A few bowling centers — and the debate has even carried over to my Vintage Alleys Facebook page at times — lay claim to being the oldest bowling facility in the nation.
There are different categories when those claims are made: oldest continuously operating, oldest public center, oldest original equipment, oldest west or east of the Mississippi.
But of this we can be sure: Holler House’s downstairs lanes are the two oldest original beds in the nation still certified by the USBC.
Michael and Constance Skowronski opened the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, business as “Mike’s Tap” in 1908. Their son and daughter-in-law, Gene and Marcy Skowronski, operated it for many years under the name Gene & Marcy’s.
Between the customers, the bowling, the piano and the jukebox — it’s always been loud inside. Somewhere along the way, a customer made reference to the bar and the noisy reputation while talking to her husband: “Let’s go to that holler house,” she reportedly told him. The name stuck.
Marcy Skowronski, now 89, still tends bar and is very much what locals associate with the establishment. Not the bowling lanes, not the bras hanging from the ceiling. Marcy IS the face of the Holler House.
Marcy’s daughter (and Mike and Constance’s granddaughter), Cathy Haefke, grew up at Holler House. Haefke lived in an apartment above the business until she was 19; her sons grew up there too, setting pins through their teen years and learning to bowl there. And Haefke’s 13-year-old grandson, Brodie, now sets pins as well — stretching the business into its fifth generation.
Leagues are hosted five nights a week, and it sometimes takes two or three shifts for all the teams in a league to get to bowl. The lanes can also be rented for parties.
The tavern is also known for its collection of bras hanging from the bar ceiling and fixtures. Dating back more than 50 years, the tradition of first-time female visitors leaving their garments behind was the subject of some controversy a couple years back. A visiting city inspector ordered the bras down in 2013, citing a fire hazard. Public outcry and help from an alderman, Bob Donovan, caused the city to rescind the bra ban.
I asked Haefke if there’s anything she wanted potential visitors to know before stopping by. She mentioned that Holler House is a cash-only, adults-only business. “No Credit Cards — We’re Lucky to Have Electricity,” reads some of the establishment’s advertising.
“And call first,” Haefke continued, noting that the tavern needs to schedule pinsetters. “People can’t just walk in and bowl.” Groups sometimes want to bowl so badly that they volunteer to set their own pins, but that’s not an option — presumably due to liability concerns.
“Make sure we’re open, and give us a couple days or a week’s notice, if you want to bowl.”
Story and photographs © 2015 by Kevin Hong.