Bruce Lanes Closure Marks End Of An Era
BY AMY WITSCHEY
Bruce Lanes in New Martinsville will close its doors for good on April 4.
The bowling alley has been a center for social life and entertainment in the area for 65 years, but the time has come for an end of an era.
History In The Making
Long-time New Martinsville Mayor Robert Bruce built the eight-lane Bruce Lanes in 1950. From 1966-68 Eugene and Dave Minor ran the business for two years, then they were ready to move on.
Bill Craycraft told his sons he thought he might want to buy the bowling alley. The Craycrafts loved the sport of bowling-still do. At the time Mike Craycraft was a young adult and he loaned what he could to the new endeavor. Keith Craycraft was a teenager who loved working at the lanes for both Mayor Bruce and then the Minors-putting away shoes and sharpening pencils.
“He (Mayor Bruce) paid me in bowling games, which was better than money,” recalled Keith. In fact, he said almost inevitably Mayor Bruce would ask to see Keith’s scoresheet after playing his free games.
The mayor and entrepreneur would say something like, “Well, you can’t end on a bad score. You’d better bowl another one.” Or alternatively, “You can’t quit while you’re hot. You’d better bowl another one.”
Keith gladly obeyed.
That’s just the kind of man Mayor Bruce was-helpful and supportive. “If it hadn’t been for Mayor Bruce, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation,” said Keith while conducting the interview about the lanes’ closure. He noted that many people don’t know how instrumental he was in so many things. “It’s called Bruce Park for a reason!” exclaimed Keith.
For that very reason the bowling alley has always been called Bruce Lanes. The Craycrafts never even considered another name, knowing it was the legendary mayor who was responsible for it.
Ironically, Bruce Lanes finds itself in the same situation as it was in 1966. Mayor Bruce was ready to retire and his two sons were living out of the area with no interest in keeping the family business. Mike has two sons: Tony is a teacher in Alabama and Joe is a lawyer in Wheeling, W.Va.
“It’s come full circle,” said Keith, who doesn’t have any children. “We’re right back to where we were in 1966.”
The Craycrafts have had Bruce Lanes for sale for over three years. “We strived every way we could to keep it a bowling center,” said Keith. But the time had finally come that they had to move on.
They were aware that if something happened to one of them, the other two wouldn’t be able to take care of it.
The family has sold the property to Century Equities of Wheeling. The company specializes in structuring customized real estate investments for advisory firms, individuals, and other groups. Century has developed a variety of projects including office buildings, retail locations, light industrial buildings, distribution centers, hotels, historic structures, and residential developments.
A New Era
Perhaps the reason the Craycrafts couldn’t find anyone to continue the business is that the business model has changed. New Martinsville’s population has declined and the amount of available entertainment income has decreased.
Nowadays bowling alleys are a new breed-bowling centers designed for family outings complete with rather upscale meals. Many don’t even have league bowling-that which used to be the staple of the bowling alley.
In fact, in 1979 there were 9 million sanctioned league bowlers. Today there are 2.5 million. At one time Bruce Lanes had 700 league bowlers, many more than they do today. The biggest loss is in the daytime women’s leagues as today many, if not most, women are at work during the weekday.
The more rural centers such as Bruce Lanes are often closing.
Nowadays bowling alleys want to be known as bowling centers. Keith said bowling centers are places you go to bowl occasionally while a bowling alley is a place you go to see friends and maybe bowl a game or two. “If that’s the case, then we’re a bowling alley,” he proclaimed.
More Than A
While interviewing for this story, Sharon Lemasters came in to get her bowling ball from her locker-the same one she has had since 1964. Her mother Ruby Pryor got her started at bowling and it has been a favorite pastime ever since. People like Lemasters have been stopping in the business and thanking the Craycrafts for the fun times and memories.
“It’s been a yo-yo-up and down, laughing and crying,” said Keith of the conversations.
They have heard stories of people asking out their future mate at the lanes, first dates, proms, birthday parties, and more. “It’s just amazing, the stories,” said Keith. “What we have seen on Facebook in a short period of time (since announcing the closure on March 3) was so humbling.
“Where is that boy going to take that car for the first time?” asked Keith. “New Martinsville isn’t going to have that now.”
Speaking of proms, Pat said she went to Bruce Lanes for her senior prom and she was not impressed. Little did she know she would end up marrying Mike and virtually spending her life there.
A Family Affair
Pat married Mike on a Friday and the next day he was in a state tournament. Then on Sunday he bowled in his travel league.
But she added, “It’s been an awesome journey.”
She was an important part of the business-particularly while Mike travelled for work for 13 years. “She lives in this bowling center today,” noted Keith of Pat.
“It’s been really good that the family’s been able to work together all these years,” said Keith.
And really, in terms of Bruce Lanes, the word family refers to much more than just blood relations. It is the customers and employees who make it a viable business and fun place to be.
They have two employees who have worked over 30 years at Bruce Lanes, but the Craycrafts didn’t want to mention names for fear they would leave someone out. They all have meant so much to them.
“It has been a good place for people to work,” said Pat.
She also noted that their snack bar serves up the best burgers and fries in town from the cleanest kitchen.
The First Frame
Bruce Lanes was originally simply eight lanes. There were pin boys in the beginning, but Keith wasn’t sure if it employed a semi-automatic system or if they were fully set by hand.
In 1972 the Craycrafts expanded Bruce Lanes to 16 lanes. “I still call this the new side,” chuckled Keith, pointing to the northern eight lanes.
From inside the business, patrons can easily see the difference the addition made. The blue pipe supports mark the former exterior walls.
Part of that addition made way for the KC Pro Shop.
In 1972 Keith began drilling bowling balls. Keith has drilled over 15,000 bowling balls.
“He remembers everybody by your bowling ball,” noted Pat of Keith.
He was so good at creating bowling balls to personally fit a bowler and their style that he drew customers from a 100-mile radius. Many times that then led to bowlers driving to Bruce Lanes to bowl, after their positive experience at KC Pro Shop.
The imminent closure of Bruce Lanes and, consequently, KC Pro Shop has created a run on Keith’s services. The word has gotten out that this is their last chance to get a custom ball from Keith and they don’t want to miss the opportunity.
For 20 years the pro shop was in the back where the Strike Zone Sports Lounge is now located. They later decided Keith would be better able to monitor the goings on at the lanes if his shop were in its current location.
Then 15 years ago they developed the lounge area. It, says Keith, has served as a nice place for people to spend time and watch sports. Often it caters to an older, more subdued crowd than some bars.
Keith may have started out at the rather menial job of sharpening pencils, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t important or that he doesn’t still sharpen pencils today.
“You have to have a sharp pencil to mark all the strikes down!” noted Keith.
He added that his only regret was that they never installed automatic scoring. They just never seemed to be able to invest the $50-100,00 it would take to add it to Bruce Lanes. “That would be a necessity today,” he noted.
Although, the manual scoring has had its advantages. The Craycrafts remembered how Dave Tallman brought his physical education classes from New Martinsville School for bowling. Discovering the students didn’t know how to score their game, he spent the next class at NMS teaching them the method and making them practice their math.
“You try to make decisions on bowling first, not just money,” noted Keith. For instance, they did spend the money to refinish, screen, and coat the lanes every two years to keep them smooth and with a good surface.
“It’s because we’re a family of bowlers,” said Keith. That, they are.
Family of Bowlers
Keith started bowling on the Professional Bowling Association tour in 1972. He continued that commitment for 10 years, bowling his last PBA tournament in 1982. He has been on four PBA-style television shows.
The top five places on PBA tours would be on ABC’s Saturday show “Wide World of Sports”. Keith reached that threshold five times with one second place; two third places; and two fifth places.
Keith won six state championships, including two in the doubles category with Mike. Pat and Darla Craycraft also once won the West Virginia State Women’s Doubles Competition.
Keith earned a place in the West Virginia Bowlers Hall of Fame.
Mike and Tony bowled in a lot of regional PBA competitions. Also, Tony did one swing on the national PBA tour.
Tony attended Morehead State University in Kentucky on a bowling scholarship.
More Than a Game or Two
Bruce Lanes was more than just a place to bowl a game or two-more than a bowling center.
The league bowlers formed their New Martinsville Men’s Bowling Association and New Martinsville Women’s Bowling Association. Each has its own Hall of Fame. “Boy there’s a lot of great names on those boards,” said Keith.
The groups will hold their final awards banquets, separately, on April 11.
The Coca-Cola Junior Bowler Tournament gave over $50,000 in college scholarships through Bruce Lanes.
The adult tournaments were also fairly lucrative-so much so that it enticed three or four PBA Hall of Famers to bowl in them. Keith is proud to be able to say they have approximately 50 bowlers in the $1,000 Club. That means they each won a minimum of $1,000 in a Bruce Lanes-sponsored tournament; about 30 of those were in their Match Play Tournament.
“Most bowling centers never offered those kinds of tournaments,” added Keith.
bowl another one.”
For now many people will be getting in one last game at Bruce Lanes. The business is open on Fridays from 5 p.m. until midnight; Saturdays from noon until midnight; and Sundays from 1 p.m. until 9 p.m.
“Last night was the busiest Saturday night we’ve had all year long,” said Keith Sunday, just days after the news of the lanes’ eminent closure was made public. Most nights of open bowling they’re lucky to have 100 bowlers but Saturday they had over 150. During their heyday, it wasn’t uncommon to have 200 bowlers in a night.
The last day open to the public will be April 3. On Saturday, April 4, the lanes will host the 37th annual Ohio Valley Match Play Grand Finale, the traditional end to the bowling league season. It will only be open to participants. In its 37 years, the OVMP has paid out close to $300,000 in prize money. It draws bowlers from throughout the Ohio Valley.
Then to put an official end to Bruce Lanes, the three generations of the Craycraft family will each bowl one last ball down the wooden lanes.
The End of an Era
Cozart Auctions will hold an auction at the site on April 11 beginning at 10 a.m.