Massachusetts bowling style is a lost art

Bowling has been around on the South Coast for over a century, with the Quequechan Club of Fall River even claiming to have the premier bowling league on the East Coast. The Quequechan’s two-lane driveway was built in 1895 and was still in operation until the 2010s.

Ten-pin bowling is believed to have originated in the United States in 1820, an adaptation of the German nine-pin bowling that had existed since medieval times. Yet here in New England, we had another additional adaptation of the game: candlelight bowling.

The candlelight variant of 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 chunkier pins of ten-pin bowling.

Candlepin Bowling at Ryan Family Amusements in Raynham, Massachusetts

Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

Also, unlike tenpin bowling or even duck bowling, you don’t have to clear “dead wood” with candle bowling; you leave the pins down in the lane and use them to your advantage.

Ninh Ly via YouTube

Ninh Ly via YouTube

It’s much harder to get a strike in candlelight 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 power.

Candlepin Bowling at Ryan Family Amusements in Raynham, Massachusetts

Tim Weisberg/Townsquare Media

Candlepin once dominated New England, but not so much here on the South Coast; former bowling alleys such as Bowl-Mor in Mattapoisett and Lakeville Recreation offered duck bowling. The same goes for Ryan Family Amusements in Buzzards Bay, which is still in operation.

Yet every weekend, area bowling fans tuned into Boston’s Channel 5 to watch Candlepin Bowling, a weekly series that ran from 1958 to 1996. It was also particularly sure to attract a wide South Coast audiences, as 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, candlelight bowling was so popular that Channel 7 launched its own weekly programme, Candlepins for Cash, sparking even more enthusiasm for the game.

Although the candle aisles are still there, they are getting harder and harder to find.

Ryan Family Amusements in Raynham is the closest candlelight lane here on the south coast. They have six candle lanes and an employee said it’s always very popular there, including several candle leagues.

The next closest spot for candlelight 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,” said Kenny Carpenter of Alley Kat Lanes. “After the pandemic, things are starting to pick up and people are starting to come back. We have been busy.

Carpenter said that while candlelight bowling remains strong, he wants the younger generation to pick it up.

“I wish kids would start coming back to it,” he said. “Our kids’ leagues are a bit down, and part of that is school, part of it paying for equipment, or parents telling kids they have to make a choice (for activities).”

Perhaps the next generation will discover candle-lit bowling in due course; perhaps it will eventually die out as more New England lanes conform to the more widely known ten-pin format.

No matter what you think of candlelight bowling or bowling in general, get out and try it on a rainy Saturday or an evening when you’re looking for something to do with the kids.

Just remember the words of Homer Simpson, who hated everything about Boston – until Bart introduced him to candlelight bowling.

“This regional bowling with its one extra roll threw my misguided hatred down the gutter,” he said. “I love Boston!”

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