SHELBURNE — OK, so it’s not Fenway Park and it’s not Harvard Stadium, but the Shelburne Falls Bowling Alley has run lockstep in the sports business with those much bigger houses for well over a century here in the Bay State.
Unlike those more famous spots, the bowling alley literally runs out of a quaint, clapboard-sided house — tucked down a narrow alley just off the old village’s main drag — that opened its doors for the candlepin business in 1906. Harvard Stadium opened in 1903, and Fenway in 1912.
Though separated by some 100 miles, they’re all operating today as they were in the late aughts and early teens. Same sites. Same buildings. Same ball-centric/entertainment businesses. All still in operation after two pandemics, two World Wars, standing fast in an America ever-evolving in the sports it chooses to play, to watch, to love.
The sites form a rare, likely one-of-a-kind, triumvirate of sports Americana, albeit with the aged bowling alley no longer with its pin boys scurrying to prop the 10 wooden candlepins for the next bowler up.
“Imagine what that noise must have been back there?” mused Tony Hanna, 72, who bought the lanes in 2015 upon retiring as a longtime adjustment counselor with the Gill-Montague Regional School District. “I mean, some guy chucking the ball and then that . . . boom . . . what an explosion!”
The bowling industry moved to automated pin setters in the 1950s, reminded Hanna, and the Shelburne Falls Bowling Alley ultimately adopted the new technology in the ‘60s. That Rube Goldberg-esque machinery remains in operation here today, belts reeling and motors whirring, with Hanna and his son/co-owner, Tam, applying tweaks and elbow grease when necessary.
A walk through the alley’s front door, much like the village center itself, is a delightful, nostalgic stroll back in time. Other than the clickety-clack of the automated pinsetters, and the welcomed relief of an air conditioner, it’s very much the candlepin bowling experience of six, eight, 10-plus decades ago.
Bowlers still use pencil and paper to keep their scores. No automated scorer or video projection. Everyone must rent old-timey tie-up shoes ($3 per pair). Players await their turn while sitting on wooden benches, rather than the cushy sofas sometimes seen in today’s bowl-a-ramas or those plastic aquamarine scoop seats of the ‘60s. George Jetson and his boy Elroy sat in those beauts.
There is a very low ceiling of painted beadboard, likely the same material that was there when the first ball rolled down the high-gloss lacquered lanes 127 years earlier — back before Harry Hooper, Tris Speaker, Duffy Lewis, and the Red Sox left the South End Grounds for their fancy new ballyard in the Fens.
“We assume it’s the original ceiling,” said the elder Hanna, noting he and Tam found the beadboard intact when tearing out a suspended ceiling when remodeling. “So we tore out the fake ceiling, painted what was here . . . looks pretty good. And gave us about another 4 inches of head room.”
That’s needed head room. Many full-grown adults still easily can lift an arm and touch the ceiling while standing in any of the eight lanes. Like today’s Fenway visitors who find the iconic wooden grandstand seats a tight squeeze, we can only think American bowlers were a shorter breed at the turn of the 20th century. The low ceiling adds to the overall intimacy, all part of why it feels more like bowling in your buddy’s family room, or maybe the Knights of Columbus hall.
The elder Hanna, raised in Allentown, Pa., moved here with his wife to the adjacent town of Buckland in the early ’80s. He spent 27 years working in the Gill-Montague public school system before retiring eight years ago, uncertain what would occupy his time.
“I’d never seen candlepin bowling before we came here,” he recalled. “Like most people, I was like, ‘What’s this?!’ the first time I saw it. And no way did I think I’d end up owning a bowling alley in my retirement.”
But he and Tam pitched in for the full ownership adventure, along with its inherent job description, which includes greeter, bartender, cashier, telephone answerer, shoe rentals, repair, and upkeep. It’s all there: chief, bottlewasher, everything but the cook. Other than a full bar service, chips, and candy bars, there’s no food menu.
“Some people come in,” said Tony, “and say what they like best is that they can get a really cold $4 Bud Light.” He emphasized “really cold” and “$4.”
Business, said the elder Hanna, has yet to come back to pre-pandemic levels. That’s the most recent pandemic. He can’t speak to how things went for the Shelburne Falls Bowling Alley following the 1918 Spanish Flu disruption. State-wide, bowling was hit hard by COVID. Lockdown mandates designated bowling alleys among the last to open because of concerns that the illness could be spread via the constant, unavoidable sharing of bowling balls.
“It’s been a struggle to build it back,” said Tony, noting COVID restrictions forced him to keep the doors closed for some 500 days. “First year, we got maybe 50 percent back. Now it’s running about 75 percent. Like I say, a struggle, but we hang in.”
In a corner adjacent to the bar, near the framed autographed picture of Bobby Orr flying through the air on May 10, 1970, there is a microphone at the ready. Musicians, singers, comics, and poets are all welcome to take their turns, Hanna said, as he bobbed and weaved from bar to shoe rental, to cash register on a quiet Mother’s Day afternoon.
Directly across from the bar there is a Pac-Man machine (of course there is) for 25 cents per play, one quarter at a time. It is flush up against a jukebox that plays CDs, Hanna only wishing it spun vinyl 45s, the way diners did in the Allentown days of his youth. Cost of a three-CD play: $1.
“How about ‘Downtown’ by Petula Clark?” a fellow 70-something asked Hanna as he searched the jukebox playlist on a beautiful spring afternoon in 2023. “Or ‘Don’t Sleep in the Subway’?
“Sorry,” he said, “but I don’t think Petula’s in there.”
Oh, well, there’s always another day here at the Shelburne Falls Bowling Alley, proud house of splits, spares, and strikes since 1906, and still rolling.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.