Bowling in the 1950s Was a Different Experience

Bowling alleys had a very modest beginning. Prior to 1958, only a handful of such establishments existed in Johnson City, which included Johnson City Recreation Center, originally known as Royal Club Recreation (106-108 Spring Street), R&L Bowling Lanes (808 Buffalo Street) and Bowling Palace (84-86 Wilson Avenue).

My Junior High School friends and I routinely patronized the business on Spring Street opposite Hamilton National Bank; several of us boys would gather there after school. The bowling portion of the operation was located directly above the pool hall. Without realizing it, we were just a stone’s throw from the former site of Jobe’s Opera House, the city’s first public entertainment venue.

As I recall, there were only three or four lanes; surprisingly, we were often the lone customers. After securing a paper scorecard and pencil, we each searched their limited selection of balls for one that comfortably fit our finger spacing. There were no special bowling shoes to rent; patrons simply played in their regular footwear. None of us had perfected the art of bowling. We awkwardly glided the ball to the lane, rolled it forward and hoped it would knock over most, if not all, of the pins. Often, the gutter was its destination.

Next came the interesting part. Instead of an automatic pinsetter removing and resetting the downed pins, the machine required manual labor. One or two boys hastily shifted back and forth between the operating lanes to service them physically. With each toss of the ball, the worker rolled it back to the bowler and reinserted the toppled pins down into the device. After the second ball was rolled and the remaining pins placed back into the setter, the worker operated a lever that lowered the ten pins upright onto the floor for the next bowler, that being the only automatic step.

It was not unusual to arrive at the leisure center to find no one available to reset pins. That meant we had to assume this task ourselves, affording us a unique behind-the-scenes experience. The desk attendant always strongly warned us to stay well behind the wall when the ball was being tossed down the alley lest we be injured by it or by flying pins. While this somewhat unsafe activity was pleasurable initially, it eventually became fatiguing, and we were quite willing to let the next person take his turn.

Although, bowling has existed since 5200 B.C. in Egypt, it was not until 1895 that the rules were standardized. In 1958, the Professional Bowlers Association was organized to promote bowling to the status of a major sport. 

About this same time, Nance Lanes opened its doors at Main, Market and Division streets, opposite Paty Lumber Company and at a site vacated by Dan Plank Oldsmobile. The new business had 12 lanes, automatic AMF pinsetters and a snack bar. Bowlers were required to rent or bring their own bowling shoes.

A few months later, several of us joined our first bowling league – the Johnson City High School Boys Bowling League – with George Finchum, an instructor at ETSC (later ETSU) Training School (now University School), as our league manager and coach.

Today’s bowlers can enjoy state of the art facilities at such local locations as Holiday Lanes and Leisure Lanes.