POTTER — A throwback variation on bowling is seeing a revival in the western Nebraska town of Potter.
Duckpin bowling has been around since the turn of the 20th century, but its date and location of origin is not exactly set in stone.
Since 10-pin bowling was solely a winter sport, duckpin bowling was played in the regular bowling alleys in the summer. Duckpin bowling is different from standard bowling since the ball is much smaller than a regulation-size bowling ball and varies in size and weight.
Even though the game was typically played on the East Coast and a few Midwestern towns, the three-lane alley in Potter is the only known survivor west of the Mississippi River. Potter Historical Foundation vice-chairman Dale Dedic said the original location of the alley was located in a large brick building where The Potter State Bank now sits on the east side of Chestnut Street.
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“We don’t have it pinned down, but we think sometime in the ‘20s it was put in there,” Dedic said.
Dedic said after the Masonic Lodge moved to the old bank building, the alley was brought to its existing location above the A Collective Gathering Flea Market through a second-story window in the 1930s.
During the 1940s, the game was thriving in Potter and at the age of 10, Dedic had a job as a pin-setter.
Dedic would sit on the perches that are above the pit where the pins and ball would end up after plays. It was his duty to set up the pins after the frame and roll the ball back to the player through a ball return in between the lanes. This technique is still used today at the alley. Dedic said he could make good money doing it, earning 10 cents a lane. At the time it only cost 25 cents to bowl.
“There was open bowling up here all of the time until ‘50 or ‘51,” Dedic said. “They only used me when they couldn’t find somebody better, because by the end of the thing I was having a hard time jumping back up there.”
After its height, the alley sat vacant and changed ownership a few times until it was donated to the Potter Historical Foundation in 2004 and has since been an ongoing restoration project for the community. PHF Chairman Kirk Enevoldsen said there are a few things that still need to get done, like adding air conditioning, restoring a middle room, the one-bedroom apartments and improving the alleys, but it is getting done in stages.
Enevoldsen said there’s a group of an estimated 50 to 75 volunteers that have helped in restoring the many different areas of the second level of the building. The building would have been a total loss if it hadn’t been refurbished. Volunteers have since put in all new windows, bricks, roof and flooring that sustained a large amount of water damage over the years when it was vacant. The restoration has cost nearly $40,000, according to Enevoldsen.
If it wasn’t for the volunteers, the costs would probably be around $100,000 to get the building where it is today.
“We always make our spouses join us. They don’t get out of the work, either. We just have them come up and help us,” Enevoldsen said. “It’s kind of our tourist attraction.”
Evenvoldsen said before it was taken over by PHF, it was only by a special invitation that someone could come into the building. People had to know the owner or own it in order to come and enjoy it. After PHF took over, the group thought it would be something for everyone if they started to restore it.
“We thought, wouldn’t it be kind of fun if we got it all fixed up and then we could rent it out and everybody could enjoy it?” Enevoldsen said.
The most credible story says that the game began in Baltimore in 1900 at a billiards and bowling hall called Diamond Alleys that was owned by Baltimore Orioles minor league players John McGraw and Wilbert Robinson. Other reports claim the game stemmed from Lowell, Mass., in 1894 and as early as 1893 in Boston, Mass.
The balls range between 4.75 inches and are up to 5 inches in size. The weights vary from 3 pounds, 6 ounces to 3 pounds, 12 ounces and do not have finger holes. Players also get three rolls per frame instead of two.
The pins are different in size when compared to regular bowling pins. The original pins looked similar to a small wooden baseball bat, thick on the end, skinny near the top and are arranged in a similar 10-pin bowling pattern. The pins are a little different today, but are still smaller, lighter and stout, making it difficult to get a strike. According to an excerpt from “The Book of Duckpin Bowling,” when Robinson and McGraw saw the original pins fly as the ball plowed into them, they remarked that they looked like a “flock of flying ducks.” The game later got its name from Baltimore Morning Sun sportswriter Bill Clarke who wrote a story about the new game and christened them as “duckpins.”
Duckpin bowling saw its height in popularity in the 1930s and was even enjoyed by New York Yankees baseball legend Babe Ruth. By 1938, there were nearly 200,000 bowlers involved in sanctioned league play.
Dedic said the main reason they restored the duckpin alley was because it is such a neat item to have in town.
“It was just too neat and unique not to make it usable,” Dedic said. “It’s just unique, you don’t see them anymore.”
The alley can be rented from two hours up to half a day. It is $25 for two hours and $50 for a half day in the morning, afternoon or evening. Enevoldsen said many business and church groups from around the Panhandle come to rent it and it is open to the public to come and play. All proceeds go toward the Potter Historical Foundation.
For more information, call Hal Enevoldsen at 308-879-4451 or Dave at 308-879-4466.