When bowling spread out of the Northeast, it largely followed the pattern of German migration, and so the early bowling concentrations were in "Dutch" towns like Milwaukee, Chicago, Cincinnati and St. Louis. It also drifted south, down to another big German-American city, Baltimore, where a couple of the old Orioles—the Little Napoleon, John McGraw, and Uncle Robbie, Wilbert Robinson—opened a combination alleys-saloon with, as Lola used to sing, the emphasis on the latter. But McGraw was worried about his pitchers' arms when they bowled, and so one spring day in 1901 he commissioned a woodturner named John Dittmar to fashion a miniature ball and pins. They were quickly christened duckpins because, when squarely hit, they flew (a local romantic decided) like little ducks in flight.
Similarly, a bit earlier, up in Worcester, Mass., Justin (Pop) White created skinny little candlepins. And so, until very recently, some parts of New England and the Baltimore-Washington-Tidewater arc had next to nothing to do with tenpins—everybody rolled candles or ducks. However, knocking down the smaller pins is hard, and, as we know, nobody wants any truck with doing anything difficult in bowling, so the 16-pound ball and the 15-inch pins took over the rest of the country. Now they've even moved into candle and duck territory.
Even though the Holler House is in Milwaukee, Marcy Skowronski says, "I got some ducks up in the attic. But then, I got everything up in the attic. I got enough bowling balls up there people left behind to make a rosary out of them."
Marcy slides me a shorty beer, 60 cents. She runs the Holler House along with her husband, Gene. They raised their family there, living in the other part of the Holler House, the house part. It has been in Gene's family for three generations, counting his and Marcy's four daughters. For a long time, Gene's father, Iron Mike Skowronski, who was born in Poland, was the boss. As a matter of fact, the place was just called Mike's Tap until one morning some 30 years ago when a guy came in early, after a fight with his old lady. Marcy was working the bar. The guy didn't want to bowl. He wasn't interested in the alleys at all. Instead, he asked Marcy, "Would you care to get bombed with me?" What the hell. Marcy said, "Yeah, sure, why not?" and poured a shot and a beer for herself, too.
After a while, as is normally the case, Mike's Tap got real noisy, and when the guy's better half finally found him, she was taken aback some. "She didn't know whether to spit or go blind," Marcy explains. When the wife finally got the guy home, she told everybody she had rescued him from "that holler house." It stuck.
Nobody has ever forgotten Iron Mike, though. He was quite a guy. Seventy-nine years old, and he was still smoking 10 cigars a day, drinking copious quantities of Old Fitz—Iron Mike could take a shot of the Old Fitz, hold it in his mouth, take a shot of water and then spit out the water without losing a drop of Old Fitz—and beating most of the younger guys at Indian wrestling.
Iron Mike's picture is still up on the wall. Other accoutrements include a bat used by Harvey Kuenn, an exceptionally large pair of women's white drawers, a big jigsaw puzzle on one of the tables. Sometimes it takes two, three months, but the Holler House crowd finally gets the puzzle done, and then they start a new one. Also, one of those bowling games where you shove a little metal disk and the pins go up. A dart board. An old icebox.
And there's an ancient beer pail. In the old days the men in that area worked at big manufacturing plants, Allis Chalmers mostly, and after the whistle blew, the men would bring their beer pails to Mike's Tap to get them filled up for home. Most of the fellows would be sure to put butter on the inside of their pails to cut down on the foam, so they would get more beer. Also: the Holler House jukebox. It has everything from Sinatra to hard rock, plus six dirty songs if you know the right buttons to push, and, of course, it has Back in the Saddle Again, by Gene Autry.
The Holler House loves Gene Autry. The regulars celebrate his birthday every Sept. 29. The Holler House also has an annual banquet for the people who play in the disk bowling league, and in February there's a beach night. This is in Milwaukee, remember. Everybody comes in shorts and T-shirts. Sometimes strangers walk in off the street for a beer that night. "They don't know whether to spit or go blind," Marcy says.
About half of the Holler House regulars bowl. Marcy poured me another shorty, and I asked her how much it cost to roll a line, but she couldn't remember. So she asked her daughter Cathy, who was also behind the bar, what the going price was, but Cathy wasn't sure either. And neither was a son-in-law. Evidently, it's 85 or 95 cents, maybe a buck, depending on whatever occurs to whoever is running the joint at the time. There are also shoes available, if you need them. This is the way that's handled at the Holler House: Marcy goes through all the absent regulars' bowling bags until she comes across a pair that fits the customer.