Founded in Worcester, Massachusetts in the 1880’s, candlepin bowling is a long-standing New England pastime. Similar to traditional tenpin bowling, candlepin is set apart by its distinctive tall, thin pins and smaller bowling balls.
The once-popular sport has seen a decline in participation and venues in recent years, but one of the largest candlepin bowling venues can still be found right here in Hampden County.
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Brian Sullivan, Connecting Point: Its sound is unmistakable. Its fashionable footwear is unlikely to be found being worn anywhere else.
This style of bowling, well, that’s unlikely to be found being played anywhere outside of New England and some parts of Canada. And the kind of fun that’s had by playing was enough to bring out this group of recent retirees on a weeknight.
Lindi Beebe, Former Westfield Resident: Growing up in New England, you know about candlepin.
It’s very convenient to wear we all live from Russell, to Westfield, to South Hadley, so we all thought this was a great place to meet and — and there was food right around the corner and a good time.
Brian Sullivan: Now, if we’re looking for some insight into this bowling pin sport, whose origins date back to 1880 in Worcester, Massachusetts, who better to ask than three guys whose combined experience comes in just shy of 200 years?
Carl Greene, State Bowl, Springfield: I’ve been bowling at least 70 years.
Frank Montagna, Agawam Bowl: Well, I was ten years old.
Jim Johnson, Hall of Fame Candlepin Bowler: When I came in was 1958, when I was 14, and everybody had the automatic pin setters by then, so it made it much more efficient — and that was a good time to get into it because there was a lot of factory leagues, and basically a workingman sport.
People would go home from work at the big factories of Westfield and they would clean up, get dressed up, come down and bowl.
Brian Sullivan: Like any sport, candlepin bowling has its own lingo and jargon, and long before it became a popular television series, the term ‘deadwood’ had direct ties to this game.
Frank Montagna: When the candlepins are standing, once there down on the — on the deck, is considered dead. In ten pin, they remove the deadwood — candlepin stays there and you can play it as it — as you see fit. How you want to — you can discover if I hit it a certain way, it may carry across and carry the pins that are split apart.
Brian Sullivan: Kind of like playing combos in a game of pool, without having to call them out ahead of time. It’s a feature that makes a challenging game a little easier.
For generations of children, candlepin was their introduction to bowling because the size and the weight of the ball made it possible for nearly all ages to play. Nowadays, though, the sport is seeing a much smaller contingency of youngsters taking part.
Carl Greene: It’s a little more difficult now because there’s so many different sports for kids football, soccer, baseball, hockey, and everything. And it all usually runs on Saturdays, and sometimes it’s hard to get children into the bowling alley to learn. Some do and some turn out to be decent bowlers, too.
Brian Sullivan: Back here we see the kind of automation that was still something new for Jim, Frank, and Karl when they first started out — but is only to be expected by the modern day bowler.
And if there’s anyone who knows about all of the inner workings of this place, it would have to be the company’s longest tenured employee.
Frank Montagna: Building was built in 1955 — for bowling on both floors. 12 lanes here were put in downstairs at that time and they decided to do something else.
So, upstairs had different businesses: furniture store, shoe store — for a long time, the racking team pool club was up there.
And then 1994, when the Rack and Cue closed, West Springfield Lanes from Elm Street decided to merge with Agawam Bowl. And their lanes were — and machines were moved over to here in the upstairs.
So, we have ten lanes upstairs and 12 downstairs.
Brian Sullivan: For six nights out of the week, the downstairs area is occupied by league bowl. Upstairs though, is for anyone else who wants to try their luck.
Bowling always seemed to have the feel of being that thing that people did back in the day. But judging by the number of cars in the parking lot, of people that aren’t here for league night, maybe it’s still the thing to do.
First things first, put on that fancy footwear, and it’s a good idea to make sure they’re comfortable, as well as laced up tight.
Next up, find the right colored ball that suits the mood.
And lastly, take aim, fire away, and hope for a strike. Or in my case, one pin.
While taking out only one pin felt pretty terrible, anyone who thinks they’re going to come out and bowl nothing but strikes had better temper their expectations — and that’s actually a good thing.
Frank Montagna: Every time you come out and bowl candlepins, you can score better than you’ve ever scored before — because you can score 300, theoretically, nobody’s ever going to get there. It’s that difficult, it’s that much of a challenge. If the pins were — were five inches around and the balls were ten inches, it’d be a lot easier. But we do enjoy the challenge.