The end of an era?Bowlers wrap up league nights at Southgate Bowl
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
For two of the area’s most experienced bowlers, the pending closure of Cloquet’s Southgate Bowl brings back memories – and bittersweet feelings.
Willard Maki, 92, of Esko, took up bowling at the age of 45 and has been bowling in leagues in Cloquet ever since. He started at the old Evergreen Lanes near the current City Hall and moved to Southgate when it opened in 1977.
“I bowled four days a week back then,” Maki said. “I helped found the senior league in October 1984 and it had 16 teams.”
The bittersweet feelings come because the Southgate Bowl building will likely be demolished and replaced by a new Walgreen’s store by next fall. At the March 20 Cloquet City Council meeting – when site plans for the Walgreens store were approved unanimously by the council – Southgate owners Gerry and Rose Pollard said they will miss their regular bowlers tremendously, but noted that the time is right for retirement.
It will be the end of an era for many.
Maki is like a good golfer – he can tell you things about games he bowled more than 40 years ago, and remembers the day he feels he “arrived” in the sport … in 1967.
“A friend asked me to bowl with him in a tournament at Skyline Lanes in Duluth, and that’s where they separate the men from the boys,” he said. “I had never bowled a 500 series before and I had a 553 in the doubles so we got money there. In the singles I bowled a 602 actual series with a 128-pin handicap, so I got $50 and a trophy, which I still have.”
Maki still averages over 140 in his current league and averaged 180 when in his 60s, with a high game of 270. He still loves the game but turned over his league management duties to a younger couple some years back.
That younger couple was Ron Freeman, 68, and his wife, Bonnie, of
“I’ve been bowling for 46 years,” Freeman said. “Lots of years I bowled three nights a week and have been secretary of the Thursday league since 1967.”
Freeman bowled for the old Eagles’ Club until it closed, and has bowled for the Lost Tavern since. He’s seen many changes, both in the game and in Southgate itself.
“When [Southgate] first opened, we had wood lanes and they put synthetic lanes in,” Freeman said. “The oil stays on them, so they don’t dry up and start hooking. There was a lot less maintenance when those lanes came in.”
Freeman also remembers the heyday of league bowling in Cloquet.
“Years ago, every night of the week they had two shifts,” he said. “One was at 6:30 and the other was at 9:00, and the alleys were full.”
But, times have changed. Alleys that Maki remembers in Moose Lake have since closed as well, although Gampers Food, Liquor and Bowling still has eight bowling lanes. He also recalls special events that celebrated the bowlers’ heritage.
“I remember when we used to have Finnish tournaments,” Maki said. “I used to bowl in those. You could have men or women or any combination on your team. The ladies were pretty good bowlers.”
Soon, though, bowlers of every stripe will need to go to Duluth or elsewhere.
“So far we have eight teams signed up to go to Stadium Lanes (in Duluth) on Thursday night to bowl,” Freeman said. “Pretty much our choices are Stadium Lanes or Skyline.”
Maki said that choice might pose issues for older bowlers.
“We already have a number of bowlers who come from Cromwell and Kettle River and Barnum and Moose Lake,” Maki said. “They might not want to drive all the way to Duluth, especially in all weather.”
However, Freeman made it clear there’s no blame to be attached to the closure of the lanes.
“I went to school with (Southgate owner) Jerry Pollard,” Freeman said. “I’ll be 69 in June and he’s older than I am. Walgreens made an offer and you sure can’t blame him for that. I can’t blame him for not rebuilding, bowling has dropped off.”
There is one full week of league bowling left at Southgate, with leagues on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday winding up their schedules next week.
“All those years, I never thought I would see the day when Cloquet wouldn’t have a bowling alley for the size of the town,” Freeman said. “It’s sad.”
“I will definitely miss the place,” he added. “For me, it’s just a couple minutes and you’re there. Lots of people in the senior league are within walking distance.”
Maki said he will wait until the fall before deciding whether to drive to Duluth for a 48th season.
“We’re going to see how we feel,” he said. “I’m only about five miles away (from Southgate) where I live so I will miss being close too.”
Both men are hopeful that a new bowling alley will someday be built in Cloquet.
“It might be interesting if someone puts up a bowling alley here,” Maki said. “There are rumors of all kinds. I just want to see a bowling alley.”
“I’ve heard so many rumors that someone will build,” Freeman added. “But nobody will have a bowling alley built by Labor Day [when leagues start up again].”