Fifty and still rolling

When Woody and Millie Cockrell opened Oak Bowl in 1957, the world was a different place.

Dwight Eisenhower was the president, Chevrolets had fins and nobody cared much about what went on in Southeast Asia or the Middle East.

Whidbey Island was different as well.

“Back then, Midway Boulevard was just two lanes and the only businesses were the motel and a drive-in restaurant,” John Youngsman said.

“They didn’t have all the big traffic lights, either,” Kathy Cockrell added.

Businesses have come and gone on Whidbey Island over the years, but Oak Bowl is still going strong and celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2007.

“Construction of the building began in 1956 and was completed in 1957,” Kathy Cockrell, wife of owner Tom, said. “When my husband was 13 years old, he helped his parents construct the building. Millie and Woody, with a little help, built most of the building and Tom hauled the cement blocks.”

Kathy Cockrell said Woody was in the military service and after he got out, he retired here in Oak Harbor and began building Oak Bowl.

When the bowling alley first opened, there were just eight lanes.

“Back then pin boys worked down in the pits at the end of the lanes and set the pins by hand,” Cockrell said. “They had to be quick to get all the pins cleared out and reset, and then get out of the way before the next ball was rolled.”

Professional bowler Buzz Fazio was on hand when Oak Bowl first opened its doors.

“On opening day, Buzz did an exhibition and showed off some trick shots,” said Youngsman, who is Oak Bowl’s manager. “He was a big name back then and he also signed a bunch of autographs.”

Oak Bowl became one of the stops on the Professional Bowlers Tour and Cockrell said there were a number of big name bowlers who played in the tournaments.

“My most memorable moment was when Earl Anthony came over here and played,” she said.

At the time, Anthony was the biggest name and top money winner on the pro tour.

Youngsman said when Oak Bowl first opened, league bowling was really popular.

“There were leagues that ran day and night and there was always a full house,” he said.

Oak Bowl has always been a family-run business. Cockrell said Tom did all the janitorial work before he went to school.

“When I first met Tom in 1971 all they had in here was a pool table, a television set at the end of the counter and a little oven they used to cook frozen pizzas in. That was it,” she said. “People used to sit on wooden benches when they were waiting for their turn to bowl or to change their shoes.”

After they were married, Tom and Kathy first leased the building from Tom’s parents and then bought it in 1976.

They immediately began making changes, installing eight additional lanes and doubling Oak Bowl’s size.

“We were probably the first bowling facility in the state to have automatic scoring,” Cockrell said. “The first one we put in was in 1981 and we have updated it three times since then.”

Youngsman said bowlers really enjoy the automatic scoring system as all they have to do is put their names into the computer and the machine does all the rest.

The new owners also put in a pro shop and a restaurant with a char-broiler, and Oak Bowl now has a state-licensed card room.

“We have one of the few licensed card rooms in the state other than those you’d find at the casinos,” Cockrell said.

Other innovations at Oak Bowl in addition to automatic pin setters include synthetic lanes and a machine that automatically oils them.

“The machine doesn’t have a cord or anything,” Youngsman said. “When it finishes oiling one lane, it turns around by itself and then goes over to the next one. It sure beats spreading the oil by hand and then buffing it.”

Changes and innovations keep coming, and Oak Bowl recently hired Rachel Massengille as promotions manager.

Massengille said her husband is in the military and they moved to Oak Harbor from Brunswick, Maine.

“When I was in Brunswick, I worked in promotions for three years at a 32-lane bowling facility run by Bowl New England,” she said. “We are seeing more families bowling these days than in past years. There was a lull about 10 years ago, but it’s coming back. With the new computer systems and animation, it’s something parents want to bring their kids to and something the family can do together. We want to do that here.”

“Bowling is coming into a new age and is more family oriented,” Youngsman said.

Despite all the changes and innovations, Oak Bowl remains a friendly, small-town business catering to the community.

“We have everything here from birthday parties, a senior citizen league, business and Christmas parties, and kids’ leagues in addition to open bowling and our regular leagues,” Cockrell said. “We’ve been open so long, we have retired military personnel stop by when they are traveling through the area and they are surprised to see we’re still here. They’re so happy to see us.”

Youngsman said the business has maintained its friendly atmosphere since the first day the doors opened.

“Everyone has their little quirks and ways, but we’ve never met anyone we didn’t like,” he said.

“We’ve really evolved from when we started,” Cockrell said. “We are a family-oriented business and that’s what makes it nice. It keeps people coming back because its something everyone can do. We might still look like the 1950s on the outside, but we are all modern on the inside.”

A special kind of people

Oak Bowl has league bowling nearly every night and the hard maple pins were being knocked into the pits at a furious pace Thursday evening as old time rock ‘n roll music played over the loud speakers.

Thursday’s competition was in the Storeswars League and right now, the Brewmasters team is in the lead.

Debra Fitzwater is one of the Brewmasters’ major players. She’s ex-Navy, but decided to stay on in Oak Harbor.

“Right now, I am going to school studying to be a personal trainer,” she said. “I’m going into the physical fitness field.”

Fitzwater is a top-notch bowler in the league and said she rolled a perfect 300 game about three years ago.

“I was the first woman to bowl a 300 game at Oak Bowl,” she said.

Another member of the Brewmasters team is Wendy Aston from Oak Harbor who has been bowling for seven years.

“My fondest memory bowling was when I picked up the ‘Greek Church’ split. That’s the 4-6-7-9-10. I did it last season when I was bowling on the base,” she said.

You don’t have to be an experienced bowler to have a good time on the lanes.

James Baxter III, originally from upstate New York but now an E-5 working maintenance at NAS Whidbey Island, has been bowling less than a year.

“I got started when the league began this year,” he said. “My brother got me to come down here and bowl with him so I joined a league. I’m down here having a lot of fun.”

Also in the Navy, Peter Rutter, who’s with VHQ-139, said this is his second year at Oak Bowl.

“Right now, my average is around 178,” he said.

Bowling is the kind of sport that has no age limits and is something everyone can enjoy, and Oak Bowl is ready for its next 50 years.

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