Tenderloins, bowling, and 50 years of Culver memories

--Dewitt family’s quarter-century at Lake Shore Lanes and beyond--

Not long ago, Jim Dewitt was in the Culver post office when the topic of the beloved tenderloins he served at the Lake Shore Lanes bowling alley between 1953 and 1978 came up. Soon, various folks in line were speaking up in favor of their favorite menu item, and the nearly 35 years since the popular spot closed seemed to melt away.

Jim Dewitt and his late wife Mary, and their family, has been so quintessentially Culver, it might come as a surprise that the 91-year old Pearl Harbor survivor came here by way of an adventurous and world-traveling -- even nomadic -- past, pre-Culver life (see accompanying story this page).

By 1953, Jim and Mary Dewitt had decided to sell the grocery store they’d operated for the past seven years in Wawaka, and were contemplating their next move.

Fate played its hand, since Dewitt, who rarely read the classified ads, found himself perusing them in the South Bend Tribune, where he saw for sale a bowling alley in Culver.

"I said (to Mary), 'I'm going to Culver tomorrow.' Mary said, 'What's in Culver?' I brought (daughter) Karen over and we looked at it."

Dewitt purchased the bowling alley, on Lake Shore Drive, May 23, 1953 from George Robinson, who had bought it from Jerome Zechiel not long before. Robinson had added the electric grill and French fryers.

Dewitt believes the alleys in the building were unmatched because part of the facilities had come from the bowling alley which once existed west of the old Kruezberger saloon (today the Jim and Diane Greene home at the south end of State Street). Some of that alley had utilized parts of a Logansport alley (possibly also the property of the Kruezberger family, which ran a large Logansport operation) damaged in famous 1913 flood in Logansport, at which Culver Academy cadets rescued many.

Lake Shore Lanes bordered the Lake View Tavern to the west, with about 20 inches between the two buildings, but shared a wall to the east with the coffee shop long at 622 Lake Shore Drive (at least as far back as the 1920s).

The Dewitt family's first full year running the place, 1954, yielded only $3,000, and that was with two people working seven days per week.

"It was discouraging," Jim Dewitt admits.

Customers didn't begin trickling in, in those days, until the sky darkened since it was difficult to tell if the business was open until then. At that time Culver had no less than two taxis, and Dewitt says they would order food from the restaurant, as would Culver Academy's waiters living in temporary housing near the campus, whose food would be delivered by taxi.

In spite of the uphill battle to make a go of it, "Mary, bless her heart, stuck with me every step of the way," says her husband.

Of all the food served at the bowling alley, "everybody remembers the tenderloins," acknowledges Dewitt. That was on the menu when he first bought the business, and initially pork loin was used (the actual tenderloin wasn't useful in a sandwich, he notes). The unique taste and texture folks remember, he says, came about out of practical necessity.

"We'd have (the butcher) slice the meat to the size we wanted. Then we'd get bread crumbs and the batter mix and work it in. Mary's fingers weren't strong enough to do it very easy, so I took the serrated thing we cut French fries with, and then I would hammer over the tenderloin so she could work it in. That was a lot of trouble so I said, 'Why couldn't (the butcher) run the meat through the cuber?' Later I did my own cubing; I ran them each way and crosswise. That makes the difference. I got bread crumbs from Creamo Bakery. It's really flakes rather than crumbs -- it's easier to work in and it looks nice."

The immense popularity of the resultant dish is evident whenever the topic of the bowling alley comes up, as it did at that recent encounter at the Culver Post Office. The conversation started with a fellow customer asking Dewitt if he still makes the alley's lemonade, and would he give out the recipe (he will, and does).

"Then the lady in front of me moved over and says, 'You can have the lemonade, but my husband and I liked the tenderloins.' Then Rhonda (Anderson, of the Post Office) said, 'You can have the lemonade and tenderloins, but my family liked the cheeseburgers and French fries.' It makes you feel good when you've done something people like."

In fact, during the alley's open days, Dewitt says people "five to one talked about the hamburgers and cheeseburgers, which were the simplest thing in the world to make."
Interestingly, the whole row of Lake Shore Drive businesses operating in the 1950s and `60s were known for their hamburgers: from Hansen's, a few doors west, to the Lakeview Tavern and coffee shop next door. In fact, smiles Dewitt, Katy May of the Lakeview came to the bowling alley one day to get a burger. When asked why she didn't eat them at her own establishment, she replied, "It costs me more where I am!"

Through the years, the Dewitts made various changes to the business, installing automatic pinspotters in 1959, remodeling the grill area in 1966, and in 1969 installing new lanes and pinspotters.

The limited number of bowling lanes -- four -- "made it bad," Dewitt says.

"We were too small to hire help, and we had no room to put things in to cook in. I got so tired of standing there waiting on that fryer to catch up, I built a fryer out around it which also gave us room to have another, smaller refrigerator. That made it so I wasn't out in the open."

Prior to those automatic pinspotters, balls had to be manually picked up, put on the track, and pushed back.

"I tackled everything," recalls Dewitt. "It was ridiculous. I had to have kids setting the pins and those balls were 16 pounds. So I got a place out of Chicago that had automatic pinsetters. And dumb me, by myself, decided I was going to install them. I had to loosen those bowling alleys, which had a three-inch screw every 20 inches on every side. I had to jack up the alleys. I wanted to do that because when teams were bowling, people had to wait to get their ball while people were on the next lane."

Later, when he replaces the bowling alleys themselves, Dewitt had six feet added to the back of the building, which also allowed moving the restrooms upstairs from their former home in the basement.

When the Dewitts took over the alley, Culver didn't have full leagues, says Jim. Within the first year, bowling leagues were at it four nights a week, with Saturday and Sunday reserved for open bowling, and mixed doubles on Sunday afternoons and evenings, "so that was a busy, busy day!"

Team bowling lasted 32 weeks out of the year, followed by three weeks of tournament bowling. Initially, Dewitt says, it didn't pay to hold tournaments, but he made it part of the league schedule that every team had to take part, which gave the business 35 solid weeks of bowling.

In 1953, it cost 35 cents a line to bowl, with league bowling at $1.10 for three. When the family sold the business in late 1977, says Dewitt, "we still got 35 cents for bowling! We never changed the price in all those years."

On a league night, the bowling alley would take in $44 for bowling, but it also cost 10 cents per line for pinspotters.

In those days, bowling was still popular enough to keep league bowling active year by year, though Dewitt admits "you might sweat it out to get teams some years."

Many teachers, he points out, didn't bowl due to commitments to other activities, which eliminated a number of Culver residents teaching at the town school or Academy. When McGill's factory opened in Culver, it utilized swing shift scheduling, which didn't yield many bowlers.

Jim Dewitt himself was secretary of both leagues, free of charge, with Eileen Butler (and later, Jean Triplet) acting as secretary of the ladies' leagues.

"The amazing thing was, the league (bowling) would end in mid-May...then I'd close for a week or ten days and we'd go to Florida. Then we'd open up. You'd think after bowling ended, the grill business would drop off but you couldn't tell the difference. We'd open on the weekend and it would darn near kill us!"

Specifically, staff from Culver Academy's summer schools would pack the place all summer, eliminating any loss in business, says Dewitt.
The dining area included five booths and two tables, capable of seating 29 people at a time. There was also a soda fountain with three seats. Carryout business boomed to the point that, at some especially busy moments, the Dewitts would simply leave the phone off the hook to avoid calls.

The first of two fires to hit Lake Shore Lanes took place in the early 1970s, Dewitt recalls. At that time, the coffee shop next door caught fire.

"I went back to the bowling alley and called Mary and said, 'The coffee shop's on fire. We'll probably lose the alley -- don't come down.'"

Jack Kowatch helped him remove some of the paintings from the wall, and others helped him move the bowling balls out of the building and over to the depot. The coffee shop fryer, which had started it all, was up against the buildings' common wall, which was comprised of thick paper rather than drywall. Things didn't look good.

Dewitt, however, had placed plastic sheets over the bowling alleys and five gallon buckets under where fire-fighting water dripped down. Amazingly, other than some paneling pulling away from the wall, the bowling alley had no real damage, and was able to open the next night.
Jim and Mary's children, Jim Jr., Karen, Kathy, and John, helped out.

"The kids, when they were little -- Mary would make cute aprons for them," says Jim, "and they would wait on people. That was in the early years before there was that much grill business."

The bowling alley never advertised, he notes, and never needed to. He recalls working one night with Mary and their two daughters, to serve 64 people packed into the place, which in the early years would stay open until 3 a.m. (later it was midnight). The business was popular with teens, he notes, who spread the word among themselves that if they "talked dirty" or misbehaved, they wouldn't be welcome back.

At some point in the 1970s, Dewitt recalls, the bowling alley was recognized with a preservation award for his work in maintaining the historic building.

After nearly 25 years of late nights and hard work, says Jim Dewitt, "it was getting to be; my nerves were shot."

He turned the business for a while over to his son John, but continued to have a role.

"I was feeling so bad, really I thought I was going to die," he recalls.

Don Neidlinger had asked repeatedly to buy the business, and one day Dewitt says he was "really feeling lousy...and I said, 'OK...I literally gave it to him."

After Neidlinger took over the alley in early 1978, Mary Dewitt agreed to manage it for $2.50 an hour; Jim would go help her, free of charge, and within a few weeks, business was good.

One Sunday in October, 1978, a new fryer caught fire and the building -- and the adjacent coffee shop -- was soon in flames. The Lakeview Tavern next door, in fact, wound up replacing its roof and sidewalk as a result of the spectacular fire.

Mary and Jim Dewitt retired then, Jim lending a hand to nearby Poppe's appliances on occasion, as needed, for a time. Mary passed away in 2005, and Jim – Culver’s last Pearl Harbor survivor – celebrated his 90th birthday with a flood of well wishers in the summer of 2011.

In the early 1980s, the (much larger) bowling alley on State Road 10 was built by James Sarna, who told Dewitt he'd had a chance to procure 14 lanes, quite a lot, says Dewitt, for Culver. Don Neidlinger would later buy the alley.

Looking back, Jim Dewitt recalls the patronage of the people of Culver with perhaps as much fondness as they have for the Dewitt family -- and of course the food they sold!

Exemplary of this, he says, are a few incidents. Once, during the first few years of his ownership of the alley, a customer asked if he planned to go to Florida over the holidays to visit Mary's family, only to be told by Dewitt that the business kept the family too busy to do so. Shortly thereafter, he was told in no uncertain terms that the Dewitt family would, after all, spend the holidays in Florida....with a handful of loyal customers running the alley for them!

Another time, some years later, Dewitt undertook the arduous task of replacing the floor in the bowling alley. A group of customers showed up to inform him he wasn't doing it alone, and began the reflooring work.

"I think that just goes to show you," says Jim Dewitt, "how things can be in a small town."