Pine River bowling lanes are a product of community
In the history of Pine River, many buildings have burned down, some of them businesses. But not even the popular Marlow Theater was rebuilt by other business owners and community members.
The same cannot be said of Pine River Lanes, now Community Bowl & Pizzeria on Barclay Avenue.
Before July 1992, Pine River Lanes had been in constant operation since 1959, when Martin Ruigh, his father and an extended crew built the six lanes next door to Ruigh's house on Barclay Avenue. Ruigh ran it with his wife, Joan, until she died in 1991.
The business was an important recreation center for Pine River. In addition to bowling, Ruigh's pizza and food was well loved locally.
"It brought people to town," said Pat Johnson, a former bowling alley manager. "They would go to the grocery store on the way to the bowling alley. They might go to the liquor store on the way home from the bowling alley. The collateral impact, I think, was the reason they wanted it."
The bowling alley was so important, in fact, that the community apparently could not do without it.
In July 1992, a fire destroyed the structure in what then-Fire Chief Jimmy Dale Blanchard said was the worst fire he had ever fought. The fire crew fought the blaze for hours knowing the building and Ruigh's house next door were complete losses, but wind buffeted the flames and pushed them east along with abundant black smoke toward a home next door and the church on the corner.
For a while it seemed like efforts to save those buildings were for naught, and fire crews began to remove furniture from the church in anticipation of the fire spreading.
"Everyone was so concerned about Martin," Johnson said. "He was not in there but he lost his dog and he was emotionally distraught over that. I also remember the Pine River Fire Department taking furniture out of the Pine River United Methodist Church. That's the oldest church in town. They were taking stuff out because they were not sure they could contain that fire."
In the end fire crews saved both the home next door and the church, but the bowling lanes and Ruigh's home were destroyed.
Almost immediately, business owners and community members gathered together to form an investment group that funded the $430,000 cost to rebuild the bowling alley with eight lanes. In September 1992, the group was considering a location near the Pine River Supper Club.
Eventually Ruigh donated his property to the group to have the alley built in the same location. Members of the group included Mike Griep, Guy Wannebo, Doug Zaske, Pine River Chamber Director John Wetrosky, Ruigh and many others. Nobody was guaranteed a return on their investments.
It was a gamble, but it paid off. The alley was named Pine River Community Bowl to commemorate the community effort to bring the alleys back.
"We sold stock and made no promises on returns and hoped to get everybody's money with a little interest," Wetrosky said. "As it turned out, we did that and it was debt free the day the door opened. That's a pretty rare thing. We had people who donated or invested that basically didn't care if they got their money back. They just wanted to see it in Pine River."
"It was something to have in Pine River that brings the same people in once a week for 30 weeks," said former owner Tom Walters. "I remember other business owners said they saw a downturn when the alley was gone. There are a lot of small towns that would love to have a bowling center and we are fortunate they got this running again."
The fixtures, equipment and furniture were bought used from an alley that closed in Avon. Before it opened, locals Sue Davis and Johnson came forward to operate the bowling alley under the name SuPaCo, and they were officially selected in September 1993.
"My friend Sue Davis and I had been on the same bowling league at Pine River Lanes," Johnson said. "We always loved the sport and when it burned down we were already looking for a business to go into."
Before the fire, Johnson and Davis already had a business plan and were in contact with local economic development groups, but the new bowling alley offered them another avenue, and they took it.
Ruigh was involved from the very start. Johnson said at the time Ruigh and others in town were likely somewhat wary of a business run by two women. Johnson said Davis likely surprised Ruigh because she was good at maintaining the mechanical pinsetters. However, he always watched them like a hawk when they made pizzas with his recipes.
"Martin was there every single day," Johnson said. "I can still hear him say, 'No, you need the cheese closer to the edge.'"
SuPaCo operated the alleys for just one year. Johnson said the business boomed when the doors reopened.
"We had leagues booming," Johnson said. "We had leagues every night of the week except Saturday."
Customers flocked to bowl there, eat there and play in the new game room. In spite of immediate success, at end of their lease the women decided to move on.
"It was so much work," Johnson said. "Seven days a week, nine months of the year. We just chose not to continue. It's very labor intensive."
That's when Walters came in. Walters bought the operable bowling alley with an engaged customer base, complete with Ruigh's original pizza recipes. Walters and the Pine River Community Bowl continued as an important attraction to Pine River, the nearest lanes for 32 miles that attracted customers into Pine River once again.
"At the time and even still, it is probably the major form of recreation not only for Pine River but there are a lot of bowlers from Longville, Hackensack, Crosslake and Emily that came here and used it as a recreation site for winter," said Wetrosky.
From 1994-2017, Walters was the face of the bowling alley. In that time, some things changed. Primarily, score keeping changed from manual to electronic in 2000, which drew in casual bowlers who were intimidated by score keeping.
"People would come in and if they didn't know how to score I didn't mind showing them, but they didn't want to bother you," Walters said. "They stayed and played one game. When we got the automatic scoring they just bowled and had fun and stayed a lot longer. It worked better for tournaments and whatnot."
The alley continued to be Pine River's primary recreation outlet in the winter, but Walters eventually decided it was time to move on. Bowling alley ownership was a busy lifestyle. They sold to Bill and Sandi Zoldey and their daughter, Tami, in February 2017.
"I still miss the people," Walters said. "I still bowl on Monday evenings because I didn't want to lose touch with everyone. I've been with them 20 years."
"I told him (Bill), 'I want it,'" Sandi said of the bowling alley in a 2017 story in the Echo Journal.
The Zoldey family took over and immediately formed plans for the space, changing the name to Community Bowl and Pizzeria. They kept the same old pizza recipes from Ruigh (who died in 2014) and sought to expand the dining clientele. They removed some arcade games from the game room and moved lockers there, using the former locker space to expand the dining area. They also paid for a liquor license. Bill said some longtime customers were distant at first, but they warmed up.
"We heard stuff. People said since Tom wasn't running it they weren't coming back. Then we saw them in a couple months," Bill said.
The Zoldeys worked to make the alley more popular during the summer, a season when bowling alleys are typically less active. Expanding the dining area was part of that ploy, but so was renewed promotion and advertising. Tami, for example, is active on social media, drawing in crowds all year long with specials, events and expanded leagues.
As a result, Bill and Sandi said 2018 finished strong, and 2019 started just as strong. Dining was at least part of that.
"We kind of focused a lot more on food," Bill said. "Going over our books, a little over half of our sales is in food, which is nice because it kind of helps cover the summer months while bowling is down. We also expanded our menu."
Growing on their successes, the Zoldeys plan to expand their menu. They optimally would like to add a selection of burgers.
Of course, Martin Ruigh's pizzas will remain a major attraction that connects the alley to its roots as a business the Pine River community just couldn't do without.