WILMINGTON — Late in the morning on Labor Day, as he was about to open his twin food and recreation businesses on what is the traditional endpoint of summer, Steve Butler did not have to check his ledgers or wait for the final register tallies before proclaiming the season a success.
“It was by far the busiest summer we’ve ever had, in 42 years,” said Butler, the owner of North Star Pizza and North Star Bowl & Mini-golf, which all operate from 100 Route 100 North. He has owned them since 1979.
Butler said the numbers of tourists and summer-home people will dwindle over the next four weeks, but the pizzeria, the arcade, the six candlepin bowling lanes and even the miniature golf course will all remain open. They are 12-month businesses. A canopy protects golfers from the rain and most of the snow.
“It’s the only miniature golf course that I know of that’s covered,” Butler said. “It’s the equivalent of a pole barn with one wall, which is just there for stability purposes.”
The bowling center opened here about 60 years ago. The golf course dates from 1986 and was Butler’s brainchild. There are 18 holes under the green metal roof. The owner said he had plans for a grander facility but was constrained by the size of the available real estate.
Adults pay $8 for unlimited free plays on the course. The last hole swallows the ball. Players are told to skip the 18th or to come inside for a replacement ball before their next round.
“The people tend to really enjoy the fact that it is unique,” Butler said, noting some intrepid golfers will play during cold and windy winter days.
About half the revenue generated by the North Star businesses is money spent by locals, according to the owner. Area visitors spend the other half. The pizza and food side of the operation bring in about 85 cents of every dollar. Bowling, golf and the coin arcade contribute the other 15 cents, and most of these revenue are spent by visitors.
“North Star started as a bowling center that had a snack bar,” Butler said. “And now it’s a pizza parlor and sandwich shop that happens to have recreation.”
Born and raised in central Massachusetts, Butler came to Vermont after living on Cape Cod. He became enamored with the state after his future wife showed him around her hometown of Bennington.
“I will never leave Vermont — voluntarily,” Butler said. “It’s a very hard spot to make a living. I enjoy the lifestyle much more so than cash.”
Butler had worked in restaurants while in high school and college, but his 1979 purchase of North Star Bowl was his first experience as the owner-operator of a food-service establishment. He would spend the next few decades near the restaurant’s pizza oven, grill and sandwich table.
His present wife, Beverly, now handles much of the cooking. On Labor Day morning, she and some of North Star’s other employees — the workforce numbers 12 people — moved food preparation carts between the front counter and a rear area near the bowling lanes.
“I assist when they need me,” Butler said. “I’m more there to assist as needed.”
The bowling center had nine lanes at the time of Butler’s acquisition. There were 200 people in bowling leagues, and a waiting list to join.
Three of the lanes were ruined by floodwaters from the remnants of Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. Butler said it would cost more to return even one of them to service than he spent to purchase the entire property. When league bowling was suspended, because of the pandemic, only 18 people were involved in the organized effort.
Butler blamed the drop in league participation on fewer factory-type jobs compared to 42 years ago. He has a theory for why many young people have no interest in bowling.
“If you can’t text, you’re not alive today,” Butler said, more exasperated than angry. “And you can’t text and bowl at the same time.”
Even if he does not understand a smartphone addiction, Butler said he does appreciate the stellar results of the summer season that was just concluded. North Star’s food sales were through the roof, and revenue from the coin-op arcade, mini-golf course and even the six bowling lanes made summer 2021 the most memorable since he bought the property.
“It was all pandemic-driven,” Butler said. “People wanted to get out, and money was not an object. Time was not an object. It was just families wanting to entertain their kids.”