowling blueprint for over 100 years now. And if we're getting turkeys and knocking down pins like they owe us money, it's all good – we're free to bowl long after the witching hour of 10:30 p.m.

Patti Smith lives in Ann Arbor, the best city on earth. By day, she is a special education teacher. By night, she writes novels (that she hopes to sell one day) and articles for Mittenbrew, the Ann, Pulp, the Ann Arbor Observer, and Concentrate.
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