Dennis MacGregor

Pinsetters share memories on Youbou Lanes’ 65th anniversary

One of Youbou’s most noteworthy features — arguably the most unique since the destruction of Frog Rock — turned 65 this

One of Youbou’s most noteworthy features — arguably the most unique since the destruction of Frog Rock — turned 65 this week and Youbonians past and present showed up to celebrate.

Youbou Lanes, which is the only known, sanctioned, hand-set bowling alley in North America, was built in July 1951 at a cost of about $15,000. Half of that money was donated by the Cowichan division of B.C. Forest Products.

Anne Campbell was just a teenager at the time. Her mother joined the ladies bowling league and after a year talked Campbell into coming up and joining her and her friend when they’d practise. That was when manager Dick Oliver offered her a job as a pinsetter.

“Once I got going, I’d set two [lanes] at a time. I used to just fly from one [lane] to the other. I really liked it,” she said. “It was a lot of exercise… I lost a lot of weight!”

From 1952 until she and her family moved from Youbou to Meade Creek in 1959, Campbell was one of the senior pinsetters and frequently in charge of the alley when Oliver was out of town. The alley was open six days a week and Campbell worked most days, her shifts typically split from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. and then 7 p.m. to 11 p.m.

Campbell said pinsetters didn’t require many skills, but they had to be quick.

“Just stay out of the way! Some of the guys they’d throw the ball… it was unbelievable some of them. Pins would be flying!”

Campbell and her fellow pinsetters were paid five cents for every five-pin game they set, and 10 cents for every 10-pin game.

The alley’s 65th birthday celebration on Saturday was Campbell’s first time back since she left Youbou in the 1950s, although she has been out to the community hall for historical society meetings over the years.

“I’m glad that it’s lasted,” she said. “I wish I could have stayed up here.”

Another attendee at Saturday’s event was Dennis MacGregor, whose tenure as a pinsetter overlapped with Campbell’s. MacGregor was probably Youbou Lanes’s youngest-ever pinsetter starting when he was nine in 1953 and working there with his brother until 1956.

Like Campbell, he said speed and keeping your wits about you were essential while setting the pins.

“Just keep out of the way from the pins and the balls. Make sure you count because some of those bowlers would fire an extra ball down there if they were mad and so you had to dodge,” he said.

MacGregor still remembers the night he quit, after he found himself in the crosshairs of an angry bowler.

“The guy was drunk and he fired a ball down. It was 10-pin, the really big one, and he really wheeled it down there. I saw it coming at the last minute and stepped aside. That could break your leg,” he said. MacGregor threw the ball right back at him and then walked out the back door and went home.

But that was the worst of it. Overall MacGregor enjoyed his time as a pinsetter. He recalled he and his brother riding their bikes to Youbou Lanes from the work camp — bikes they purchased with money from their after school job at the bowling alley. He said on average they earned about $1.50 a night. Pinsetters today make $13 an hour.

“For $13 an hour we could have bought motorbikes!”

Betty Riel was a pinsetter in the early 1970s and remembers earning $2 an hour. Like almost all kids growing up in Youbou, it was her first job.

What she liked most about it was the pins.

“When the pins fly, they fly everywhere, all around you and it’s kind of exciting, especially when you’re a kid,” she said.

Riel was pleased to see, after years living away, that the alley is still here.

“I was surprised coming back after 35 years that it was still going,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful. It’s a piece of history.”

Today Youbou Lanes is managed by Cowichan Lake Recreation.

Although it’s not open regularly during summer months, members of the public can rent it out and pinsetters will be provided. From September to April the alley hosts league nights for men, women and mixed teams. Fridays are family nights and Saturdays are for adults only.