While it’s sat vacant at the corner of Route 3 and Country Club Lane for years, the old Bee Hive Bowl in Waterloo was a visual reminder of happy days gone by.
“Good food, good times,” Frances Meyer, 76, of Waterloo, said of the shuttered bowling alley and restaurant. “I missed it when it closed.”
On Friday, a demolition excavator began clawing away at those memories — tearing down the once-famous bowling alley and restaurant so a new gas station can be built on the site.
The Waterloo City Council earlier this month approved final plans and annexation of the land for a U-Gas convenience store and car wash, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
With a history dating back to the late 1930s, the Bee Hive was a popular hangout for bowlers, with a restaurant well-known for its delicious fried chicken to boot.
“It was the place to be for food, drinks and bowling,” Waterloo resident Butch Sparwasser said, reflecting on the days before fast food joints outnumbered family-owned eating establishments. “Everyone knew each other there.”
The original “B-Hive Restaurant” opened Dec. 5, 1936, built by Ray Brickey.
The “Rainbow Room” dining area was added there in 1938, with a cocktail lounge and eight-lane bowling alley build adjacent to the restaurant in 1960.
A group of owners, including Delbert Mueller, purchased the restaurant from Curly and Clara Powers in 1960.
Warren “Ed” Lutz served as restaurant manager.
A large crowd estimated at over 1,000 attended an official grand opening of the eight-lane Bee Hive Bowl addition to the restaurant on Sept. 25, 1960, according to a back issue of the Waterloo Republican.
John Lenhardt of Waterloo was awarded first prize of a bowling ball at the grand opening.
Longtime owner Carl Nobbe said he bought the building and another parcel of land with a group of investors in the mid-1960s for around $140,000.
“I didn’t know what the heck I was getting into,” Nobbe, 75, said Tuesday with a chuckle. “At the time, I was a baseball and basketball player, not a cook. It didn’t jive. I learned (how to cook). But what a combination…,” he said.
Nobbe, who was 30 at the time, had just got out of the service.
While a devastating fire destroyed the original B-Hive Restaurant on June 15, 1968, firemen from Waterloo, Columbia, Valmeyer and Hecker were able to save the adjoining cocktail lounge and bowling lanes.
No injuries were reported in the blaze.
The restaurant portion was rebuilt shortly after the fire.
Bowling was so popular at the time, Nobbe said he had to hire two night shifts to work at the alley during the week.
“Bowling was a big boom back then,” Nobbe said. “It was a good income before (bowling’s popularity) slipped in the early 1980s.”
On weekends, church groups, leagues and Optimist Club youngsters played at the eight-lane alley.
“The Optimist kids in the early 1970s played three games for $1 on Saturday afternoons,” he said.
Nobbe said the Bee Hive offered other fun activities for kids, as well.
“We had a couple of pinball machines and an air hockey game,” Nobbe recalled. “The air hockey game didn’t go over too well. It made too much noise.”
When Nobbe took over the business, bowling was just 25 cents per game, and shoes could be rented for 15 cents.
“Now, you have to pay better than a $1.50 for a game, and that does not include shoe rental,” he said.
Nobbe said he still has many fond memories of the alley to this day.
He fondly recalls when Russell Deitz threw a perfect game there.
“He didn’t know I was watching,” he said. “I was working on a machine in back when a kid came up to me and said, ‘Russ has eight strikes in a row.'”
Carl and his wife, Carole, sold the business in 1986.
Nobbe said he took several things from the place with him when he left — including a number of pictures.
Margaret and Tom Gaby would go on to operate Bee Hive Bowl for many years, and the community continued to make it a popular hangout.
The last operators of the Bee Hive were Tommie and Betsy Hudson of Columbia, who took over in 2002.
But the business closed for good on Dec. 1, 2003, after the Hudsons lost their lease.
While the place has stayed unoccupied since then, some of the old wooden lanes from the Bee Hive were used to make table tops at Gallagher’s restaurant in Waterloo.
Even though the building had become an eyesore over the past few years since its closure, Nobbe expressed reservations about the site becoming a gas station.
He admitted, however, that it’s just a “sign of the times we live in.”
Meyer said she would have rather seen building been torn down and replaced with a newer, state-of-the-art bowling alley.
“I still think we need a bowling alley here for the kids,” Meyer said. “We have enough filling stations in town already.”
Taking a trip down memory lane, Nobbe said he and his niece went by the alley a couple days to watch workers raze his former business.
“I felt kind of sad,” he said. “The bowling alley was very important to the town.”
Nobbe believes Waterloo could still support a bowling alley, today.
“But they cost so much to build,” he said.
(Mark Hodapp contributed additional reporting for this article.)