NORWAY – Henry Ford, the American industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Co., believed the way to tame post-war Americans in the 1920s was through the music of a small town fiddler named Mellie Dunham.
Alanson Mellen (Mellie) Dunham, 72, a diminutive farmer who lived on the eastern shores of Lake Pennesseewassee in Norway, rose to national fame in the early 1900s by making snowshoes that took Admiral Robert Peary to the North Pole and music that Ford said brought simplicity and serenity back to the American culture.
Ford's plan in 1925 was to revive old-time dancing to take the “billy wow wow” out of post World War I dancing. The “billy-wow-wows” is a description Ford gave to the type of conduct he believed the war imposed on Americans.
“The war put the billy wow wows into everyone. They tried to make murderers of us all. Murder became a commonplace thing and has affected everyone since,” Ford told the Times Daily in a Dec. 11, 1925, interview.
He said Dunham's meteoric rise to fame after winning a local fiddlers' contest at the Lewiston Armory had to do with the fiddler's underlying love of decency and simplicity in the world.
That, said Ford, is what he wanted to give back to Americans through old-time jigs and reels. So he invited Mellie Dunham to his Dearborn , Mich., estate to play the fiddle.
“This teaching of old dances, after all, is just a small step toward the teaching of conduct deportment, poise and manners,” Ford told reporters.
Mellie and his wife Emma Richardson Dunham, who was known as “Gram,” boarded a train in early December 1925 following a huge street parade. The Lewiston Evening Journal reported that when Ford heard about the publicity he contacted the only Ford dealership owner in the area, Pearly F. Ripley in Paris, to try to stop it. Instead, Ripley joined in the festivities.
Mellie wore a woodsman khaki mackinaw with fir collar, dark gray pants and neatly blacked shoes and a “stove” cap that all but obscured his head of white hair. Gram, a crack rifle shot and angler, wore a $12 dress she ordered from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. They arrived at the Grand Truck Railroad in Michigan in a special Pullman car.
Mellie, with his long white mustache and red cheeked face, told reporters he was ready to “fight, run or wrestle” as he arrived somewhat bewildered and viably tired, according to the Evening Independent. The fiddler's chief concern, wrote a reporter for the Evening Independent, was how to delicately ask Ford for his customary $3 out-of-town fee. He told reporters in town he usually asked $1.50 to appear locally, but out of town it would be $3.
Phil Shorey, "Maine's publicity manager,” went along with Mellie to “make sure he was understood,” according to the Dec. 7, 1925, Lewiston Evening Journal. People were afraid that Mellie would be at the mercy of the “smart guys who think that any person who fiddles up in Maine is a joke.”
Mellie and Gram climbed into a car with Ford's personal assistant followed by a group of reporters and headed to Ford's club for supper. It was the couple's first time out of Maine. For the next week, the couple was treated like royalty.
The Washington Daily reported the couple had “more servants to wait on them there than are neighbors in a five mile radius of the Durhams in Norway.”
Mellie practiced with Ford's old-fashioned dance orchestra featuring violins, zimbalom, dulcimer and sousaphones, to prepare for the 30 couples who would dance the waltz, minuet, polka and other dances at a private dance at Ford's Dearborn laboratories.
“The great beauty of these old dances is that it forces people to know one another. That is not so easily accomplished in modern dancing,” Ford reportedly said.
Mellie played for Ford and his wife in the front parlor of his home in Dearborn on a delicately tuned, priceless Stradivarius owned by Ford.
“He played well,” Ford reportedly said.
The Dunhams left Michigan and contracted to play a vaudeville act that went through the Middle West and East. Mellie earned about $20,000. The tour included a stop at the New York Stock Exchange where Mellie fiddled for the stockbrokers.
The Dunhams went home only to lose their Crockett Ridge Road homestead and all mementos of his fiddling and snowshoe to a fire in March 1931.
Only four fiddles survived the fire. Mellie died the following year.
“His tuneful, fiddling stimulated a wave of revival in old-time dancing,” said the Pittsburgh Post Gazette following Mellie's death on Sept. 27, 1931.
The Lewiston Evening Journal said Mellie's vocation — making snowshoes – was his job, but his avocation was playing the fiddle.
They called Mellie a rare man who had tears running down his wrinkled face as he played "When You and I Were Young Maggie," on his fiddle for large audiences.
"When he fiddles, he just FIDDLES,” reported the local newspaper. “He is telling a story. He is telling of old and simple things.”
This weekend, the people of Norway and Maine will celebrate that as they gather for the third annual Mellie Dunham snowshoe and string festival.