Halfway down Bridge Street, the main thoroughfare in the western Massachusetts village of Shelburne Falls, a large vertical red arrow beckons cheerfully from its perch on a lamppost. Illuminated by a small spotlight, it points to an opening where, bordered by 30 long steps of walled brick, an alley waits to deliver on the sign’s one-word promise: BOWLING.
The obvious pun is likely unintentional but not unappreciated. Believed to be the second-oldest candlepin venue in the country, the eight lanes at the Shelburne Falls Bowling Alley have been welcoming folks “through the alley to the alley” since 1906, just 26 years after candlepin got its start in the central Massachusetts city of Worcester. While similar to tenpin bowling, candlepin uses narrower pins and smaller balls, noticeably lacking finger holes. The sport has also remained mostly in New England—a regional exclusivity that can pose a peculiar sight for out-of-town visitors.
Thanks to the town’s location just off the scenic Mohawk Trail, the locals who frequent the alley during the nine and a half months of the year that it’s open (early September through mid-June) are joined by leaf peepers in the fall and skiers heading north in the winter.
“We get a lot of people who come in and say, ‘How cute! It’s toy bowling!’ They think that means it’s going to be easy,” says owner Joanne Gaulin with a smile. “But once we get them into shoes and out there, they quickly realize that it’s a lot harder.”
Gaulin and her partner, Tammy Dubuque, bought the alley and its compact lounge on a whim in 2004 and immediately got to work researching its history, scheduling repairs, and planning a 100th anniversary celebration. Today the pair are proud to continue the tradition of offering affordable fun for all ages along with what Gaulin thinks of as a “throwback” candlepin experience. At the Shelburne Falls alley, there are no flashing lights overhead or electronic scoreboards. Tables are equipped with paper and pencils, and bowlers perch on wooden benches between frames. The walls display current league team photos alongside archival snapshots of pinboys and alley memorabilia uncovered during recent renovation projects or donated by members of the community. The overall effect is both simple and sincere, making it the perfect spot for candlepin diehards and tenpin converts alike.
“It’s just about the bowling here,” Gaulin says. “In 1906 they came down the alley and bowled here, and they’re still doing it today. We love that. We love being a place where people come to be together and have a good time.”
10 Memorial Drive (park on Bridge St.), Shelburne Falls, MA. 413-625-6179; shelburnefallsbowling.com