Knock ’em Down

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Candlepin Bowling can be a Trip Down Memory Lane

Looking for some exciting, entertaining, fast-paced exercise on cold winter’s day? Pack the family into the car and head out to the lanes. Bowling lanes, that is.

And since you’re in New England, why not try your hand at that (almost) uniquely New England sport, candlepin bowling? If you’ve travelled here from other parts of the country, you might be a bit confused when you enter the Putnam Street Lanes in Fitchburg or Brian’s Bowlaway in downtown Gardner. No fat-bellied tenpins here. No large, heavy balls with three convenient finger holes.

Nope. This is what many New Englanders will tell you is “real” bowling. Skinny (4 ½-inch diameter) pins. Grapefruit-size balls weighing a mere 2½ pounds. And fallen pins, known as “dead wood,” lying amid the upright ones, waiting to assist — or frustrate — the bowler who’s about to send his third ball down the lane.

Candlepin is a truly local game. Invented by Justin White in Worcester in 1880, candlepin bowling is a New England tradition, played mostly in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and Canada’s Maritime Provinces. A generation ago, the weekly candlepin bowling show on a Boston television station often had higher ratings than Red Sox games!

Since 1980, two-thirds of the New England candlepin houses have closed. But those that remain are seeing a new surge in business, attracting a new generation of bowling afficianados. Neon signs, “glow” or “cosmic” bowling, pop music and automated or semi-automated scoring offer modern appeal. In Erving, the French King Bowling Center’s four of the 16 lanes are set aside in a VIP room outfitted with a bar, television and Internet access.

Think You’re Good?

If you’re accustomed to what New Englanders call “big ball bowling,” you might just get taken down a notch when you step up to the candlepin lane.

No one — you read that right, no one! — has ever bowled a perfect game in candlepin. The most recent world record, set in 1984 and tied just last year, stands at 245.

But high scores aren’t needed to create a fun-filled afternoon or evening.

The Putnam Street Lanes in Fitchburg — the oldest candlepin bowling house in the country! — and others in the area still run regular bowling leagues for adults and kids, offer open play times at reasonable prices, and even host birthday parties. Johnny Appleseed Country is fortunate to be home to several candlepin houses; others on the local list include Harvard Lanes in Harvard, Mason Bowling Center in Leominster and the New Palace Lanes in Fitchburg.

This is New England! Try your hand at this century-old tradition.

You just might get hooked.