Dunham, and WW II, made Norway America’s snowshoe capital

0
1396

NORWAY—The giant snowshoe that once stood at the entrance of town greeting residents and visitors alike and dubbing Norway the “Snowshoe Town of America” is a lot like Elvis, says the curator of the Norway Historical Society. That’s because there’s been sightings of the iconic sculpture, but not proof that it exists, since it disappeared in the 1980s. But an Oxford man says he has the remains of the wooden structure.

Photo courtesy of Sidney Gordon From the late 1940s until the 1980s, this 16-foot tall giant snowshoe stood at the entrance of Norway, which was dubbed 'Snowtown of America.'
Photo courtesy of Sidney Gordon
From the late 1940s until the 1980s, this 16-foot tall giant snowshoe stood at the entrance of Norway, which was dubbed ‘Snowtown of America.’

Charles Longley, who also serves as the society’s chief researcher, says by phone Monday that the 16-foot tall structure stood at the fork in the road heading into Norway where the left heads down Main Street and the right leads to Fair Street, or Route 26, into South Paris.

Paul Cote, of Oxford, a snowshoe enthusiast and collector, says by phone Tuesday that the giant shoe was built by Omer Aldrich, of Snocraft, a later manufacturer of snowshoes in Norway. It measured four feet in width and was four times the normal size of a classic Maine snowshoe. It was erected sometime between 1945 and 1949, after making the rounds on the trade show circuit.

“The snowshoe is like Elvis. It appears and disappears. It’s been sighted here and been sighted there, but of course no one’s ever been able to lay a hand on it,” Longley says. “Plenty of people have searched for it but they’ve never been able to find it.”

Cote says he searched high and low for the giant snowshoe and found two or three pieces of the original sculpture four or five years ago in a barn in Vermont. Aldrich’s grandson, Charles Aldrich, had the remains of snowshoe and was so taken with Cote’s search that he gave him the remaining pieces. Cote says Omer Aldrich originally built it as a way to attract people’s attention.

Oxford snowshoe enthusiast and collector Paul Cote stands in front a fraction of his collection of Norway and Maine made snowshoes.
Oxford snowshoe enthusiast and collector Paul Cote stands in front a fraction of his collection of Norway and Maine made snowshoes.

“In terms of public relations [and as an] advertising ploy it was a smash hit,” Cote says, adding that the local press came to the trade shows and people wanted their photos take with the larger-than-life item.

But the history of snowshoeing and Norway’s claim to fame as the Snowshoe Town of America—and some say the Snowshoe Capital of the World—goes further back than World War II.

Mellie Dunham is considered the father of snowshoe making in Norway and began producing them commercially in 1878, C.P. Nisbet says by phone Monday. Nisbet’s a snowshoe data collector who resides in Conway, N.H., and has done extensive research on this particular history. Dunham worked with Clarence Smith, who went to Canada and came across a pair of snowshoes with the toes raised rather than flat toes like Maine models. Smith brought the design back, created the form and gave it to Dunham, sometime between 1870 and 1871.

Nisbet and Longley believe Dunham’s snowshoe industry took off because people saw the new design and wanted a pair.

“Snowshoes were simply an item people used,” Longley says. “Dunham started making them for other people and started selling them outside of the area.”

At his snowshoe shop on Crockett Ridge Road—which Longley contends was smaller than a one-car garage—Dunham twice made a pair of snowshoes headed to the North Pole for U.S. explorer Robert Pearey Sr. during his arctic expeditions, once in 1905 and again in 1907. Dunham-style snowshoes stopped being produced when his only son-in-law, Nathan Noble, quit making them in 1933, two years after Dunham’s death, Nisbet says.

Another forerunner of snowshoes in Norway was H.H. Hosmer, who crafted them around the same time as Dunham.

“It would be what you call friendly competition. They were very close,” Nisbit says. “Both men were fiddle players. They tended to have that in common, along with their friendship.”

“Somebody had a sense of humor, there were four H.H. Hosmers. [H.H. Hosmer] learned how to make snowshoes from his father, who was H.H. Hosmer, who learned how to make showshoes from his relative, who was H.H. Hosmer,” Nisbet says, adding it was Hosmer who started bringing Norway-made snowshoes to trade shows.

The snowshoe lineage in the Hosmer family traces back to 1854, Nisbet says. The family stopped making snowshoes when the son, Herbert Harold Hosmer, died in the early 1940s.

The other major contender for snowshoe makers in Norway was Dunham’s nephew, W.F. Tubbs, who worked for his uncle in his shop for roughly five years before branching out and starting his own business, Tubbs Snowshoe Company, in 1907, Nisbet says. He says he hasn’t been able to find any documents about what Dunham thought of his nephew going into business for himself since there was a fire at Dunham’s home where all of his business records, journals and the like, were destroyed in 1930.

“And Tubbs wasn’t talking,” Nisbet says, laughing. “All of these people knew each other. They were all very close. They went on hunting trips together. … They all made snowshoes but they were the only ones who made snowshoes.”

Tubbs outdid his uncle as far as assisting arctic explorations goes, making snowshoes for two major explorers. In 1912, he crafted a pair for Donald MacMillan, as part of his ill-fatedCrocker Land Expedition to Northern Greenland the following year, Nisbet says. Later, Tubbs made not only snowshoes, but chairs and dog sleds for Richard Byrd Jr.’s expedition to the South Pole, Longley says. He adds that another Norway native, James Wiles, served as chief engineer for one of Byrd’s supply vessels that traveled to the South Pole and also explored with MacMillan.

Photo courtesy of Sidney Gordon Norway-based snowshoe maker W.F. Tubbs made snowshoes, chairs and dog sleds for Richard Byrd's arctic expedition to the South Pole.
Photo courtesy of Sidney Gordon
Norway-based snowshoe maker W.F. Tubbs made snowshoes, chairs and dog sleds for Richard Byrd’s arctic expedition to the South Pole.

In 1923, Tubbs decided to sell his business and head to the Midwest. Out there, he began manufacturing snowshoes until he landed a government job as an advisor, Longley says. In 1928, American Fork and Hoe Company, of Ohio, said it owned Tubbs, and in 1932, the business was moved to Wellingford, Vt., Nisbet says.

At the time of the Tubbs move, the sons of Elmer Aldrich, including Omer, establish SnoCraft in Norway, making snowshoes. Longley says the the factory was located on Tannery Street, where the building still stands today.

“Snocraft goes on to be the largest manufacturer of snowshoes in the world,” Nisbet adds.

This was because the U.S. government ordered so many snowshoes during World War II, sometimes 10,000 in one order.

“They were made in other places in the country but what happened was Norway won the contract the military contract. At the time, [the U.S.] was afraid of a Japanese invasion of Alaska,” Longley explains. “They ordered thousands and thousands of pairs, way beyond what they would ever need to use.”

The demand for Snocraft snowshoes was so high during the Second World War that there as an overflow production facility in the Main Street building that now houses the radio station WOXO.

“In 1945, you could have walked down the street and looked into the window and see them webbing snowshoes,” Longley says.

Nisbet says that many in Oxford Hills are old enough to remember the decline of Snocraft, which went bankrupt three or four times before it shuttered in the late 1980s.

eplace@advertiserdemocrat.com