Candlepin Bowling Returns to Victory Lanes in Woodsville

  • Room 111 at Victory Lanes bar and bowling alley owner Nate Swain puts a food order in for Joshua and Roslynn Kobs, of North Haverhill, N.H., on June 1, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • In the kitchen at Room 111 at Victory Lanes owner Nate Swain right, trains new cook Nathan Burgess on June 1, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Room 111 at Victory Lanes owner Nate Swain speaks with Liz Shelton a Woodsville business owner about the 4th of July parade. Shelton was out raising money for the parade on June 1, 2016, in Woodsville, N.H.(Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to Valley News photographs — Jennifer Hauck

  • Dollar bills with good wishes are tacked to a cork board at Room 111 at Victory Lanes bar and bowling alley in Woodsville N.H., on June 1, 2016. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 6/11/2016 11:23:30 PM
Modified: 6/17/2016 5:51:54 PM

Woodsville — Smartphones and virtual reality devices might be the future of amusement, but one 22-year-old college graduate from North Haverhill thinks there still is a lot of fun to be had from the splitting clap of a grapefruit-size wooden ball hurling at 20 feet per second into a rack of 15¾ inch-tall wooden pins.

After a brief hiatus, candlepin bowling has sprung back to life in Woodsville.

“People of my generation have a lot of nostalgia of coming here when they were kids with their parents,” said Nate Swain, the millennial who earlier this year reopened the closed candlepin bowling alley Victory Lanes in Woodsville. “As my generation becomes parents, they’ll want to take their kids out here like their parents took them. I think it will rebound for that reason.”

Candlepin bowling is a slightly scaled-down version of traditional 10-pin bowling that uses a ball weighing about 2.5 pounds and thinner pins that are not cleared after each strike. The game, like its sibling duckpin bowling, is mostly known in New England and Mid-Atlantic states but never achieved the national prominence of its cousin, 10-pin bowling.

Swain, only a few months out of Paul Smith’s College in New York state with a degree in culinary arts and management, bought Victory Lanes last year and renamed it Room 111 at Victory Lanes — the “Room 111” signifying his freshman dorm room number. Previous owner Don Bazzell closed Victory Lanes in September but Swain, working with friends from college, reopened the pub-bar with its 109-year-old candlepin lanes, reviving one of the area’s few nightspots between Bradford, Vt., and St. Johnsbury, Vt.

“The bowling is good because it brings people in, but the bar is definitely the bigger portion of the buisiness,” Swain said. “It’s kind of the only thing in Woodsville.”

Housed in a red barn-like building near the foot of the Veterans Memorial Bridge across the Connecticut River in Woodsville, Victory Lanes retains its small-town features. Palm-size car models rest on shelves, a dining alcove is tucked around the corner from the bar, a few video arcade machines line up against the walls and faded black and white photographs of the establishment from the early 20th century — when it was known as Henderson’s Movie Theater — hang on the walls.

“The building was moved to its current location in 1900 and it became a dance hall/movie theater and place where they entertained the loggers and railroad men,” Bazzell explained. The first three bowling lanes were installed in 1909, which he said were the second or third bowling lanes to be built in all of New England.

Today, Victory Lane’s star attraction is the six candlepin lanes with a mechanical pin setter and ball return system that dates to 1954 and a circa-1989 computer tracking system with cathode ray tube TV-size monitors hanging from the ceiling on which players can view their scores.

“When you walk in, you’re sort of caught off guard,” said Bazzell, whose quirky momentos Swain has largely left in place.

Buying a bowling alley, and a candlepin one at that — there are only a handful left in the Twin States — might strike some as an unwise investment in an age when consumers are accustomed to more passive diversions. Out-of-home entertainment businesses such as movie theaters and midsize to small amusement parks have been experiencing declining attendance for years. And the restaurant and bar business, between setting up before opening and cleaning up before closing, is an 18-hour-a-day operation with a host of regulations and sometimes unruly customers.

Moreover, when the 62-year old equipment breaks down, Swain has to improvise because it’s so difficult to source parts since most of the parts makers have gone out of business — Swain had to hire a machinist to mill a road he needed replacing.

“As far as parts for candlepin equipment is concerned, there’s one seller left selling new stuff in Massachusetts,” said David Withington, the former mechanic at Upper Valley Lanes and Games, which closed in 2013. “Other than that, a good place to find parts is when somebody else goes out of business.”

Newport’s Sunset Lanes, which also had candlepin lanes, closed in 2011 — the pinsetters are installed at Claremont’s Maple Lanes, the only other remaining commercial bowling alley in the Upper Valley. Woodstock had candlepin bowling lanes at its recreation center, but those were removed about 10 years ago. There also is a six-lane candlepin bowling alley in the basement of the Springfield, Vt., community center that is not automated and requires the pins to be reset manually by hand.

The waning popularity of the game does not faze Swain, who says it had been his ambition since high school to run his own eatery — it just happened sooner than he expected.

“I decided in high school I wanted to own a restaurant. I enjoy cooking and it’s always appealed to me,” Swain said. “I wanted to make it to an ownership-management stage, but I had no plans of being involved with it this early. The opportunity just presented itself.”

Bazzell, who owned Victory Lanes from 2011 to 2015 and now is deputy administrator at the state-run Glencliff Home mental health facility, said that “once I knew Nate was interested I didn’t entertain any other offers, although I frankly had offers for more money. I wasn’t interested in selling to anybody else.”

Swain started to think about acquiring Victory Lanes, where he worked as a cook during summer vacation in 2013, in his senior year at college, when he heard that his former boss was putting it on the market. He wrote a business plan, asking professors for help when he had a question, and with his parents willing to co-sign the bank loan, he closed on the deal in December.

“It was like an added practicum,” Swain said, declining to disclose the purchase price.

Now Swain’s working “80-hour plus” weeks to keep Victory Lanes open Wednesdays through Sundays. But he’s on-site Mondays for deliveries and does prep work for the coming week on Tuesdays. Staff other than himself consists of four part-time employees. His mother, Ellen Swain, a teacher at Haverhill Cooperative Middle School; his father, Les Swain, a trucker at United Natural Foods in Chesterfield, N.H.; along with his sister Alicia, all pitch in as well.

Although Swain said the business has a positive cash flow, he’s not exactly enriching himself off of it. “If we have a good week, I pay myself,” he said. “I figured it out once and I’m averaging about $4 per hour.”

The reopening of Victory Lanes means that the Senior Citizens Sunshine Bowling League, which had its last season interrupted because of the closing, again can meet for its weekly games. The 45-member league is divided into teams of four to five players each. It meets on Mondays, when Swain is taking deliveries, for a morning session, a break for lunch, and an afternoon session.

“We’re the last of our breed,” said Corinth resident Irene Mann, the league’s interim president. The minimum age to become a member is 55, but Mann said most members are 65 and older, with some in their 70s and 80s. The league’s oldest member, Rosa Heidenreich, who was 100 years old when she died in 2012, played until she was 99 years old.

“We’re so grateful to this kid,” Mann said of Swain. “You have no idea.”


John Lippman can be reached at or 603-727-3219.


Victory Lanes is located on Route 302 near Veterans Memorial Bridge in Woodsville. An earlier version of this story incorrectly named a different bridge.

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