Massachusetts’ Very Own Style of Bowling Is a Lost Art
Bowling has been around on the SouthCoast for more than a century, with Fall River’s Quequechan Club even laying claim to having the first bowling league on the East Coast. The Quequechan’s two-lane alley was constructed in 1895, and was still operating through into the 2010s.
Ten-bowling is believed to have begun in the United States in 1820, an adaptation of German nine-pin bowling that had been around since medieval times. Yet here in New England, we had one more further adaptation to the game: candlepin bowling.
The candlepin variation on bowling began in Worcester in 1880, and was markedly different from 10-pin bowling.
For one, the pins are taller and thinner, resembling a candle – hence the name “candlepin” – and are much harder to knock down than the more squat pins of ten-pin bowling.
Also, unlike with ten-pin bowling or even duckpin bowling, you don’t have to clear the “dead wood” with candlepin bowling; you leave the fallen pins on the lane and use them to your advantage.
It’s much harder to get a strike in candlepin bowling, but that’s okay, because you also have three balls to try and knock down all 10 pins. Oh, and they’re also much smaller and lighter than ten-pin balls, so it’s more about precision than it is power.
Candlepin once dominated New England, although not so much here on the SouthCoast; former bowling alleys such as Bowl-Mor in Mattapoisett and Lakeville Recreation featured duckpin bowling. So too does Ryan Family Amusements in Buzzards Bay, which is still in operation.
Oh, one other note about candlepin bowling: nobody has ever bowled a perfect score.
Yet every weekend, bowling fans around the region tuned into Boston’s Channel 5 to watch Candlepin Bowling, a weekly series that ran from 1958 until 1996. It was also especially sure to draw a large SouthCoast audience, because legendary sportscaster Don Gillis – who hosted the show throughout its 38-year run – grew up in New Bedford and graduated from Holy Name High School. In fact, he began his broadcasting career right at our own WBSM, becoming the station’s first sports director in 1949.
In 1973, candlepin bowling was so popular that Channel 7 launched its own weekly program, Candlepins for Cash, igniting even more fervor for the game.
While candlepin alleys are still out there, they’re getting harder and harder to find.
Ryan Family Amusements in Raynham is the closest candlepin alley here on the SouthCoast. They have six lanes of candlepin and an employee said it’s still very popular there, including multiple candlepin leagues.
Brockton's Westgate Lanes, right outside the Westgate Mall off Route 24, has 10 lanes of candlepin bowling.
The next closest spot for candlepin bowling is Alley Kat Lanes in Kingston. There, they offer 26 lanes, and also offer a number of league options.
“We have a lot of leagues, and some of them are bigger than normal,” Kenny Carpenter of Alley Kat Lanes said. “After the pandemic, things are starting to pick back up and people are starting to come back. We’ve been busy.”
Carpenter said that while candlepin bowling remains strong, he does wish the younger generation would pick it up.
“I wish kids would start coming back to it,” he said. “Our kids’ leagues are down a little bit, and some of that is school, some of that is paying for equipment, or parents telling kids they have to make a choice (for activities).”
Perhaps the next generation will in its own time discover candlepin bowling; perhaps it will eventually become extinct as more New England alleys conform to the more widely-known ten-pin format.
No matter how you feel about candlepin bowling, or bowling in general, go out and give it a go some rainy Saturday or some evening when you are looking for something to do with the kids.
Just remember the words of Homer Simpson, who hated everything to do with Boston – until Bart introduced him to candlepin bowling.
“This regional bowling with its one extra roll has knocked my misguided hate into the gutter,” he said. “I like Boston!”