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, 2018-09-21 04:56:15
BLANCO — Remember Bowling Alone? Written by Harvard government professor Robert D. Putnam and published in 2000, the academic best-seller noted that from 1980 to 1993 league bowling declined by 40 percent while the number of individual bowlers rose by 10 percent. Putnam saw the decline as a symbol of frayed community ties in this country, an indication of a troubling disconnect among family, friends, neighbors and our democratic structures.
Putnam’s provocative thesis is still a topic of spirited debate, although not in this picturesque, little Hill Country town. Every weekday night (except Blanco Panther football Friday nights) area residents gather at the venerable rock building a block from the square for German-style nine-pin bowling. The Blanco Bowling Club and Cafe, one of 18 nine-pin alleys left in Texas, celebrates its 70th anniversary this fall.
At 70, the Blanco club is a youngster. Nine-pins was the most popular form of bowling in much of the United States from colonial times until the early 19th century, when it was outlawed in many areas as a threat to the work ethic and a lure for gambling and organized crime. (Adding a tenth pin was a way to skirt the law.) Today, the only place in America where you’ll find nine-pins is in small towns around Austin and San Antonio.
Texans, particularly German Texans, have been knocking down pins since the 1830s. As soon as German immigrants got established on farms and in villages in Guadalupe, Comal, Bexar and Blanco counties, they built community halls, often with outdoor nine-pin alleys on the property. The first indoor alley was built farther north, in Dallas, in 1867, while the oldest continuously operating nine-pin club is the Germania Bowling Club near Seguin. Founded in 1889 as a shooting club, Germania members bowled in the winter when it was too cold to hunt. Among the towns where you’ll still hear the sharp crack of ball against pins in nine-pin alleys are Geronimo, Fischer, Marion, Spring Branch and Lockhart, as well as in San Antonio.
Ten-pin bowling alleys — before they became bowling lanes — had come to be associated with smoky saloons frequented by beer-swigging men, while German-Texan casino societies and singing clubs built nine-pin alleys that usually catered to families. Socializing and having fun was more important than athletic prowess. It’s that way in Blanco, where bowlers of noticeably varying skills keep friendly games of poker going at their tables while waiting their turn to bowl.
Professor Putnam would no doubt approve of the fact that nine-pins, unlike 10-pin bowling, is a team sport, six members to a team. Blanco signed up 24 teams this year.
The team captain designates who bowls when, depending on the situation and team-member strengths. As longtime bowler Mike Cassidy explained to me Wednesday night while we sat at a table between the bar and the bowling lanes, “you’ve got your split-shooters, your single-pin shooters, your full-house bowlers.”
Cassidy glanced over at veteran bowler Zane Smith, ball cradled under his chin as he studied the pin setup. “He’s one of your right-side bowlers,” Cassidy explained. Smith’s team captain, Bryan Acker is “a full-house bowler.”
“He throws a hand grenade,” noted Tommy Weir, a bowler and Blanco County commissioner. As if on cue, the pins seemed to explode when Acker’s streaking ball crashed into them.
The nine pins are set in a diamond configuration. The object is for a team to down the eight surrounding pins and leave standing the large number-five pin, or kingpin, for a “12-ringer,” 12 points. Knock down all nine pins, and you score a “nine-ringer.” Pins are reset only when all members have bowled two balls, all pins are downed or only the kingpin remains.
You won’t find automated pin-setting machinery in Blanco. The pin-setters are teenagers who sit on elevated wooden benches, fenced in from the flying pins. They spring into action when it’s time to roll back the ball and reset.
The club and café have been community-owned since the late l960s, when a group of local residents bought the business and established the Blanco Bowling Club. Original owners Roland and Violet Bindseil opened in 1948 and started a tradition of nightly bowling and home-cooked meals, a tradition that continues in the café up front. These days the club has 250 members and is run by a five-person board. Cassidy, this year’s board president, also manages the alley and café.
Although the bowling lanes are reserved for league bowling during the week, they’re open to the general public on Friday nights and all day Saturday. (Call ahead, so they scare up pin-setters.) The café, always open to the public, is known for its sweet rolls, donuts and pies (lemon, chocolate and cocoanut meringue are among the favorites), as well as its burgers, chicken-fried steaks and all-you-can-eat catfish on Friday evenings.
“We have people who come in here, not once or twice a week, but once or twice a day,” longtime waitress Kim Heuser told me.
Weir recalled that Houston motorcycle clubs used to make the 400-mile round trip just for the pie.
Weir was a pin-setter when he was a kid. So was Gary Wood, who started in 1957, when he was 11. The retired engineering surveyor recalls making 35 cents a game — “and we didn’t get nothin’ free.” Pin-setters today get a free soft drink, plus $20 a night and tips.
The pin-setters’ pay increase is one of the few things that have changed, although Weir, the county commissioner, knows that what seems to be permanent and unchanging is illusory. He and his fellow commissioners are dealing with dramatic growth in this traditionally rural county, growth that’s primarily spillover from Austin and San Antonio.
“We’re right in the center of all that,” he said. “We’ve mainly been farming and hunting, so we don’t have a commercial district or a hotel tax that would help us pay for all the trucks tearing up the roads or EMS costs that have doubled.”
Weir knows that growth inevitably means change — change that often obliterates the very qualities and characteristics that drew newcomers to the area in the first place. An old and unassuming establishment like the Blanco Bowling Club and Café could be an expendable relic one of these days.
“I hope,” the commissioner said, “that a hundred years from now they’ll still be bowling here. That means we’ve got to keep the youth bowling.”
At 36, Andi Eystad was one of the younger bowlers Wednesday night. (One team has a 13-year-old.) A California transplant and former actress, Eystad discovered Blanco County six years ago while helping a friend look for land. She stayed and is now a real estate agent selling Hill Country properties. She met husband Sean Cole at the bowling club, the same place where his parents met years earlier.
“The bowling alley is what got me started caring about Blanco,” she said. “It was the people. They made me feel at home more than any place I’ve ever been.”
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