The Traveling Bowling Alley

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Writing in the Hampton Union newspaper in the 1930s, historian Caroline Lamprey Shea informed her readers that the Puritans of Hampton, New Hampshire had kept a bowling green in a field near the lower end of the road to the sea (Winnacunnet Road). Now, Puritans aren’t remembered for their tolerance of games and other time-wasting pursuits, but Mrs. Shea, who was the first secretary of the Meetinghouse Green Memorial and Historical Association, and whose ancestral roots sprang from the bedrock of the town’s earliest history, seemed sure of her information.

While it’s true that 17th-century immigrants brought games like English lawn bowles, card-playing, and shuffleboard to America, a reading of the Bay Colony’s laws, written by strict religionists, leads one to conclude that it wasn’t the Puritans who were doing the bringing. In England the game of bowling, along with most sports, was illegal for the poorer classes, and in Puritan Massachusetts (which until 1680 included Hampton) it was banned from inns and taverns—places where people were most likely to squander their time on such idle recreation. The Hampton bowling green, then, must have been in private hands, and its owner of sufficient wealth and status to silence any would-be critics.

The Rise of the Ten-Pin Alley

By the early 19th century, the game of bowling had crept indoors. The wooden lanes, scornfully referred to as “ten-pin alleys,” were cropping up everywhere, although the old Puritan mistrust of frivolity was still a strong deterrent. It wasn’t the game that detractors found objectionable, but the infernal rumbling and crashing noises that tended to interfere with Sunday sermons. Or so they said.

To address the issue, in 1845 Mr. Marston of Exeter proposed a bill in the New Hampshire House of Representatives to suppress bowling alleys once and for all, with a rather cranky Mr. Quimby of Danville moving that all bowling alleys should be deemed public nuisances. More moderate heads stepped in to satisfy the ministers, specifying that alleys were to be kept at least 25 rods (412.5 feet) away from any house, store, shop, school house, or church. The amended bill became law and was given to the towns as a local option. It’s unclear whether Hampton adopted its provisions, but the neighboring town of Portsmouth did, and over the next several decades the congested Old Town by the Sea spent much time and energy trying to rid itself of its alleys, with little to no success. Newspapers of the day were filled with salacious reports of the shootings and stabbings that occurred in and around the alleys, which had become “the resorts of loafers, gamblers, and drunkards.”

The First Alley on Hampton Beach

The earliest known Hampton bowling alley was located on the premises of the first Ocean House Hotel. Built in 1844 by a member of the Nudd family, this hotel was an impressive four-story structure with an encircling piazza, full dining facilities, and room for 250 guests. It was operated on “strict temperance principles,” and there were no incidents of weapon-wielding troublemakers in its entire 41-year lifespan. Hampton, it seems, had more luck attracting a better class of people than her rowdy seaport neighbor.

Bowling Alley move June 1990

The Village Gets an Alley

In spite (or because) of the regular bouts of bad press, the game steadily gained acceptance, and by 1900 had become an approved activity in the village of Hampton. Otis Whittier, the proprietor of the Hotel Whittier, felt confident in buying a two-lane alley, building and all, from an estate owned by Mrs. White of the Little Boar’s Head district in North Hampton. In June, local contractor Curtis Delancey used some three dozen horses and two yoke of oxen to transport the 60-foot-long building to the hotel on Lafayette Road, a distance of four miles. This alley, the first in Hampton village, was welcomed as a “healthful exercise” for the people of the town.

Moving the Bowling Alley June 1900

On a frigid winter’s day in 1917 the Whittier went up in flames, an apparent victim of arson (a common ending for tired old buildings). Firemen were able to save the bowling alley and other outbuildings, but, like Melzar Dunbar’s curiously round pool table at the Franklin House, the fate of the alley is lost to history. Was it moved to another location or torn down? Its lumber may have been salvaged to suit a different purpose, such as the “refreshment parlor” and cottages that were built on the site of the old hotel a few years later.

The Carnival Cottage Cold Case Solved

Some mysteries are never solved, especially where old buildings are concerned, but in this case, where one mystery began another one came to an end, as the question of the whereabouts of the missing “Carnival Cottage”—the subject of my April History Matters column—has been lately laid to rest.

As part of the Carnival Week celebration in 1923, the Hampton Beach Board of Trade awarded the cottage, a fully furnished and functional five-room house, to the holder of the winning Carnival Queen raffle ticket, one T. W. Litchfield of Lexington, Massachusetts. The winner had to move the house off the beach to a new lot, but news of its removal from the beachfront or the location of its eventual resting place never made it into the newspaper. A search for the deed of sale in the Rockingham County Registry of Deeds turned up empty.

Recently however, Hampton Historical Society President Candy Stellmach discovered a 1930s deed of sale for the cottage in the old Hampton Personal Property registers that are now part of the Society’s collections. According to the deed, the cottage was located on the south side of C Street, on a leased lot owned by the Exeter, Hampton and Amesbury Street Railway. A little more detective work found that the L-shaped house and the leased lot on which it stood had changed hands several times, finally passing into the possession of the Hampton Casino Associates—who in 1979 sold it to a former Vermont couple, Henry E. and Golda Campbell Farr. Through their efforts, what was once known as the Carnival Cottage became one of the most beloved summer eat shacks on the beach: Farr’s Famous Fried Chicken.

Originally published in “History Matters,” Hampton Union, August 12, 2016.

 Images courtesy of the Hampton Historical Society.

History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of several books of local history, including “Marked: The Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole.” Her website is lassitergang.com.

One thought on “The Traveling Bowling Alley

  1. Karen Raynes did some further research on Mrs. White of North Hampton:

    “Looked in Stillman and Helen Hobbs The Way it was in North Hampton.
    Found this to add to article information: Nathaniel G. White {president of the Boston and Maine Railroad} was the husband of Mary Bell White. Mary Bell White’s family built the 1st summer cottage on Little Boar’s Head in 1862/called Bell Cottage or the Belfry. It still stands from the ocean it is first home on the left next to Studebaker Cottage {south}. Picture on page 65 ca 1912 in Hobbs book.”

    We might just find out exactly which house the White-Whitter bowling alley came from after all, thanks to Karen!

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