Think You've Been Duckpin Bowling in Milwaukee? Think Again.

Mar 16, 2018

Bowling. It’s as Wisconsin as cheese curds and Packers gear. Some have even called Milwaukee "America’s 10-pin Capital" in reference to ten-pin bowling, the most common form of the sport. But there’s another kind of bowling that’s also popular in the area, and it’s a little quacky. 

"That made me think: Is this just a Milwaukee thing?"

Listener Shelley Peters reached out to Bubbler Talk because she wanted to know more about it.

She explains, "My sister lives in Green Bay and she’s got three kids, so I had mentioned to my sister, I said, 'You know, when the kids come down, why don’t we go Duckpin Bowling?' And she goes, 'What? What’s Duckpin Bowling?' She kind of like thought I was having an alien response and so I explained to her what it was and she goes, 'I’ve never heard of that.' And then that made me think: Is this just a Milwaukee thing?”

These pins and balls are likely the same as the standard duckpin game, but the lanes are about half the size.
Credit Joy Powers

The game Shelley is talking about is kind of like standard 10-pin bowling, but tiny. There are shorter lanes accompanied by shorter pins, and players use a smaller ball. There are a couple places to play it in the Milwaukee-area and it’s often referred to as Duckpin Bowling.

But when searching for an answer to Shelley’s question, this fact became clear: There aren’t any duckpin bowling alleys in Milwaukee or in the state of Wisconsin.

I know what you’re thinking: “How is that possible? I’ve been to Koz’s. I’ve been to the Thirsty Duck! They have duckpin bowling.”

But they don’t, they offer mini duckpin bowling.

"The pins that they're using are actually the free-standing duckpins, the balls that they're using are probably standard size duckpin bowling balls, but the lane is short, the width of the lane is not standard as well," explains Stan Kellum, the executive director of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress in Maryland.

Duckpin bowling allies are fairly common on the east coast, particularly in Maryland. Wisconsin did have regulation duckpin bowling lanes at a place called Quackers in Thiensville, but it's now closed. Currently, the closest regulation lanes to the state of Wisconsin are in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

Unlike the mini version, standard duckpin bowling uses the same kinds of lanes as 10-pin bowling. Players use a 3-pound ball and the pins are about 9-inches tall. Unlike standard 10-pin bowling, players are given three rolls per set and Stan says that's in part due to how tough the game is to play.

"There's never been a perfect game in duckpin bowling."

Perhaps as proof of its difficult: In the 90-year-history of the National Duckpin Bowling Congress, they have never recorded a perfect game.  

"There’s never been a perfect game in duckpin bowling. The highest game ever bowled by a lady is 265 and the highest game ever bowled by a man is 279," Stan says.

That stands in stark contrast with mini duckpin bowling, where a 300 game is so common that many first-timers players brag about joining the 300-club at Koz’s Mini Bowl in Milwaukee.

Koz's Mini Bowl doesn't have automatic an automatic pinsetter, so teens reset the pins by hand. This is the area behind the pins, where they sit.
Credit Joy Powers

Owner Justin Kozakowski says its this ease of play that often attracts players to Koz’s, along with the novelty. For many years, Koz’s remained a sort of anomaly - a throwback to a bygone era of bowling curiosities.  

Justin explains, "Mini bowling was very popular in Milwaukee. There was about a dozen bars that was about the same style. And then, that was around the mid-60s that started falling out. My dad bought this place in '78, ya know, but this was the last one like this."

While looking into the origins of mini duckpin bowling, it was unclear how the game first came to be and perhaps that’s fitting.

The National Congress of Duckpin Bowling is also unsure of the exact origins of the standard game. As for the name, Stan recalls a story he was told about its origination: "When they threw the ball in early stages of the game, and the pins would jump into the air and fly all around, they described it as like a flock of ducks taking off, where they all fly up together."

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