A Maine community comes together to save a candlepin bowling tradition
ELLSWORTH, Maine — Pins are crashing. Bowling balls are rolling. Funkytown is playing on the stereo.
It's a typical Saturday afternoon in November at "D'Amanda's," a candlepin bowling alley and arcade in Ellsworth, Maine. The atmosphere at D'Amanda's may sound like regular bowling, but with one look, it's obvious this is not classic 10-pin big ball bowling.
Eleven-year-old Lola Stratton holds a candlepin ball. It's small, about the size of a grapefruit. She stares down the pins, which are narrow, like big toothpicks. Even though candlepin allows three rolls and the small ball makes it appear easy, it's difficult to knock down all 10 pins.
"Doesn't really matter what I do personally because I always lose. But I'm OK with that," Lola says.
Lola takes her first roll, and it's a gutter ball. Her second roll goes more on target and she knocks three pins down. The downed pins are called "deadwood" and stay in the lane for the last throw.
Roll No. 3 glides down the center of the lane and knocks down three more pins.
"Oh!" Lola says. She's happy. It's one of her best frames yet.
Candlepin bowling is not well-known in most of the United States.
According to the International Candlepin Bowling Association, it began in Worcester, Mass., in 1880. From there it spread throughout New England and the Canadian Maritimes. Today, this region continues to be candlepin country.
Lola is bowling with a group of friends. Earlier in the game, the balls stopped returning in their lane. So they grab the boss, Autumn Mowery.
Mowery is 20 years old and knows how to fix most lane problems on the spot. She started working here in 2019 and grew to love the sport and building relationships with customers. In 2020, her mom bought the business and Mowery began running the day-to-day operations.
Mowery and a friend who's volunteering remove a cover from the ball chute and find a jam in the ball return. While she sorts the jam out, Mowery explains that since the equipment is old, each lane has its own quirks.
"I love these lanes. They are definitely a pain in the butt. But they're still running for me — some of them," she says.
The pinsetters are prototypes from 1949. So Mowery can't order new parts. In the meantime, she uses Lane 5 as a scrap yard. Over the years, previous owners have jerry-rigged a lot of fixes.
"It's all duct tape and bubblegum back there," she says.
When customers arrive, Mowery apologizes in advance of breakdowns.
Soon enough, Lane 1 is down. Mowery zips out back.
Behind the lanes is a symphony of whirring and clanging among the jungle of motors, chains and conveyors. Mowery inspects the problem: the sweeper bar isn't collecting the pins.
"It's too cold," she says. "These are not moving the way they should be."
Mowery resets a few switches and gets the lane back on track. She expects to have this problem all day since the weather has turned cold and she's still waiting on her heating oil to arrive.
This is just one of many stressors Mowery deals with daily. She lives above the alley and often makes repairs until 1 or 2 am. She's the only employee. The roof leaks. Heating and cooling the huge building is expensive. She even dropped this semester of college to catch up on sleep.
Mowery's determined — against all odds — to keep the candlepin alley going. She says the tradition is disappearing because many owners can't keep up with the maintenance, and it's too expensive to get new candlepin parts. Many alleys are closing or converting to classic 10-pin.
Regulars appreciate the effort to save the tradition.
"I do like to see that she's trying her hardest to keep the original parts. And hats off to her because I know that's definitely not an easy task to keep up with," says Sam Sawyer, a woman in her mid-20s who grew up coming here and whose family has been coming to this alley for generations.
"I have such distinct and fond memories of just like, me and my cousins going out, like getting Pizza Hut and then coming here. It was the most happenin' place," she says.
Today, Sawyer is here for her niece's birthday. Family traveled from hours away to meet at D'Amanda's.
"It means a lot to so many people around here, that it's really like another home for us. So I think it's a matter of keeping it alive for generations to come," she says.
Mowery knows how much candlepin means to her community and she wants more towns across the nation to have it too. She has hopes to expand in Maine and then spread the sport outside of New England.
She started a TikTok account, @EllsworthCandlepinAlley, to get the word out. For now, she's bringing people together in Ellsworth, Maine, one candlepin at a time.
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