The Cadieux Cafe in Detroit’s east side serves up an impressive selection of Belgian beers along with mussels and other specialties. It’s a unique place, not just for the food and drink though. Walk through two doors at an end of the bar and you’ll be encountering a game rarely played anywhere, let alone in its country of origin.
The game is feather bowling. It’s been compared to bocci, horseshoes and curling. The immediate differences though are that the game is played by rolling wheels; in a long, hard-packed trough; toward a feather. I’ve heard the wheels referred to as balls but they look like wheels of cheese—so, wheels.
Michigan is a unique place but the fact that it’s been the home of feather bowling for so long—I had to check it out. Its origin is in Belgium and there may be places to play there and elsewhere, but it’s been happening continuously for years at the Cadieux; there’s no dispute that its home is there. On this rainy evening, there’s no better place there could’ve been; with classic Belgian fare and drink in stomach—it’s important to immerse—it was time to see the action.
Not sure if outsiders would be welcome in this sacred sports temple of plume, I stood at the doors for a moment, looking through one of the doors’ circle windows, and walked in. It was fantastic. Wheels were being rolled, conversation was being had and everyone was beyond welcoming. Fortunately, I’d arrived on an evening of league play where it was a who’s who of premier feather bowlers and more importantly, premier people.
League Play and The Portrait
In a row above one of the lanes were portraits drawn by Jerry Lemenu, a courtroom sketch artist. The subjects of the portraits are bestowed with the artful renditions of themselves should they earn the title of league champion. It’s an honor not taken lightly, nor should it be. One portrait was famously stolen by some out-of-town visitors and but was eventually returned to its rightful home, back on the wall where it belonged.
The concentration during play was palpable; you could cut it like a knife through hot butter. It was noticeable that many of the participants would roll their wheels up a side of the trough-lane walls, propelling it in a rolling, gentle zigzag direction with hopes that it would land as close as possible to the feather located 60 feet away.
While league play was taking place, there were many who were catching up with each other from what could be the other day or the other year, who knows? And some were content to stand or sit nearby and simply take in the ambience. Meanwhile, teams talked strategy as referees stood sentinel during wheel rolls, making precise measurements after.
It was clear while watching that the scenes, play and interactions taking place before me were enduring and changeless. The methods, techniques and equipment were as they were, as they are and how they will be. To few times are sports or activities of any kind able to retain such an everlasting consistency.
It was beautiful to hear the mild revelry, camaraderie and skill that surrounded the game. For the laughter and joking that took place out of the lanes, there was a fairly sharp degree of seriousness in them. After all, this was league play, and not only was the title of champion on the line, but so was one legendary portrait.