By John Orrell, Contributing Writer
Northborough – The idea was hatched 65years ago from what was literally no more than a crawlspace in the basement of Northborough’s 13 Blake St. It was pure humble beginnings for sure to what has been a town fixture and loved by many for over six-plus decades.
Sawyer’s Bowladrome, Inc. has been a mainstay in town bringing together friends and families who enjoy the sport of candlepin bowling. The six-lane basement facility is relaxed, friendly and appealing to young and old with owner, operator and founder Ernie Sawyer and his son-in-law Bob Reynolds, aka “Bowling Bob,” welcoming bowlers with a warm greeting and a smile.
Sawyer and his dad, also named Ernie, bought the building that now houses the bowling facility in 1946. The roof had recently been burned off and the then-owners were eager to sell. The facility housed four pool tables at that time and it wasn’t until 1952 that the pair decided to go into the bowling business and the rest is history. Endless amount of dirt and debris were hauled away from the crawlspace and before long candlepin bowling was alive and well in town although not everyone would be allowed to join in the fun.
“Back then, women did not bowl because bowling alleys had the same connotation as a pool room,” said Sawyer. “It wasn’t proper at that time and it took some years before that stigma ended.”
The early days featured “pin boys”; men who would sit at the end of the alleys and clear and reset pins by hand for seven cents a string and time at the pool tables. It was not a period that Sawyer remembers with great fondness.
“Insurance was steep because they were liable to get hurt. It was a lot of work and you’d get a league in here and there would be three pin boys who would set up moving between the lanes,” he said. “That also took a lot more time to bowl.”
1953 ushered in the era of pin-setting machines and it wasn’t long before the pin boys were dismissed and new equipment was brought on site and installed in all six lanes. The machines at that time cost $3,500 apiece, a small fortune back then, but necessary to sustain the business. Sawyer and his dad brought in those very same machines that function on the premises today with only a recently-concluded electrical infrastructure overhaul as a means of modernization.
Sawyer and/or Reynolds are on site at all times and are primed to do all maintenance and repairs to the equipment. To be successful in this business requires a strong entrepreneurial background as well as even stronger mechanical skills. The machines still churn out the necessary results efficiently with a cacophony of sounds behind the scenes that patrons don’t see or hear but the mechanical skills to fix and repair them are significant.
The Bowladrome hosts leagues, birthday and company parties and even those just seeking a place to kick back. There are upstairs party rooms that serve the purpose very well, but bowling itself may have somewhat passed its heyday, according to Sawyer, who admits that it’s hard to point the finger at any one factor as the reason why.
“For me it’s a good business but it’s nowhere near what it used to be,” said Sawyer. “We used to be here from 8:30 in the morning and we’d go to 1 a.m. the next morning, seven days a week. It was a lot of hours but we loved it.
“Things were good right up until 2005 when it started to ebb down a little bit. I don’t know why it happened and I wish I did. Everybody bowled back then and the kids could do it. But now there are just too many distractions that take people away from bowling. Our leagues used to be 30 people at a time and now it’s down to more like 16.
“As time goes by and costs to operate rise, you have to go up in your rates and that eliminates bowlers too.”
Gus Pequignot, 17, who resides in Pennsylvania, makes the trip to Sawyer’s with family at least once a year.
“My stepdad lived in this area and he brought us here when I was really young. It’s become a tradition to come here for this kind of bowling. We don’t have this where we’re from so coming here is something we like doing,” he said. “It’s really relaxed here. It’s a great time. People here are really great.”
The oldest active candlepins lanes are believed to date back to the late 1800s and to see the sport and its tradition not flourish as it did in Sawyer’s early days is disappointing, but still people come, have family fun and all seem to leave with a smile and express what a good time they had.
“It’s hard to predict where things will be in the future,” Sawyer acknowledged. “How do you know? You just do what you can to prolong the business. We’ve made a lot of friends over the years. It’s been very enjoyable to me. I like to see the kids come in and have a good time, especially, but for sure times have changed.”
For more information call 508-393-8032 or visit them on Facebook (Sawyer’s Bowladrome, Inc.).