WAUCONDA – Tom Nolan has a special connection to Wauconda Bowl: He is the first person to set the pins for a paying customer.
The year was 1949, and he was in eighth grade. He and another employee flipped a coin for the honor of being first.
“It wasn’t much money, but I enjoyed it,” said Nolan, now 78, retired and living in Alabama. “There wasn’t much for us to do in a small town. There weren’t many jobs.”
Wauconda resident Lori Kmiecik wasn’t born yet, but she knows plenty about the bowling alley. She has owned it for nearly a decade.
A couple of weekends ago, she threw a 65th anniversary celebration, complete with live music and DJ in the new sideyard and beer garden.
She and her husband, Danny Kmiecik, who owns Danny’s Glass & Trim in Wauconda, moved to town from Chicago in 1986. Their children grew up in Wauconda and have since bought homes in town.
“We love this town and have all our eggs in this basket,” Lori said.
About 10 years ago, she and her husband found out the bowling alley was struggling and could possibly close, not an unusual scenario for a small-town alley. They decided to buy it, with Lori, who describes herself as a casual bowler since she was a kid, as the owner.
Lori had no experience running a bowling alley or bartending.
“I jumped in and learned really quickly,” Lori said.
Over the last decade, the eight-lane Wauconda Bowl has taken its share of hits. In January 2008, a state law banning smoking in nearly all businesses, including bowling alleys, took effect.
“That took half of our customers. Most of them smoked. They never came back,” she said.
Nonsmokers, meanwhile, didn’t offset that loss, she said.
Later that same year, the economy crashed.
“We still haven’t recovered from that. I don’t know where they are saying the economy is going up,” Lori said.
A generational shift is also having an impact.
“Kids are playing their video games. They are on their telephones. When we were kids, we used to go rollerskating and bowling, but kids today are in a whole different realm. We lost a few generations,” Lori said.
That’s why her alley is promoting youth leagues.
“Bowling is a fun sport, something you can do your whole life,” she said. “It doesn’t take a lot of athletic ability to go bowling.”
Making ends meet at the alley, though, has been “rough,” Lori said.
The Hummdinger Tournament, which lasts from January to April, is a big moneymaker for the business. Started in 1955, it is the longest-running handicap bowling tournament of its kind in Illinois, Lori said.
She described Wauconda Bowl as a “nice, cozy place.”
“It’s a place where people aren’t afraid to walk in. There’s never any trouble,” Lori said.
Thanks to advances in technology, the days of human pinsetters are long gone. Nolan, a 1954 graduate of Wauconda High School, worked at Wauconda Bowl for a couple of years, then moved on to an alley in Fox River Grove. He bowled at the Wauconda alley for years afterward, even visiting it recently. (He can’t bowl now; he’s got bum knees.)
Nolan, a telephone lineman for 37 years, only recalls one drawback to the job, besides the pay.
“Some of those leagues didn’t start until 9 p.m., and they weren’t over until 11:30,” he said. “It was hard to get up to go to school.”