by Amy Jenness
In 1890, a group of island citizens said they were concerned about declining morals in the island’s youth: “It is a fact that the moral sentiment of the community is becoming tainted, and to preserve it from entire corruption, these gentlemen have conceived a plan, which, with the support of our own townspeople, who are directly interested, will tend to strengthen the rising generation in body, which means a stirring influence upon the mind, and therefore an improvement, or sustaining of the morals,” they wrote in a letter to the Inquirer & Mirror.
Billiard and bowling saloons had been denizens of Nantucket and ‘Sconset streetscapes since the 1830s, but the prospect of bowling in a tavern made it unattractive to a large part of the island’s population until a group of concerned philanthropists decided to open the Athletic Club.
The club purchased land on South Water Street, now owned by the Nantucket Yacht Club, and opened a complex of buildings in 1905 that included had a performance hall, a library, a billiards room, and a game room. Included in the complex was an 89-foot long narrow building that jutted out over the water atop a set of pilings. It housed a two-lane bowling alley.
By the close of summer 1905, an island-wide winter bowling league had been established and Nantucket enthusiastically took up the sport. The alley featured duck pin bowling and local boys reset the pins. Within a few years, one of the highlights of winter was a competition between island and Brockton leagues.
Beginning in 1909, members of the Athletic Club also competed with ‘Sconset bowlers at a new alley at the Sconset Casino. The casino association, which owns and operates the village’s tennis club and social center, constructed a new building to house a two-lane alley.
In town, the Athletic Club added tennis courts and more buildings. In its first ten years the club shifted between hosting dances, parties, tennis for summer visitors and supporting a thriving winter schedule of bowling leagues for island residents. But the island’s passion for bowling had cooled by 1915 and the Athletic Club suffered financially.
The Inquirer & Mirror noted in October, “Unquestionably interest in bowling as a sport has declined in Nantucket, interest in the Athletic Club has lessened, and time has brought changes which bear weighty consideration…Apparently the Athletic Club has taken a backward step, for this fall its doors are closed for the first time in many years.” The Athletic Club struggled for five more years until it reorganized as the Nantucket Yacht Club in 1920. The yacht club continued to hold bowling matches for five summers, but eventually replaced the bowling lanes with a boathouse.
The Sconset Casino also felt the decline in bowling’s popularity. In 1918 the casino opened its bowling alley to the public for the first time, but even that couldn’t reverse the decline. The Casino sold the building in 1920 to the Coffin family, who moved it across the street and used it for storage. Eighteen years later bowling returned to Nantucket, this time on Main Street. Nantucket selectmen approved a permit for A. Preston Manchester to open a bowling alley where the restaurant Met on Main is now located. Manchester did need to assure the town that his alley would be soundproofed, however. And once again winter bowling leagues, this time a woman’s and a men’s league, started up in the fall of 1943. Teachers, firemen, Coast Guardsmen, and groups of all kinds formed teams and played one another weekly. Island teams began to also compete with Martha’s Vineyard teams. Manchester’s bowling alley operated until 1949.
The island’s last bowling alley was opened by Roger Young in 1964. Young, who owned Young’s Bicycles on Steamboat Wharf, opened Mid-Island Bowl off of Old South Road with eight lanes set up for candlepin bowling.
In the fall of 1970, two Nantucket 13-year-olds, Harvey Young and Marcia Mayo, competed well against other Massachusetts kids for many weeks on the Boston television show “Winning Pins.” The Inquirer & Mirror’s “Here and There” column took note. “Nantucket bowlers have continued to bring favorable publicity to the island, as well as proving to those on the mainland that our little island has “good things in small packages,” as witness Harvey Young’s performance on “Winning Pins are Candlepins” for so many weeks. Now, for a second appearance, comes Marcia Mayo to this Saturday’s telecast of the program. Remember to watch — Marcia Mayo on “Winning Pins” at one o’clock Saturday.” Like the Athletic Club and Sconset Casino before it, dwindling enthusiasm for bowling forced the Mid-Island Bowl to close in April of 1983.
“The bowling alley is closing because of an apparent decreasing interest in roll-offs and gutterballs. Robert Young, owner of Mid-Island Bowl, said there is no other choice but to close. “It hasn’t been working,” Young said last Friday. “Basically my dad (Roger Young, who opened the alleys) maintained it for years out of the feeling that it was good for the community,” according to an Inquirer & Mirror article.
Amy Jenness is the author of On This Day In Nantucket History.