North Tonawanda once had a total of 48 bowling lanes spread among four centers, and not a single one of them still is in operation, but they remained very much alive Sunday in the memories of some of the bowlers, their children and grandchildren who attended the North Tonawanda Memorial Bowlathon.
The event was "meant to commemorate North Tonawanda's 'lost' bowling centers and the bowling heritage of our residents," according to Donna Zellner Neal, executive director of the North Tonawanda History Museum.
"Because North Tonawanda has a wonderful bowling heritage but sadly no longer has any bowling centers of its own, the North Tonawanda History Museum, in collaboration with the Tonawandas United States Bowling Congress Association, held its event at the closest bowling center," Neal said.
More then 100 people, most of them bowlers, attended the event in the Tonawanda Bowling Center, 574 Young St., City of Tonawanda.
The 46-lane center resounded with the sounds of the rolling bowling balls and falling pins as participants reminisced about those "lost" centers in North Tonawanda.
Among the most vivid memories were those of Kenneth Kreger, the 81-year-old association manager of the Tonawandas U.S. Bowling Congress Association. His career began as a 12-year-old pinsetter in the summer of 1942 in North Tonawanda.
"We were paid 5 cents or 6 cents a game to set up the pins, and we soon learned how to double our income by jumping back-and-forth between two side-by-side alleys to set up the pins and return the balls at the same time," Kreger recalled.
"The separations between the pits at the ends of the alleys were 2 1/2 feet high, and we cut an opening in them so it would be easier to jump back-and-forth. Every once in a while, a bowler who was having a good day would send us a tip by rolling a quarter down the alley. Bowlers paid about 25 cents or 30 cents a game back then."
Kreger said pin boys sometimes were pressed into service as foul-line judges. "We would sit at the edge of the lanes and would call out 'foul' whenever a bowler stepped over the line. Some of the bowlers were schoolteachers, and we could call fouls on our own teachers," he said.
Kreger, who retired in 1989 after 30 years as a letter carrier for the Postal Service, recalled that American Machine & Foundry Corp. introduced the first automatic pinsetters in Buffalo in a garage across from the Connecticut Street Armory when the American Bowling Congress National Tournament was held there in 1946.
He said that about 20 boys formed an in-school bowling league in 1944 at North Tonawanda High School and that a girls league was formed there the next year. That was before bowling became an interscholastic sport.
Kreger went on to bowl three nights a week as an adult, scoring his series high of 713 for a three-game series in 1949. He bowled a perfect 300 game at age 74 in 2003 and another 300 a year later, both of them at the former Mil-Sher Lanes, now called Classic Lanes, on Military Road.
"My wife, Albertine, saw me bowl that first 300," Kreger said. "She was a 12-year survivor of breast cancer, and she died four months later, in April. I'm so glad she was there. It had a special meaning for me. Years later, the Women's International Bowling Congress started a charity event to raise money to fight breast cancer."
Other memories were contributed by Karen Baryza of the Town of Tonawanda, president of the Tonawandas US Bowling Congress and past president of the Twin City Women's Bowling Association.
Baryza rolled her best game of 299 -- one pin short of a perfect 300 -- in 1997, and her highest three-game total was an impressive 775. Looking ahead, she said, "I'm seeing a lot of enthusiasm for bowling among youngsters."
An entirely different perspective was offered by Neal. She said she bowled up to five days a week in senior leagues from 1994 to 2005 despite having six surgeries in five years, being in constant pain, suffering nerve damage in her legs, feet, and right (bowling) hand, lower back disease, arthritis in her neck, and osteoporosis.
Because of her disabilities, Neal's average dropped at one time to 26. She eventually worked it back up to 140, and she has "a house full of bowling trophies."
"Bowling was fun. It was a challenge," she said. "Bowling was my salvation because even though I'm always in pain, I'm not disabled on the inside."
Neal added that many bowling centers today have facilities that enable people in wheelchairs to bowl on regulation lanes.