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The End of An Era: The Demolition of Swiss Lanes - Part 2


March 9, 2017

Photo courtesy of Kim Tschudy

In this early undated photo from Swiss Lanes, Clayt Engen directs an unidentified bowler.

Correction for last week. Stated the downtown bowling alley burned in 1958-it should have been 1959. In list of area bowling alleys that have closed, Countryside Lanes, between Blanchardville and Hollandale, is closing the end of April.

Never in their wildest dreams could Clayt (Clayton) and Betty Engen have imagined when they built their new bowling alley, Swiss Lanes, that in the next decades the business would become a major social center for the surrounding area.

But first, a bit of history on how Swiss Lanes came into existence. New Glarus had at least two bowling establishments before Engen's built Swiss Lanes. An early pair of lanes were in the rear of Held's Restaurant at 429 Second Street.

The front portion of the building housed several various businesses after Held's Restaurant closed. The most notable business was a shoe repair shop, which was operated by Dean Gmur and later by Ralph Bethke Sr. John Bethke, Ralph's son, recalls the bowling alley portion of the building, a long narrow one story add-on to the building.

"When we were there, the bowling lanes, probably two lanes, were long gone. There wasn't much there but some storage room." But for Bethke there was a memory of his own years living one floor above. "If you will remember, that's where our After-School Science Club met, and had our lab."

The After-School Science Club had four members, John, this writer, and two other classmates who will remain unnamed, along with several upper-classmen who acted as mentors to the Science Club. The focus of the After-School Science Club tended, to a great degree, to lean toward making pyrotechnics and things that exploded. A bunch of shotgun shells were found back there, which to the budding scientists represented a scientific nirvana. He also mentioned that the Strickler's Market, located next door, once had a contest of some sort, and live chickens were tossed off the top of the building. "We caught one and put it in the back room for a couple of days before we had it for supper."

The Levitan and Stuessy store, now named the Anderson Mall, had a second story bowling alley operated by Emil Ziltner until the building burned on January 9, 1959. The first floor of the building housed Uffelman's Variety Store and Roy's Market. The roof and interior of the building were destroyed, but the exterior walls were saved. With the rebuilding of the store, the second floor was eliminated. The exact cause of the fire was never determined. The cause was thought to be spontaneous combustion from improperly stored cleaning supplies in the basement.

Fighting the fire required so much water to extinguish it that the local water tower was severely drained. Because it was so cold the night of the fire, the water main inside the new high school froze and burst. The basement, with 30 inches of water, played a big part in draining the water tower, thus hindering the fire department even more.

Herman Pfund, a New Glarus Fireman at the time, reflected on the night of the fire. "I was up on a ladder with a hose trying to keep the roof wetted down to prevent the fire from spreading to the New Glarus Hotel. The New Glarus and Monticello Fire Departments were both fighting the fire. We called Monroe asking them to bring their big aerial ladder truck to help keep the hotel roof from catching fire."

"Because of the low water pressure and volume, the Belleville Fire Department set up their pump trucks down on the highway to pump water from the creek and move it up to the fire. To do so, the Belleville Firemen had to run hoses across Hwy. 69, blocking traffic to prevent driving over the hoses."

"We didn't want people to drive over our hoses. Jake Bruni (the New Glarus Fire Chief), was stopping traffic, telling them they would have to take a different route. A mail truck refused, telling Bruni, 'I'm from the government, and I'm going through.' And he did."

Cloyance Zweifel, a New Glarus farmer, decided he wanted to retire from farming and open a bowling alley. At this same time, New Glarus Realtor Fred Lienhardt wanted to purchase a farm. He and Zweifel made a deal in which Zweifel would swap his farm in exchange for Lienhardt's New Glarus Theater and convert it to a bowling alley.

The deal fell through because at that time liquor licenses were limited by population, and Zweifel was unable to obtain the needed license for his hoped-for bowling alley to replace the burnt-out alley downtown. Zweifel then sold the farm to Lienhardt, and purchased the Evansville bowling alley, which he ran for many years.

Dave Zweifel, Cloyance's son and New Glarus native, spent his entire work life as reporter, then Editor of Madison's Capital Times, recalls working for Emil Ziltner at the bowling alley.

"I do remember well the upstairs bowling alley, but never bowled in Swiss Lanes. In fact, as a high school kid I worked part-time for Emil Ziltner, the proprietor of that second-floor bowling alley, selling candy and pop from a little counter to the side of the lanes.  I think he paid me a quarter an hour, not bad back in the mid-50s. Bowling was an important part of the workingmen's lives.  It was quite affordable in those days, especially since the New Glarus lanes didn't sell beer or booze. Most of the guys would gravitate to Walt's Tavern across the street or Zurkirchen's downstairs in the hotel for a few beers and maybe a dirty club's game after bowling. It was friendly socializing at its best."

"But, I maintain to this day that some of the most lasting friendships were formed in bowling alleys. It offered spirited and friendly competition. The local paper ran the high scores for both the men's and women's leagues each week, providing public recognition. Because few towns had bowling lanes, teams came from Blanchardville, Monticello and Belleville to take part."

At this point, the Engens decided to purchase land and construct a new bowling alley. Included in the bowling alley plan was a bar. But Engens were refused a liquor license for the same reason Zweifel was refused a license. The Engens were put into a difficult situation without the needed liquor license.

Duane Babler, Engen's brother-in-law, then closed his bar in the Hinderstaedtli (back town) and sold that license to Engens. Babler then purchased the former Idle Hour Bar, located where Kleeman's Bar is today, and Engens were finally able to begin construction on their Swiss Lanes Bowling Alley.

The displaced bowlers didn't want to miss out on the balance of their season. The different bowling leagues gathered to discuss the situation. One women's league decided to not finish out the season, with the rest of the women's leagues finishing their season in Monroe. The men's leagues finished out their season in Albany.

An April 29, 1959, New Glarus Post article tells of the new building. "The footings are being poured this week for the 156x70 building which will include eight bowling lanes, snack bar, bar room, club room, locker room, restrooms and parking lot. The building is expected to be completed by August 15th."

A June 17, 1959, Post article tells of the reopening of Uffelman's Variety Store and Roy's Market on Friday, June 19th, five months after both businesses were destroyed by the fire. This same issue tells of Mr. and Mrs. Cloyance Zweifel purchasing the eight-lane Evansville Bowling Alley from Dr. Bongiorno of Albany.

The September 9th issue of the Post carries a large display ad:

OPEN FOR BUSINESS, Thurs., Sept. 10. Free Bowling sponsored by The Swiss Lanes and AMF, THURSDAY, FRIDAY SATURDAY AND SUNDAY, SEPT 10, 11, 12, 13. Watch for our Grand Opening in a few weeks.

The following week, a Post article tells of the opening of Swiss Lanes, what the interior looks like and the displaced leagues that are preparing to move back to New Glarus from their temporary homes back to Swiss Lanes. Over those first four days, 2,126 games were bowled. And that set into place the start of a grand life adventure for Clayt and Betty. The Grand Opening for the new Swiss Lanes Bowling Alley, held on November 28, 1959, advertised free lunch, refreshments and special entertainment at 8:00 p.m.

What the Swiss Lanes became was so much more than just a new modern bowling alley, bar and snack bar. It sometimes takes years to fully understand the social implications of businesses such as the Engens built up. When you talk with the people who patronized the bowling alley and those who worked there, one quickly learns that a large extended family-like social network was building around the bowling alley.

Marion Hustad put in over 20 years working for Engens. She started when her son, Roger, began grade school. Then her husband, Eldie (Eldon), joined her. Initially Marion worked in the restaurant, and Eldie tended bar, and went to school to learn how to operate and maintain the alley equipment. The couple often filled in, running the operation when Clayt and Betty would take off a few days. As Hustad's children grew up, two of their daughters worked in the restaurant on Friday nights helping with the large fish fry crowd.

She talked about how busy they always were. Many nights of the week the alleys operated with two shifts of bowlers to accommodate all that wanted to bowl.

Looking back on her years there, she said she really missed it after retiring. "We met so many nice people. The school kids that came in after ball games were always well behaved. We were always kept busy. It was a gold mine for us, the Belleville bowlers were always great tippers."

Dennis Swiggum from Blanchardville was one of the regulars on weekend nights after football and basketball games. "The bowling was always fun. It was where everyone went on weekends. They came from several surrounding towns." He added, "There were always pretty girls there."

Mae Beckwith worked for about 10 years in the restaurant and liked every minute of her time there during the 1970s. "We were always busy, especially after the high school football and basketball games. The restaurant was always packed after these games."

"Most of the kids were from New Glarus and they were always well behaved. On those after game nights, we were really rushed. We'd waitress, go back and prepare the orders, then deliver them to the tables."

"We were so busy on Friday nights that the restaurant employees worked in two shifts. First shift was the Friday night fish fry, and after that group left the high school kids came in and packed the place a second time."

What she liked about the job were the people who came in to dine, as well as her coworkers. It was all a great learning experience, she said. "Days, we had our regulars who came in for lunch." She especially remembers brothers Joe and Herman Ehinger, who came in for the daily lunch special, which changed daily.

Mae said the best memory was when we were done for the night. Charlotte Brauer worked with Mae for many years. "At the end of the night, Charlotte's son, Kent, would drive down and pick us up from work to give us a ride home. Kent always gave us a driving tour of New Glarus before taking us home."

Betty Engen's mother, Lydia, was the dinner cook and pie baker. Betty's sister, Judy Duerst Stuessy, began working at age 16. Looking back, Judy said her mother never had a written recipe. "I asked her once about some of her recipes, how much of each ingredient do you use? 'Oh, a little dash of this, a bit of that, a pinch of that.'" And Lydia's cooking always turned out quite well. If you talked with someone today who was a regular diner, they all tell the same story, Lydia's cooking and baking was great.

When Judy Stuessy turned 18, she began working as a bartender. She said Friday nights were always hectic. "First, we had the fish fry, which was always busy, and after that rush I'd go over and tend bar because we had league bowling as well." She loved tending bar with Sibby Kundert, indicating he was a lot of fun to work with.

"It was hard work but were really liked it. It was always fun working there." As she pondered the closing of the bowling alley, she wonders if, over the years, the tougher drunk driving laws and smoking bans played any part in businesses such as bowling alleys slowly losing their customer base. Stuessy also said everybody who worked there were wonderful people to be with. Her one memory piece of the bowling alley is a bowling pin a friend recently gave her.

Charlotte Brauer started her work shifts at 5:00 p.m., after her husband, Eldon, returned home from work and took over watching their children while she was at work. "The kids that came in were just great. On occasion, though, we would have to reprimand them for their behavior...and they always listened to us."

One thing Brauer always liked were the people who stopped and became regular customers. She specifically mentions the Eagle grocery chain truck drivers who stopped once a week, parking their trucks across from the bowling alley and walking across Hwy 69 to come in for the Noon Special.

What she appreciated the most were her co-workers, saying they were all great to work with. "Clayt and Betty were excellent people to work for. We were on our own in the restaurant, and they let us go and do our own thing. We were never micro-managed by them." She also had high praise for Betty's mother, Lydia Duerst. "She made a different Noon Special for each day of the week, and all were very good."

Randy Engen, Clayt and Betty's son, reflected on his parents. "Their employees were their friends. They always had a high level of trust in the people who worked for them."

"Dad often put in 80-100 hour work weeks, coming in in the morning and staying until everyone left after midnight. Their customers were also their friends. They never complained. They really loved the business. That was where they were the happiest, with their customers and friends."

Clayt's dad, Eric Engen, would walk down to the bowling alley each morning to clean up from the night before and get the bar ready for opening time. And Grandma Engen would come down to get things all ready for the noon lunch crowd.

Delayne Showers Retrum's first job was at the bowling alley restaurant. She and Judy Duerst Stuessy both got hired when they were 16 and loved working together. Delayne and Judy were good friends, growing up together as the best of friends. She said, "The Belleville guys loved to tease them all the time, but it was all good-natured teasing. It was a great place to work." Asked if she had any memorable stories from working there, she responded, "I met my husband there. Mert was one of the people from Hollandale who came in on a regular basis and eventually we got married."

The Swiss Lanes also gave us one seldom heard story of the only known de-pantsing in New Glarus. In about 1967, New Glarus had a short-time police chief, Tex, a Texan with a 48-inch waist and an ego to match. A buffoon, if you will. One night, so the story goes, Tex strutted into the Swiss Lanes bar and started doing his Texas sheriff routine.

A couple of the patrons of the bar that night decided that they'd had enough of Tex, his shootin' iron, tin star and 10-gallon hat. Those two patrons quickly dropped his gun belt, unhooked his pants belt and pulled his pants down around his ankles, exposing to the world, a very full moon. It was shortly thereafter that Tex mounted up and left town.

Clayt and Betty's daughter-in-law Deb Engen said she always loved going to the bowling alley for a family Thanksgiving. "They would cook up two turkeys and a big meal for everyone. Many times there were up to 50 relatives at their Thanksgiving meal. After we ate, we'd play cards, bowl and talk. We always looked forward to Thanksgiving at the bowling alley."

Little did we, those WWII and early baby boomer children, realize at the time of our frequenting the bowling alley, that we were a part of a fascinating time in American cultural history. A time when parents didn't have to struggle to feed the family, had decent paying jobs, gave of themselves in the many local good causes, Red Cross, American Legion, Lions Club, many homemaker groups, Lions and Masonic Lodges.

Our parents gave us the freedom to spend our leisure time as we saw fit. We were the first generation to have our own cars, many post high school educational opportunities, a wide array of school activities and sports. They trusted us to go out on weekend nights to meet with our friends. All of whom congregated at the Swiss Lanes.

There we met others our age from many of the surrounding towns, Albany, Monticello, Hollandale, Blanchardville and Belleville. We all became friends who first met at the bowling alley. Some of those friendships continue today.

Reflecting on those times, now more than half a century ago, we lived the Midwest equivalent of one of the top 100 movies ever produced, American Graffiti, a low-budget film produced by several then much less known actors and producers, including: producer, Francis Ford Coppola, director George Lucas, actors and actresses, Ronnie Howard, Suzanne Sommers, Bo Hopkins and Mackenzie Phillips, Richard Dreyfuss among them.

Sue Moen

The iconic sign was removed from Swiss Lanes before the building was demolished. The 35-foot neon sign is now in Machesney Park, IL, but listed for sale on Craigslist for $1,499.

The Swiss Lanes on Friday and Saturday nights was our American Graffiti's our Mel's Diner. We had our John Milner - two of them. One with a new 1962 Ford, two-door hardtop, the other with a Chevy, the owner of which was cited twice by the New Glarus Police Department for the horrible crime, LOUD MUFFLERS, and that darn scofflaw was fined $10.00 for each offense. We also had our Toad Fields, our Curt Henderson, our Suzanne Somers. We listened to the same music. They had their Wolfman Jack. We had ours as we listened to on, "It's WLS in Chicago, with Dick Biondi." And, if we listened to WISM 1480 AM, we had Clyde Coffee, Jonathon Little and Stoney Wallace.

It seems to takes one or two generations before we can look through the rearview mirror of history and know that because of Betty, Clayt, Rick and Randy, we had our own Mel's Diner and American Graffiti at Swiss Lanes.

Thanks to the Engen family for all the great memories.


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