We held our cousin’s birthday party yesterday in South Milwaukee. In Lincoln Village, actually— a traditionally Polish neighborhood that is now heavily Latino. On the corner sits a 200 year-old home, the ground floor of which is a baudily decorated tavern. Upstairs lives 88 year-old Marcy Skowronski, the very feisty and sharp-as-a-tack proprietress, and in the basement is a two-lane bowling alley built back in 1908. When I made the reservation, she and I must have talked for about twenty minutes—she’s a hoot!
When we drove up, I could see my cousins weren’t as excited as we were. I imagined them thinking, “We drove 30 minutes for THIS?” The house is old, non-descript, not the best maintained, much like any other in the neighborhood. To many locals, a place like this can, I suppose, be very ho-hum. Greg and I have outsider eyes—I was born in this area, but I haven’t lived here since I was 11; Greg grew up in California. To us, visiting a place steeped in local history and tradition is awesome; we don’t care where on the planet it is. New and fabulous clubs and restaurants have lots of parallels worldwide, but funky local dives—that’s where you see true diversity. We’ve confirmed this through decades of living as global nomads. Our group ended up having a very good time; it just wasn’t a place they would have chosen for a party.
Anyone versed in bowling history or Milwaukee-area trivia knows this place as the Holler House. Holler House is confirmed by the United States Bowling Congress as the first bowling alley in the USA. In 2008 Esquire magazine rated it one of the best bars in the USA.
In the bowling alley, you’ll notice Polish falcon crests above the lanes. There is a mini-museum of bowling balls, bags, shoes, trophies, and other memorabilia dating back to 1912. The two lanes are made of wood, and they are gorgeous—though far from level after all these years! Balls are ancient, largely heavy, and many have only two finger holes. Some of the balls are even made of wood! Bowling shoes are a tangled mess, very worn and quite smelly; they hide beneath the stairs. One wall in the alley is cinder block and is filled with signatures and drawings of bowlers who have preceded you. Click on any photo to enlarge or view a slideshow.
What is the best part? The pin boys, of course! The manual-mechanical pin-setting mechanism requires a real person to reset the pins. He (in our case, his name was Carmelo, and he was a college student) hides at the back of the alley, narrowly escaping the flying pins and hurtling balls, in order to launch, by hand, your ball back on the hand-carved wooden track so it returns to you. He also re-loads the semi-mechanical pin-setting machine. It is chez cool! The ball return is HAND-CARVED wood! I could barely believe my eyes!
Score is kept on a large piece of paper hung on the wall—just like when I was a kid. The teenager and twenty-something in our group seemed to have no idea how to score a game of bowling, so it was nice for the older set to have a skill to show off. I will also brag on my cousin Chub who, at 80, still bowled a fantastic game!
Marcy married Gene Skowronski in 1952, and has run the bar since his death. Her parents-in-law built the place back in 1908, calling it “Skowronski’s.” She and Gene changed the name to “Gene and Marcy’s,” and changed it again to “Holler House” around 1975, when they heard that a customer told them his wife had asked him to take her “back to that wonderful, noisy, holler house bar.”
Here’s a 2014 interview with Marcy from the documentary, Pints and Pins. Check it out. You’ll get a good feel for her storytelling, and you’ll see just why I and everyone else falls in love with her:
While there is a full bar, there are no taps for beer or sodas, so you only order bottled beer. But, man, are there some good beers—and wonderful service by the bar keep! Here you can have an excellent Old-Fashioned or Gin Rickey. While the Internet and Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives talk about Marcy’s food, please realize that she is no longer cooking. She is happy to have you bring in your own food, or order in. Fortunately for us, they very graciously produced a coupon for Ned’s Pizza, which has long been on our bucket list. It did not disappoint! I’ve always said that there is goodness in not over-planning; it leaves space for spontaneous blessing to enter. In this case, it was pizza instead of the Polish sausage I’d somehow been imagining all day.
Wondering about the decor? I sort of like the dark red walls, the tapped tin ceilings in bright red, the old hardwood bar, and the stained glass lamps, but the many bras hanging from the ceiling? Marcy tells me that she was drinking with some girlfriends about 50 or so years ago when they decided to throw their bras up on some skis hanging from the ceiling. A tradition was born; women visiting for the first time were encouraged to autograph and leave an intimate souvenir to commemorate the occasion, resulting in thousands of bras hanging from the ceiling. The current batch is a second round, as in 2013 all the bras were taken down and boxed up, for the tradition to begin anew.
Some years ago the guys decided they wanted in on the action. Marquette University published an article on Holler House, and the male students asked Marcy if they could autograph and hang their underwear and boxers. She said, “Sure!” As I said, she’s feisty and doesn’t miss a beat!
The place of course was open during Prohibition, when they hid the booze under a baby crib. Her father-in-law smoked 18 cigars a day and drank Old Fitz. In 2008, in preparation for the 100th anniversary, Marcy found five two-hole WOODEN bowling balls weighing 15 pounds each. I think we may have played with them last night, lol! Nowadays, Marcy’s son-in-law takes care of the accounting, and her two grandsons can’t wait to take their turn at being pin boys.
It’s a dive, no doubt. It smells almost as old as it looks. But it is so cool! Well worth the visit! We shared some great laughs and reminiscences here. Call ahead to make a reservation: 414-647-9284. Bowling is $4/person/game, and it’s customary to tip the pin boy $3/person—he works hard in limb-threatening conditions!