3rd generation runs ‘classic small-town’ bowling alley in Jo Daviess County

Stockton Bowling Lanes

Phone: 815-947-3616

Address: 102 S. Ward St., Stockton, Ill.

Founded: 1949

Employees: 2

STOCKTON, Ill. — Steve Jordan described Stockton Bowling Lanes as “your classic small-town activity.”

“You can rent the bowling alley for a birthday party, and they will throw in a bowling pin that everyone can sign — it’s like a birthday card in the form of a bowling pin that you can take with you,” said Jordan, a longtime patron of the bowling alley.

Jack and Mary Stayner have owned and operated the 73-year-old business for 16 years. The couple represent the third generation operating the bowling alley, one of Stockton’s oldest continuously operating businesses. Jack’s parents, Ira and Betty Stayner, and grandparents John and Cora Stayner founded the lanes in 1949.

“At the time, my dad came off of the farm — his family farmed — and my dad was a milk hauler,” said Jack Stayner, 71. “My mother had a little café downtown before they were married. My dad used to stop in there and have his lunch. One thing led to another, and they ended up in a partnership.”

Ira Stayner learned that post-war Stockton-area residents had experienced the fun of bowling alleys during their military service.

“His dad was retired from farming at the time, and they thought (starting a bowling alley) would be an adventure to go on,” Jack said. “They went to the banks to borrow money, but no bank would touch them with a loan, so they actually went to a couple of well-off farmers and borrowed money from the farmers. The local farmers were the ones who really financed it.”

The bowling alley quickly established itself as a community gathering spot, notable for milkshakes and Betty Stayner’s hamburgers and pies.

“Instead of putting in a bar, (my parents and grandparents) moved my mother’s café here,” Jack said. “They put in a full, stainless steel soda fountain, with milkshakes and sundaes. A lot of the farmers came and ate their suppers here. They came right out of the dairy barn, changed their clothes, ran up here and ordered a burger and a piece of pie.”

The bowling alley became a popular spot, with two leagues per night, five nights per week, but only during the colder months, Jack said.

“They weren’t open in the summer because we don’t have air conditioning,” said Jack. “Everything gets so sticky because of the moisture.”

The alley remained a family affair during the course of many decades.

“There were five kids in my family, and we all put in our time here growing up,” Jack said. “My dad died right before they were going to open up (for the season) in August. That was in 1999. I told my mother, ‘I will help you.’ For several years I helped her (operate it).”

Jack and Mary purchased the bowling alley from Jack’s mother in 2006.

“That’s when Mary really became involved here,” Jack said. “Our kids were out of college before we took this over. So, my daughters never were part of the operation.”

The Stayners maintained full-time jobs even as they assumed ownership of the bowling alley. Jack drove as a courier for a dairy sample testing firm, retiring in 2021. Mary is a retired teacher, having taught at Stockton Elementary School for more than 30 years. After 2006, she launched an after-school bowling program at the alley.

“The elementary school is just up the street, so I would walk over and bring them here — like the Pied Piper,” Mary said. “The parents were thrilled because they didn’t have to worry about their kids and it was affordable.”

The COVID-19 pandemic struck a blow to the bowling alley.

“We shut down in March 2020, and we just reopened for any kind (of bowling) in November of last year,” Jack said. “Our business model now is groups only, by appointment.”

The alley hosted 10 bowling parties in March. Groups get two hours of bowling and rented shoes for $150.

“And we have school groups — River Ridge (Ill.) schools comes every year,” Mary said. “They incorporate it into their curriculum. They score for each other, and they’re graded on their scoring. It’s part of a math lesson.”

The Stayners hope to resume open bowling at the lanes this fall. “We’re here for the community,” Mary said.

As for the next generation of potential alley owners, the Stayners have two daughters who followed their mother into education as teachers and both sons-in-law are linked to education, too.

“What an amazing family to keep this local, unique business for so many years,” said Mike Dittmar, a Stayner son-in-law who is a high school teacher and Elizabeth’s village president. “The coolest thing I think about (the alley) is that it is like a time machine back to the 1950s. If you want to know what it was like to bowl in the 1950s, go to the Stockton Bowling Lanes. No computers. No fancy machines. The kids need to learn how to keep score the old-fashioned way.”

Jordan said the bowling alley is steeped in nostalgia.

“When I was a little kid in the late ’80s, my parents bowled in multiple leagues and we enjoyed having our supper up there,” he said.

The lanes and the stadium seats overlooking them are original from 1949. The lanes’ automatic pin setters were installed in 1961. “Everything is still operational,” Jack said.

Scoring is done by hand at tables so retro that Jack must contact a junk dealer in Texas for replacement parts.

Jordan said he has enjoyed taking his family to the bowling alley for years.

“My wife and I have five kids, and we have spent a lot of time there,” he said. “We have some good memories there. People say there is nothing to do in a small town, but the bowling alley is definitely on that list of things to do, whether it’s a gathering of friends, or a date night, or a family gathering like a birthday party.”

The Stayners plan to maintain operation of the bowling alley as long as they are able.

“We would love for it to stay in the family,” Mary said. “We would like to carry on until we can turn it over to one of our family members.”