Feather Bowling in Detroit

general view of the Cadieux Cafe, home to Belgian beer, feather bowling and bicycle racing on August 14, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan.
Paul Marotta/Getty Images

Feather Bowling is a unique sport along the lines of shuffleboard, bowling or bocce ball. The two-team game uses a flattened, wooden “ball” that measures about nine inches across. The ball is rolled on end down a 60-foot-long, dirt-covered alley to arrive as close as possible to a pigeon feather at lane’s end. Just to make things interesting (and the ball spin unpredictably) the alley is curved to form a shallow trough down its length and, at least according to the book ​Michigan Curiosities, the dirt laid over the clay lane is mixed with ox blood.

Belgian Pastime

As the story goes, the game of “feather bowling” emigrated in the 1920s/30s from Belgium to the Cadieux Café, a Detroit-area bar that catered to Belgian immigrants. And there the game has remained for going on 90 years, alongside such other Belgian favorites as mussels and Belgian Ales. Touted as the only place in the U.S.A. that hosts “Feather Bowling,” the Cadieux Café may just have its own unique variation of the Rolle Bolle game that was originally played in Belgium. A video posted on YouTube shows the Cadieux Café version of the game.

Variations

Ontario, Canada, and several Midwest states are home to Belgian clubs where a variation of Rolle Bolle is played. Whether known as Rolle Bolle, Belgian Trough Bowling or Feather Bowling, the Belgian game(s) share some characteristics, while other elements of the game may have evolved in a way unique to the particular locale. For instance, the men’s version of Rolle Bolle played in Ontario, Canada is the most similar to the “Feather Bowling” played at the Cadieux Café, except for the fact that a wooden peg is used instead of a feather.

In recent years, the sport of feather bowling (or Belgian trough bowling) was picked up by Bath City Bistro in Mt. Clemens, which is located about 17 miles away from the Cadieux Café in Metro Detroit. Instead of packed dirt, however, the Bath City Bistro lines its lanes with rubber. As this video posted on YouTube demonstrates, the change significantly smoothes out the ball’s roll and represents yet another evolution of the game. The cleaner look of the lanes also fits in better with the bar/eatery’s trendier atmosphere.

The Old Country

According to an article in Smithsonian Magazine, while “feather bowling” is still played in Belgium, it is not widely played or well known. Apparently, the Belgians who still play the game take it much more seriously than their American counterparts. Instead of the party atmosphere and loud hoots and cheers common at the Cadieux Cafe, the Belgians give a bowl the same quiet afforded a swing in golf.

Whether the “feather bowling” played in Detroit is a direct carryover from Belgium or a variation of the historic game played there, it’s a better choice of Belgian games for the Cadieux Café to have adopted than, let’s say, pigeon racing—another Belgian game that could have crossed the ocean and morphed in some unique, unpredictable way.