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A Maine community comes together to save a candlepin bowling tradition


We report next on a bid to save candlepin bowling. People with ties to New England and Canada's maritime provinces know this game, this disappearing sport that resembles but is not the same as other forms of bowling. Reporter Tressa Versteeg begins our story by showing what candlepin bowling is.


TRESSA VERSTEEG, BYLINE: It's a Saturday afternoon at D'Amanda's, a candlepin bowling alley in Ellsworth, Maine. It may sound like classic tenpin, but it's not. Eleven-year-old Lola Stratton holds a small ball about the size of a grapefruit. She stares down the pins, which are narrow, like big toothpicks. Even though there's three rolls, it's hard to knock down all 10 pins.

LOLA STRATTON: It doesn't really matter what I do personally 'cause I always lose. But I'm OK with that.


VERSTEEG: First roll - gutter ball.


VERSTEEG: Second roll - three pins.



VERSTEEG: Her final ball glides down the center, knocking down three more pins.


VERSTEEG: Lola's happy. It's one of her best frames yet. But on her friend's frame, the balls stop returning. So they get the boss.

AUTUMN MOWREY: My name is Autumn Mowrey, and I am the co-owner of D'Amanda's, the bowling alley.

VERSTEEG: Autumn and a friend who's volunteering uncover a jam in the ball return. She tells the kids about the lane's quirks.

MOWREY: I love these. They're definitely a pain in the butt, but they're still running for me, some of them.

VERSTEEG: The pin setters are prototypes from 1949, so she can't order new parts. And over the years, previous owners have jury-rigged a lot of fixes.

MOWREY: All duct tape and bubble gum back there.

VERSTEEG: Right now, she uses one lane for parts and apologizes in advance of breakdowns. Soon enough, lane one is down. Autumn zips out back. Behind the lanes is a jungle - motors, chains and conveyors. Autumn inspects the problem. The sweeper bar isn't collecting the pins.

MOWREY: It's too cold - that these are not moving the way they should be.

VERSTEEG: She resets a few switches, and things are back on track. Autumn lives above the alley and often makes repairs until 1 or 2 a.m. It's stressful. She's the only employee. The roof leaks. Heating the building is expensive. She even dropped this semester of college to catch up on sleep. But Autumn keeps going because she says many candlepin alleys are closing or converting to tenpin. Regulars like Sam Sawyer appreciate the effort to save the candlepin tradition. Sam's been coming here since she was a kid.

SAM SAWYER: I have such, like, distinct and fond memories of just, like, me and my cousins going out - like, get Pizza Hut and then come here. It was the most happening place.

VERSTEEG: Today, Sam is here at D'Amanda's for her niece's birthday.

SAWYER: It means a lot to so many people around here that it's really like another home for us. So I think it's just a matter of keeping it alive for generations to come.

VERSTEEG: Autumn Mowrey hopes to one day expand candlepin nationwide. 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.

For NPR News, I'm Tressa Versteeg.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHINESE FOOTBALL'S "FLYING FISH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tressa Versteeg
Tressa Versteeg is a recent graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and is a budding freelance radio storyteller. She grew up mostly in Iowa but has lived all over what many would refer to as the middle of nowhere, but which she knows as the center of everything beautiful--most recently being an island in Maine. She is thrilled to be back where the buffalo roam.