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The End of An Era: The Demolition of Swiss Lanes

Part one of a two-part series


March 2, 2017

At night, as you drive through New Glarus on HWY 69, you feel that something isn't quite right. Then you notice something is missing. Something that has greeted you for the past 58 years. The big neon bowling pin atop Swiss Lanes is no longer lit. The crowds all are gone, the seats in the restaurant all are empty.

Soon, the building will be demolished and hauled to a landfill. All that remains now are the memories of the nights spent at Swiss Lanes with friends, neighbors, classmates who gathered for bowling, perhaps a beer or a fountain Coke, good small town restaurant food, often cooked by the baby boomer generation's mothers, who found part-time employment at Swiss Lanes.

Those wonderful gray haired mothers of our classmates often worked days on the family farm, bowled one night a week, and put in several nights each week behind the restaurant counter, cooking and waiting tables.

These women served as our third parent. Keeping an eye on all of us, as we gathered after football and basketball games, ensuring that we stayed out of trouble. Acting as the disciplinarian if necessary, with the reminder, "straighten up your behavior or I'll tell your parents when I see them tomorrow." And you knew they meant it.

Some will say, "it was just a bowling alley." And perhaps, to a certain extent, for some people, it was nothing more than, "just a bowling alley." And that is tragic. For those of us baby boomers, the Swiss Lanes was something much more important to us, in our growing up years.

Our WWII generation parents had their dance halls and supper clubs, where they would gather, drink, dine, dance and meet up with special friends for an enjoyable night out on the town. We had Swiss Lanes.

We, like our parents, simply assumed that, "the bowling alley," would be there long after we were gone.  But as these things go, the public's choices of recreation have changed. And, with those changes, one of America's icons is rapidly disappearing from small towns and big cities across the United States.

Much of the demise of many bowling alleys across the country is being brought on by big demographic changes. As the small rural area farms were being sold off to neighboring farmers and real estate developers, these newly retired farmers moved into the towns, where they once went to school. With neighbors just 50-feet away from your property line, social connections were just a few steps from your front door. New friendships were formed as new social contacts were offered up. You didn't need to go to the bowling alley to socialize with others.

You can see this demographic change with new subdivisions within driving distance of larger city centers across the country. These subdivisions often are populated with people whose jobs are in the cities, moved out from the cities, but still spend their social time in the cities where they work, and where old neighborhood friends still live. But they rarely spend social time in their adopted small towns.

A recent anecdotal story makes this point. A local resident was asked by one who fled the city, "where can you get good pizza around here?" The local answered with, "Sugar River Pizza." "Where is that located?" "One block from the stop light in town." To which the urban refugee answered, "Oh, we never go into town!" Homes become more of just a place to eat and sleep, and not becoming part of the bigger community for the new occupants.

The need to go into town one night each week to meet up with your neighbors was no longer necessary.  Bowling alleys provided a place to spend a few hours conversing about the weather, which farmer was first in line for the year's oats combining, done in conjunction with all your farm neighbors, talk about the potential drought if much needed rain didn't come soon, who was in the hospital, who's getting married. Play three lines of bowling, and hoist a beer or two for good measure and go home until next week.

Bowling alleys across the country provided that much needed social outlet, much the same as did other organizations like the Masonic Lodges, Eastern Star, Jaycee chapters, Moose, Eagles Club lodges, homemakers clubs, and many other social organizations that once played a significant role in the after-work hours lives of citizens in small towns.

This same decline is shown in what once were typical social activities. Church attendance, family dinners, visiting neighbors, neighborhood dinner parties. An indication of this is shown in one statistic that indicates 70% of homeowners now use the garage door as the main entrance into their homes.

In the past decade, several area bowling alleys have closed, including two in Madison, the most recent was Badger Bowl, a bowling center that offered music and dancing in addition to bowling. The bowling alley between Blanchardville and Hollandale has been for sale for several years. And the Evansville bowling alley was recently sold.

One area bowling alley, Turner Hall in Monroe, has seen a recent rise in use, due in great part to a management change. Turner Hall President Terry Goetz commented on this turn around.

"Interestingly, our new manager of the bowling alley is busy building the bowling business. He has worked so hard to clean, paint, add seating, improve the menu, and most of all put a welcome mat out to anyone who wants to bowl: young, old, handicapped. And, he has worked with the old equipment to make it operate efficiently and reliably.  The results?  More bowlers, who are experiencing a simple bowling alley with no loud music and fancy stuff, a pleasant, welcoming atmosphere, and a manager, who appears a bit gruff on first view, who compels little kids and adults to bring him presents and promises to return, with more people in tow. There's a message in there that appeals to you and me. Sometimes less is more, and caring people do count!"

Does the rise of social media also promote this lack of personal flesh and blood interaction with other people? A May 2012 article in The Atlantic magazine addresses this rising social problem. The article is titled, "Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?"

"Social media-from Facebook to Twitter-have made us more densely networked than ever. Yet for all this connectivity, new research suggests that we have never been lonelier (or more narcissistic)-and that this loneliness is making us mentally and physically ill."

Draw from this, your own conclusions. We humans need the social interaction that places like bowling alleys provided us.

Likewise, golfing also is in the beginning of a sharp decline in popularity. A May 2014 Forbes magazine article titled, "How A Declining Middle Class Is Killing Golf," by Bob Cook, points out that millennials are showing no interest in "the sport of golf". Bloomberg News quoted the National Golf Foundation as saying 200,000 players age 35 and younger "abandoned the game" over the past year (2013).

The article also states that in 2013 more golf courses closed than opened across the country, a decline for eight straight years.

"A total of 14 18-hole courses opened in 2013, but 157 courses closed during the same year, three more than 2012."

Bowling Alley Statistics that tell a stark story.

* From the end of WWII through 1958, the year Swiss Lanes was built, 2,000 new bowling alleys were built across the United States.

* In 2012, there were 4,016 bowling alleys across the U. S., down 25% from 1998.

* In 1958, the American Society of Planning Officials stated, "the bowling alley is fast becoming one of the most important, if not the most important improvement in local centers of participant sports and recreation."

* The bowling alley was the "blue-collar country club."

* By the late 1990's, bowling alleys began reconfiguring themselves into family entertainment centers, adding good quality food, and game rooms for children.

* The original bowling game was first played with nine pins in England, Holland and Germany.

* In 1841, Connecticut and several other states banned 9-pin lanes because of too much gambling, drinking, brawling and general mayhem. It was about this same time that the 10th pin was added to the game.

* 1895, the American Bowling Congress standardized the rules.

* 1905, the first rubber bowling ball was introduced.

* 1917, the WIBC, Women's International Bowling Congress, was formed.

* 1948, the first bowling match was shown on TV. The match was held at Bowling Headliners, Rego Park Lanes, Queens, New York.

* 1952, the American Bowling Congress removed "Whites Only" from their constitution.

* 1952, 1st automatic pinsetter was installed.

* 1959, the PBA, Professional Bowlers Association, was formed.

* 1960, the PWBA, Professional Women's Bowlers Association, was formed.

* 1961, the first PBA tournament was televised from Paramus, New Jersey.

* 1976, the first AMF "Magicscore" was installed.

* 1993, the ABC removes the "Male Only" from their constitution.

* 2003, the PWBA folds.

* 2005, the ABC and WIBC merged to form the U.S. Bowling Congress.

In the early days of bowling, the lanes, typically two or four, were operated in conjunction with a bar, pool hall or athletic club.

The 1950's to 1970's were the golden years of bowling. The Edison Lanes in New Jersey had 112 lanes. Between 1960- 1963, a total of 1,066 bowling alleys opened, a rate of almost one new bowling alley opening per day.

In 1949, Time Magazine had All-Star bowling champ Connie Schwoegler pictured on the back cover of its magazine. Schwoegler ended up in Madison and owned Schwoegler Lanes for many years.

Who was the first athlete of all sports to gain a $1 million contract? Step aside baseball, football and basketball. The honor goes to pro-bowler, Don Carter. Carter's 1964 $1 million contract came from Ebonite, a maker of bowling balls.  

Next Week: A nostalgic look back at Swiss Lanes' history and legacy.

***Part two of this story may be found at:


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