In 1917 John S. Backiel bought 7 acres of land on the dirt-filled Post Road, near Maple Avenue. He paid $5,000.
The Backiels farmed the property until 1954. That year his sons John and Stanley, and the young men’s brother-in-law, opened up Westport Golf Range. There was a driving range, and miniature golf course. (Today it’s the site of Regent’s Park condominiums.)
According to Jack Backiel, his grandfather — John S. — said that selling a bucket of golf balls was just like selling a basket of tomatoes. Except you got both the basket and the tomatoes back, to sell them again the next day.
Jack was just 7 years old in September 1954, but he remembers opening day. Trick shot artist Paul Hahn wrapped a club (actually a hose) around his body, then swung it and hit a ball off the mouth of his wife, as she lay on the ground.
The golf range “was my whole life as a kid,” Jack recalls.
In October 1958, the Backiels opened a bowling alley — only the 2nd 10-pin alley in the state. Economics favored recreation over farming.
There were 8 owners: John S. Backiel’s children. Daily management was the responsibility of 3: John, Stanley and Adolf. The site is what is now Pier 1.
Business boomed. With lines out the door, the original 16 lanes soon expanded to 32. Soon, the Backiels added a pool room downstairs, and the Club 300 bar.
In the early years John Hersey — author of Hiroshima, and a former member of Westport’s Board of Education — bowled there several times a week.
Next door, when Mickey Rooney — acting at the Westport Country Playhouse — would hit buckets of balls at the golf range. Then he’d hang around for a couple of hours, talking to women and giving impromptu “golf lessons” to whoever listened.
Those recollections — and many more — come from Jack Backiel, John’s son and John S.’s grandson.
Jack says, “Our family was definitely on the cutting edge of bowling, as the new wave of family recreation began in the United States.” Bowling leagues thrived, from 1960 through the mid-’80s. Local businesses sponsored teams, advertising their names on the back of shirts.
In the fall of 1961, Westport Lanes was on “Candid Camera.” The last 2 lanes were rigged so that thin piano wires ran under the pins. When a couple came to bowl, they were assigned those lanes.
“The guy would bowl his regular score, but every time the woman got up, a mechanic in back would pull a lever. The piano wires moved just enough so all the pins fell down, no matter where she threw the ball.
“The poor guy out on a date would bowl his 125 game,” Jack continues. “His date would roll a 288. The hidden camera focused on his expression as she got strike after strike after strike.”
Paul Gambaccini — the “Professor of Pop,” and one of the most famous radio and TV music personalities in the UK — grew up not far from Westport Lanes. Earlier this year, in a Financial Times profile, he related the pinpoint accuracy of bowling to his precision cuing record.
And he recalled his earliest bowling days.
It was that period of the suburbanisation of America when an indispensible part of every new town was the bowling alley. It’s broken my heart to see bowling go downhill. Now it’s a sort of retro, kitsch thing. Nixon, for all his faults, was a bowler. He had a bowling alley in the basement of the White House.
One night in 1972, while the lanes were being refinished with a flammable coat of lacquer, they went up in flames. The cause was spontaneous combustion, Jack says, and the intense heat twisted steel.
A year later, the rebuilt Westport Lanes opened again.
The bowling alley remained a kingpin of local recreation until 1984. Jack’s father — the youngest owner — was already in his 60s. The property was their nest egg. They sold the lanes and adjacent golf range for $6.8 million.
Two of the original owners are still alive. One aunt is 95; the other just turned 101.
“There wasn’t much entertainment in Westport back then, especially for kids,” Jack recalls. “We were it.”
That entertainment resonated with countless people. To this day, Jack says — even in retirement in Florida — when someone hears he’s from Westport, and that his family owned the bowling alley and golf range, they remember it.
And then they tell him stories about their favorite times there.
(Jack Backiel would love to hear more memories of the golf range and bowling alley. Click “Comments,” or email him: firstname.lastname@example.org.)