Elks Lodge 57, Koz’s: unusual bowling spots

The good people of Fond du Lac are quietly protecting a piece of history that is deemed significant in the world of bowling.

They have the country’s oldest sanctioned and continuously operating bowling alley in the basement of Elks Lodge 57. Who knew? You wouldn’t guess it, from the outside.

This Elks lodge, a monstrous Queen Anne Victorian downtown, cost $40,000 to build and furnish in 1903. It retains much of its grandeur, with a lovely round bar, wall panels of imported Italian woods, an inviting fireplace, carved trim and floors of maple.

The Elks also had slot machines into the 1930s, taking in 5 to 25 cents per pull. 

“The most important job of the bartenders was to determine when to hide the three machines,” write lodge historians. “Sometimes the police came into the lodge three times a day.  When the ‘heat was on’ the bartender quickly slid a false wall across the front of the machines.”

Manager Chuck Balnis is glad to conduct tours of the property, but it’s important to call instead of just show up. Visitors can’t simply walk in; a buzzer announces their arrival and clearance.

“We’d love to open it to the public, but we have tax-exempt status as a private club,” says Stan Plageman, exalted ruler of the lodge.

The basement bowling alley has its own bar, making it an ideal place for private parties. Scoring still is done by hand, but not pin setting.

“Bowlers used to toss a half-dollar or quarter down the lane, to get the pinsetter to stay for an extra game,” Chuck says.

“They are old but they are not outdated,” the lodge says online, about the bowling lanes. New synthetic surfaces increase the potential for good scores.

You have to be an Elks member (from any city), or the guest of one, to bowl here – or eat lunch or a Friday night perch fry in the lodge dining room. That’s not as hard as it may sound.

Membership is $110 per year and open to women as well as men. Prospective members need a sponsor but don’t need to live in Fond du Lac.

“I think all fraternal organizations are seeing a decline in membership,” Chuck says. It’s about 650 at Lodge 57; the peak was 1,000 in the mid 1980s.

Nationwide, there are more than 2,100 Elks lodges, and the group is known for its work with at-risk youth: mentoring, anti-drug programs, scholarships. The Fond du Lac lodge is one of 33 in Wisconsin.

To learn more about Elk Lodge 57, at 33 Sheboygan St., see www.elks57.com or call 920-922-5757.

Who else makes bowling history in Wisconsin? Read on.

The first thing to notice, upon entering Koz’s Mini Bowl in the heart of south Milwaukee, is the lion’s head and hide. It stretches across the top of an antique ice chest, as though it’s lunging and about to pounce.

Yes, it’s real. Not far away are a wild boar’s head and a stuffed badger, but this isn’t a trophy room. It is a smoky but charismatic, unusual and unpolished tavern in a blue-collar, Polish-Hispanic neighborhood.

Koz’s isn’t in the Yellow Pages, because the owner considers that a waste of money. Word gets around fine on its own.

“The epicenter of Milwaukee bar culture” is how Jim Atkinson described Koz’s in his 1987 HarperCollins book, “The View From Nowhere: The Only Bar Guide You’ll Ever Want or Need.”

Visitors from Escanaba to Japan have signed proprietor Carol Kosakoski’s guest books. They come to gawk or bowl, using 4-pound balls that are the size of grapefruits to knock over battered, wooden pins.

Pin boys, ages 15 or 16, break a sweat behind the alley, aligning the tenpins by hand, then jumping atop a carpeted bench before a preschooler or grandmother lets the next ball fly. It’s $3 per person, per game.

“Because it’s a small place, there’s a lot of camaraderie,” says Carol, who with husband DuWayne began raising five sons on this income in 1977. He died in 2002; they were married 30 years.

“This was DuWayne’s baby, his idea,” the widow says. “He enjoyed it and brought the people here.”

Bowlers at Koz’s use duckpin-sized balls and pins on a 17-foot alley. If it were genuine duckpin bowling (more common on the East Coast), Carol says the alleys would be 60 feet long, and the bowler would throw three balls per turn instead of two.

The bowling area easily turns into a party room without pretense, for families, youth groups, corporate execs from Miller Brewing or Allen-Bradley. This is where bachelor parties and wedding showers sometimes begin.

Customers bring their own food. Children are welcome until 7 p.m.; after that, Carol says it’s not an appropriate place for them.

And the lion?

“My husband would start talking about how he killed it in ’68,” she says. “He had a 10-minute story, and a whip to tell it with. The story changed every time.

“Personally, I think he won it in a poker game. God only knows how much they had in the pot that night.”

The building was a restaurant and boarding house (some day bordello) before the four bowling alleys were added in the mid 1950s. There used to be league play every night; now it’s just two days a week.

The league secretary was a pin boy in the 1950s.

Carol has gotten offers to buy and haul away the alleys, but she declines: “My sons would never forgive me.” Now grown men, this is where their friends reunite, and a son in Ripon helps her run the place.

For more about Koz’s Mini Bowl, 2078 S. Seventh St., call 414-383-0560. Anybody can pay to bowl, but lanes must be reserved so a pinsetter is available.

Want more reverence? Head two blocks south – following Kosciuszko Park – to St. Josaphat’s, 2333 S. Sixth St., Wisconsin’s only Catholic basilica. (See www.thebasilica.org or call 414-645-5623.)