Bowling alley offers glimpse into past

By Brad Fauber

MOUNT JACKSON — Even as you approach Shenandoah Bowling Lanes along Main Street in Mount Jackson, you get the sense that you’re about to take a short trip back in time.

An old bowling pin sign — outlined with a cord of flickering neon lighting — hangs on the outside of the building, serving as a perfect precursor for what awaits inside.

The bowling alley itself — one of the few duckpin lanes left in the state — is nestled on the building’s second floor, sitting comfortably above a thrift store and locksmith shop, and a trip up a flight of stairs is required once inside the alley’s main entrance on the side of the building. When the wooden door at the top of the stairs is opened, it reveals a scene straight out of the 1950s. It appears that not much has changed since the state’s oldest bowling alley was opened in 1948.

A pool table sits just to the left of the entrance, illuminated by a low-hanging stained glass lamp. Even further left of the entrance, two rows of wooden benches, arranged in a stadium-seating style, look out upon the alley’s six bowling lanes, which are still made of the original rock maple surface. Old Coca-Cola signs adorn the walls, as do black and white photos that pay homage to the alley’s rich history.

“A lot of times when people go bowling, they’re just bowling. But when people walk in here and it’s their first time they’re like, ‘Whoa,” said current Shenandoah Bowling Lanes owner Scott Asbell, a 22-year-old resident of Harrisonburg. “They walk around everywhere and take pictures of everything and they’re real excited. It’s definitely fun to work in a place where people aren’t just bowling for fun — they’re excited to be here and they’re kind of blown away.”

It doesn’t look as though much has changed over the course of the bowling alley’s 66-year history because not much really has. That’s the alluring part about the town landmark.

“Keeping the nostalgia is part of, when I took over, what I wanted to do,” said Asbell, who took over ownership of the lanes during his junior year at James Madison University in April 2013 after purchasing it from former owners Randy and Jeannette Gibson. “… I found a bunch of old pictures and hung them up. … There was just different stuff I found when I was cleaning out stuff and I decided to hang it up. It’s been interesting to learn more and more about it. It definitely hasn’t changed.”

Shenandoah Bowling Lanes has undergone a few paint jobs over the years (the current color scheme contains hues of red and yellow), but most of the alley is intact in its original form.

There are no electronics to automatically total a player’s score — all of the math is done by hand. Scores are written on a transparent sheet, which is placed under a projector that produces an image of the scorecard on a screen located above each lane.

Fallen pins are cleared mechanically, but players are required to step on a pedal on the floor to trigger the machine’s operation. To reset the pins altogether, players push a small white button located on the ball rack at the end of the gravity-fed retrieval system.

“The technology has just never been invented for duckpin to keep score automatically,” Asbell said. “The machines you have to operate manually, too. So if you have pins lying down you have to step on the pedal to get your dead wood to sweep. And then when you need 10 new ones you need to hit the button just because they don’t have electronic sensors or anything to find all that stuff out.”

The alley’s pin-setting machines were installed in 1959, and those original machines are still in operation today.

Ironically enough, it was the installment of those pin-setting machines that likely saved Shenandoah Bowling Lanes.

“I ran it eight years with pin boys. If I had to put up with them any longer I was going to quit,” said 89-year-old Roland Walters, who owned and operated the lanes from 1950 to 2005.

During the early years of Shenandoah Bowling Lanes, Asbell said the alley featured both duckpin and standard 10-pin bowling, and the lanes were open mainly for league play for much of its existence. The alley now exclusively features duckpin bowling and is one of just four such lanes left in Virginia, two of which are located nearby in Luray and Shenandoah, Asbell said.

Duckpin bowling, a smaller variant of the traditional 10-pin, is played with a ball that is generally around 5 inches in diameter and weighs anywhere between 3 pounds, 6 ounces to 3 pounds, 12 ounces, making it easily manageable for children and adults alike. But at the same time, the smaller pins used in duckpin bowling make the game a challenge.

“I think one reason that it’s becoming less popular is duckpin bowling is pretty hard. No one has ever bowled a 300 ever in the history,” Asbell said.

The highest duckpin game bowled at Shenandoah Bowling Lanes is 238. The women’s record at the alley is 232.

“There was a good bit of 200 games bowled there while I was there. That’s a feat for a duckpin game,” said Walters, who was inducted into the National Duckpin Bowling Congress’ Hall of Fame in 2004.

Asbell said he is frequently visited by customers who have past ties to the bowling alley, either through relatives or their own personal experiences at the lanes. Shenandoah Bowling Lanes also still plays host to several duckpin bowling leagues, which meet on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays each week.

It’s that steadfast community support has driven Asbell to continue to try to capture the true essence of the longstanding business.

“The hope is to keep it alive,” Asbell said. “People in the community really like it a lot and would hate to see it die. My goal and hope is just to keep it alive a little bit longer.

“It would be really cool just to know that when I leave eventually it will exist forever and you won’t have to worry about it ever going out of business,” he added. “It’d be a shame to see that happen.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com