From family nights to league nights, and everything in between, many special memories have been made at Knisley Hillsboro Bowl for more than seven decades; but as of April 1, the signage outside will feature a new name as longtime family friend, John Hapner, takes ownership.
Established in 1948 by Charles and Mary Knisley, the Hillsboro bowling alley was formerly housed in the current AJ Banners location.
“That caught on fire in 1949,” said their son, Gene Knisley. “That’s when they built this building.”
After constructing a new building just north of the Montgomery County Jail, they opened their doors again on Oct. 23, 1950. Twenty-four years later, the couple sold it to three boys from Greenville in 1974.
“In 1994, my mother said the bowling alley is for sale. I used to work as a carpenter for a gated community south of town. A lot of people call it a prison, but I like to refer to it as a gated community,” said Gene. “I was going to retire and put a wood working shop there.”
With plans to convert the bowling alley to his own personal shop, Gene said he reached out to old bowling alley operators to inquire about selling the lanes and machines.
“It was the wrong time. When I bought this on July 25, 1994, all of the remodeling for bowling alleys were done for the year, so I couldn’t get any price for it, so I said ‘well, we’ve run a bowling alley once, I can run it again,’” Gene explained. “Well, here it is, 27 years later, and it’s still a bowling alley.”
Following a bout with medical issues, Gene considered his options when longtime family friend, John Hapner, called to check on him.
“He offered to come up and keep the place going because I told him at the time that I think I’m done,” said Gene. “It was hard to explain to my mother, who is 100 years old now. She was a mainstay. She helped me six days a week until March 17, 2020, when they shut us down due to COVID. People would come in here just to talk to Mom, basically. She would sit behind the counter, and still sharp as a tack.”
As the years have passed, Knisley Hillsboro Bowl expanded their building and added new features to keep up with the times, including electronic scoring in 1996, lighting and, more recently, gaming.
“We used to have to oil the lanes from the foul line to the head pin by hand, and now, you have a machine that goes down, strips it, takes the oil off of it and puts down fresh oil,” Gene explained. “Back years ago when I was younger, the lanes used to be lacquered, which is highly volatile.”
They now use urethane, which is a water-based finish that is less harmful to the environment. In addition, the Smoke Free Illinois Act, which took affect in January 2008, would also shape the alley crowd, especially on league nights, as smoking was banned inside most buildings used by the general public.
A third generation of the Knisley family, Gene’s son, Josh, also helped operate the family business until he began working for the prison system.
“I thank the people because they have been good,” said Gene. “I’ll miss the people. I’ve run into some really good folks through the years.”
The new owner, graduate of Hillsboro High School, looks forward to continuing the Knisley legacy and establishing relationships with the local community.
“I think the first time I was in here, I was probably three months old,” said the new owner. “I’ve been with Gene ever since he bought the place in 1995. This place has always been my second home and the Knisleys are like family to me.”
As a young boy, Hapner began working at the local bowling alley by cleaning gutters, helping to oil the lanes and operate the machines–knowledge that would allow him to one day take over the business.
“I’ve lost almost all of my best friends going through high school,” said Hapner. “The guys on my bowling team took me to the driver’s station to get my license, took me on fishing trips. I bowled with WWII veterans, and they were my best friends.”
While the changing of hands is a bittersweet moment for the Knisley family, it is also a special time for Hapner. Not only did he grow up bowling at the alley, his grandmother Mary worked and bowled there also, and his father Kevin participated in league nights.
“When I walk in here, they are all here with me,” said Hapner. “It’s the memories.”
According to the new owner, his focus will be getting the youth more involved in the bowling industry. The smell of the bowling alley and the oil on the original wood lanes are just a few things that make the experience, Hapner said, and he hopes to share his passion for the sport with local youth.
“There is nothing I like more than when I see a kid that grabs a bowling ball, and looks through the bowling balls and asks questions,” he said. “That is just the best thing in the world.”
The new owner plans to help coach youth by teaching them how to keep score, how the pins are numbered, and how to properly throw a ball.
“I want to start up a kids league,” he said. “Bowling goes through phases and I’d say, probably around the turn of the century, it started on a down slope, but I think it’s starting to come back up.”
As he settles into his new venture, Hapner also hopes families will gather to enjoy a wholesome activity together.
And while there may not be many changes to the day-to-day operations of the Main Street establishment, hours will be expanded and the kitchen and snack bar will be moved to the storefront, where it was years ago, before the bar was built in 1968.
According to Gene, they will continue to offer “the best pizza north of the jail.”
The new hours are Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 12 a.m. and Sunday, from 12 to 8 p.m. Parties and other bookings may be scheduled outside of normal business hours.
A grand opening featuring bowling specials and a variety of family events is scheduled for Saturday, May 22, from 12 to 10 p.m. Beginning at 8 p.m., a band will provide music, while guests enjoy bowling and cornhole. Drink specials and food will also be offered.
Prior to purchasing the business, Hapner was a plant manager in the Centralia area and has served in manufacturing his entire career. He and his wife, Miranda, currently live in Centralia, and have two children, Kevin and Edward. For more information, call Hapner Hillsboro Bowl at 217-532-9384.