On quiet night in San Antonio, inside one special building, they’re keeping the ball rolling. It’s one of the few places in the world where they still play nine-pin bowling.
Brought here by German immigrants in the mid-1880’s, it was once popular across the country. But now, it’s only played in remote parts of South and Central Texas.
“During prohibition, nine-pin was associated with speakeasies,” said Nathan Dolle, president of the Solms Bowling Club.
The game was also associated with gambling, and during prohibition, nine-pin bowling clubs started closing everywhere… except Texas.
“Just because Texans kinda do their own thing,” Dolle laughed.
Today, there are just 19 nine-pin bowling alleys left. Some of them are located in Bexar, Comal, and Guadalupe Counties.
“We are the only people left in the country still doing this,” said Tom Hampton of the Blanco Bowling Club.
It’s different than modern bowling. The pins are set up in a diamond and the goal is to not hit the red pin.
“The activity of trying to leave just the pin in the middle makes it more fun,” said Leslie Hochalter with the Turner Bowling Club.
Teams have six members and bowl as a team.
“In nine-pin, you go up and bowl, and you leave something, and you go up again and you still miss? Well, they send somebody else to go get that pin on the lane,” Dolle explained. “And you can pick and choose who you want to send on your team.”
There are no automated pin setting machines. Pin setters are usually children and teens, often family, and they set the pins by hand and return the balls.
“Sometimes you get hit,” Turner said.
“I set pins for my parents, like my son is setting pins for us right now,” Dolle said.
The game has been played and passed down through generations.
“We started this when we were 6 [years old],” said Sarah Koehler, who noted that all three Koehler sisters are now carrying on the tradition.
“My parents did this and that’s how I learned to do it,” said Sandy Marcus with the Barbarossa Bowling Club. “We’re desperately trying to keep the tradition alive.”
The bowling clubs are social clubs, averaging 200 to 300 members. Everyone pays annual dues, $10 to $30 per year. The game is half the price of 10-pin, sometimes cheaper. To attract new members, some clubs offer open bowling, which costs just two dollars per game.
“If they bowl once, they’re done. They’re hooked,” claimed Richard Quiroga, president of the Turner Bowling Club.
It’s certainly true for the Callanders, who started playing this year.
“We ended up loving it,” Jordan Callander said. “It’s a lot more challenging, and it forces you to kinda bring the team into the sport, you know? Rely on all your teammates.”
The bowling clubs are hoping to bring in more new members, to carry on this Texas tradition.