Echoes of the 1940s can be found at a tiny Mount Jackson bowling alley. Matt Gottlieb reports that it’s a survivor of a once-thriving, regional style of bowling.
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Photography By Robb Scharetg
Visit Mount Jackson and find one of those picturesque Shenandoah Valley towns on the old Turnpike, blessed by beautiful scenery and marked by the Civil War. Up the valley from Edinburg and north of New Market, locals and weekend joy riders walk along the Main Street, peeking into shops and admiring old buildings. A few miles in one direction sits the largest covered bridge in Virginia, and the many ridges that compose Massanutten Mountain dominate the eastern horizon. In the summer, the corn grows tall, and in the winter people ski. The fall brings the area’s famed foliage, and the spring offers clear skies.
Yet, in some ways, the heart of the town lives indoors, on the second floor of a featureless building, at the pocket-sized Shenandoah Lanes duckpin bowling alley.
Opened in 1948, but somehow looking even older, the place harks back to the days when more people lived, worked and shopped in small towns. The place boasts only six lanes. Most modern bowling houses sport at least 20, and often nearly double that number. The original benches, the front ones with graceful curves, are made of wood and not the brightly colored plastic of the past 50 years. Curtains cover the pin-setting machines, installed in 1958. When the bowling ball scurries down the return chute from the pins, it settles in a rack that looks almost like a stylized tail of a World War II fighter, with rounded edges and the charm of antiquated efforts at modernity. The signs still read “Women’s Lounge” and “Cloakroom.”
Visit what the owners claim to be the oldest bowling establishment in Virginia, and forget computerized scoring systems, overhead screens showing anthropomorphized pins, the silliness of bumpers that prevent gutterballs or the gimmickry of Cosmic Bowling’s glow-in-the-dark pins and fog machines.
During the summer, a game at Shenandoah Lanes costs $3.50, an almost unheard of low price in these times. Former owner Al Safranek recently faced higher rent payments and raised the price from $2. Shoe rental—and the footwear is new and comfortable—runs a visitor $2.50 (up from just 50 cents).
An hour before the place opens, Safranek, his son and a Harrisonburg regular, Johnny Wymer, are playing pool. The two put in quarters to play, finish the game, retrieve the coins from the bowl that catches them and reinsert them for another contest.
Safranek, who took over the operation in 2005, didn't see the alley as a major profit center. A machinist at White Post Restorations, an antique car renovation enterprise, he commuteed 45 minutes down the Valley for his day job, drove back to his home in Edinburg then headed into Mount Jackson and opens the alley.
“That’s my real job. This is just extra, like a hobby. If I had to work another job just to finance this, I probably would. It’s just the way I am,” he says, as the boys begin racking balls for another game. “My day during the week starts at 6 o’clock in the morning, and I get home at 11:30 at night.”
Safranek, a Baltimore native, grew up with duckpins. His uncle introduced him to the sport as a 5-year-old at a bowling alley three blocks from his home. Then he joined a league at 11, took his first job as a bowling porter—a glorified janitor/mechanic—and met his wife, Peggy, who worked the snack bar. He married, left the city by the Bay for his spouse’s native Shenandoah Valley and left the sport behind him. “I had a family, did the bill thing,” he says.
By the time of Safranek’s exodus, many people had abandoned duckpins. Once the most popular form of bowling in Virginia and across the East Coast, duckpins became incredibly popular in Baltimore around 1900, and leagues began forming in Washington in 1905. From there it spread across the Chesapeake. By the 1920s, its nearly month-long national championship took place in Richmond. The sport began its decline after World War II as companies standardized their equipment for the more traditional tenpins.
Duckpins utilizes a small, three-pound ball, while typical ten-pin balls range from 10 to 16 pounds. The pins appear chubby compared with what most people are used to. Between the tiny sizes and the large distances between pins, scores run lower, making the game more challenging. The perfect score, 300, regularly occurs in tenpins, but it’s never happened in the history of duckpins.
“It just gets in your blood like anything else,” says Roland Walters, who worked at Shenandoah Lanes from 1950, when he started as a pinboy, through 2005 as the manager for well over a decade. “There’s no comparison to tenpins. … You’ve got the big balls, big pins and big scores. That’s what they like about tenpins. But you can score big [in duckpins] if you do a lot of practice.”
Yet, in the last 60 years, duckpins’ territory has continually shrunk. Hit the website RobinsWeb.com and find on its list of duckpin houses that a distressing number are crossed out. Run the term through the newspaper archive search engine, Newsbank.com, and out churn articles about alleys closing and how the sport lost 17 percent of its participants in 1980 alone. “At one time duckpin bowlers in this area outnumbered tenpin bowlers 4-to-1,” reads one 1992 Virginian-Pilot article on the sport’s decline in southern Hampton Roads.
Maryland, southern New England and the Philippines remain duckpin bastions, but Virginia keeps losing alleys. Half of the Old Dominion’s locations have shut their doors over the past decade, vacating Northern Virginia, Charlottesville, the Northern Neck, Culpeper and Tappahannock. Only six places remain. Norfolk’s Bowlarama converted half of its space to tenpins. Richmond’s Plaza Bowl hangs on. Three small houses stand in two adjacent counties in the Shenandoah Valley—Luray Lanes and North Shenandoah’s T-Bowl accompany Mount Jackson—but they’re the final outposts of a time it seemed every small town in the area had its own alley. Woodstock featured a second-story place. Shenandoah Lanes acquired a number of its balls from the shuttered Strasburg location. They no longer spin ducks in New Market, Harrisonburg and Timberville. The two places in Front Royal shut down.
Shenandoah Lanes opened just before the decline started. In its early years, people packed the place. Walters, a World War II veteran, loved that a location opened in his hometown. “For years, the only way you could bowl was if you were in a league—that was it. That was the way for six or seven years,” he says of that time. “We had teams from Strasburg to Harrisonburg.”
But in later decades, as house after house winked out, Safranek began eyeing the old alley in Mount Jackson. Youthful memories flooding back, he quickly became a regular at Shenandoah Lanes, grew friendly with Walters and told him if he ever sold, he’d take over the place.
“He was going to give it to us. I would’ve assumed someone in his family would take it over,” Safranek says. “I had a year to work toward that goal. All the pieces of the puzzle came together ... in the final weeks.”
After taking over, Safranek made a few improvements. He installed air conditioning, allowing the Lanes to run all year whereas, before, it shut down during the summer. He bought new shoes. He works feverishly to keep Shenandoah Lanes operational, constantly scrambling to reset the pin setter, cleaning up and troubleshooting.
About an hour after Adam Safranek and Wymer’s pool game, the place fills up a bit. Wymer begins playing on a few lanes. An Alexandria man, walking down Main Street while taking a break from a church retreat at Orkney Springs, wanders in, buys a Coca-Cola, meets the owner and sits down to take in the atmosphere. Soon a church youth group files inside, and the sound of crashing pins fills the hall. If a pinsetter malfunctions, the son announces the lane on the microphone and Safranek rushes to the machine.
Another Saturday in the small-town landmark.
“I can understand why people wouldn’t want to take care of an operation like this,” Safranek says. “I’m doing it for the bowlers as much as for myself. After this place had been here as many years as it had, it would’ve been a shame to see it close.”
Update: as of July 6, 2015 Shenandoah Bowling Lanes was sold and is now under new management.