Thousands of years ago, nature carved a massive bowl out of the middle of some modest hills in what is now the City of Auburn. Most certainly, it was an important trail for wildlife and an important feature known to the Native American people of this area over several centuries.
That natural amphitheater of a dozen or more acres eventually became Pettengill Park. It became a center for summer and winter recreation, which still resonates in the memories of many L-A residents.
The first Auburn Winter Carnival took place in 1922. The first few years of the event, which spanned three days, called it a “Great Big Value For One Dollar.” That price covered “everything except the Carnival Ball,” including professional acrobatic skating, college hockey and skijoring, where skiers are pulled by rope behind horses. In addition to Pettengill Park, the Court Street Skating Rink was listed for events, but advertising did not say exactly where that rink was located.
By the time the fifth Auburn Winter Carnival had come around, the program featured lots of high school skiing and ski jumping, as well as some events that have not been seen in many years.
A Lewiston Evening Journal article said, “Great interest has been aroused in the wood sawing contest which will be run off Saturday afternoon. Bill Harrigan of Auburn, who holds the championship of Maine, is one of the three entrants. He has volunteered to prepare a quarter of a cord of wood while two members of the American Legion are sawing the same amount. Afterwards, the sawed wood will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.”
There was also to be a tug-of-war among four service clubs; Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions and Civitan.
There was dog racing on the schedule, with the route described as running north on Winter Street to Rowe, east on Rowe to Summer Street, south on Summer to Dennison and west on Dennison to Winter, returning to the starting point.
The 1927 carnival was capped off with a large bonfire and fireworks at Pettengill Park.
In 1931, the carnival’s feature events were five-mile cross-country snowshoe and ski races. The publicity also proclaimed “Fire Hoop Jumping” on the skating rink.
Many local residents would recall the 1950s as being the pinnacle of activity for Pettengill Park. Sportswriter Fred Gage wrote in the Jan. 23, 1951, Journal that the site was “one of the proudest and most fortunate projects governed by the Shoe City.” He said, “it is recognized throughout the state as one of the better municipal parks.”
Winter sports enthusiasts point to skiing accomplishments with connections to Pettengill Park that had national significance in the mid-1950s. The towering ski jump on the hill at Pettengill Park launched some historic ski records.
From that wooden structure, often described as old and rickety, Edward Little High School’s John Bower jumped into record books with a perfect 400 when he won slalom, downhill, cross-country and jumping in a high school championship in 1959. A few years later, Bower became the first American to win the Holmenkollen King’s Cup in Norway in 1968. It was then the world’s most coveted combined Nordic event.
Bower was just one of the local skiing greats to excel at Pettengill Park and nearby Lost Valley.
The skating rink at Pettengill Park also has an important place in memory. It was a wide place in the brook that flowed through the park, and hundreds of young people of the area skated under lights and to music from the warming shack.
In the early 1940s, Walter Beleckis was hired as skating rink supervisor. He was assigned a 32-hour work week and was paid 58 cents per hour. Beleckis was on duty through many winter evenings. The rink was open from 6 to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and to 10:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, as well as weekend afternoons.
These are a few of the winter memories at Pettengill Park. There was much more history to be made in the summer months when a ball field was constructed and the Auburn Asas team played in the respected Down East League.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org.