Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum celebrates Maine’s outdoor history

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From 11,000-year-old Indian remains to Cornelia ‘Fly Rod’ Crosby’s gender-defying exploits, the Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum celebrates Maine’s and Rangeley’s hunting and fishing heritage.

To step inside the welcome center at the Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum in the village of Oquossoc is to step back in time more than 100 years.

The part of the 3,500-square-foot rustic log structure that lies just beyond the museum’s front entrance is an actual sporting camp from the 1890s. Built in Rangeley by Leeman Wilcox, the cabin was moved to its current location during the museum’s construction in 2010.

Just as it might have been when it served as a base for hunters and anglers, the interior is outfitted with a huge moose-head mount, birch-bark ceiling, authentic twig furnishings and a rifle said to be the last to have shot a caribou in Maine.

“Everything inside came right out of the local woods, even the hinges on the cabinets,” said museum docent Norman LeBlanc, a seasonal resident of Rangeley’s village of Oquossoc who hails from Boston.

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“The only thing they would have brought in from outside were the bolts and screws.”

Back in Rangeley’s heyday as a fishing and hunting haven, there were few roads into the region, and those that did exist were barely navigable. Most visitors came via canoe, which was not conducive to carrying building supplies.

The museum offers visitors to the popular vacation destination a chance to look back at some of the people, places and attractions that made the region what it is today, a four-season destination drawing in visitors from throughout the Northeastern United States and beyond.

Seasonal hunting and fishing in the Rangeley Lakes region goes back to the ice age, when ancient tribes from along the more temperate coast traveled to the game-rich area each summer to store up meat for the winter.

Fishermen in the area kept finding what they thought were arrowheads, but closer examination revealed them to be spearheads, from before the invention of the bow and arrow. In the 1980s, Dr. Richard Gramly of the Maine State Museum unearthed an 11,000-year-old home site along the banks of Aziscohos Lake.

Subsequent generations of Native American tribes followed that same pattern, using the area as a summer hunting ground, then wintering along the more temperate coast. Early European settlers to the area eventually caught on, too, and hunters, trappers and fishermen followed suit.

It wasn’t until the 1860s that the area became famous outside Maine. Unable to contain his pride, New York fisherman George Shepherd Page let it slip that he’d caught eight brook trout weighing a total of 53 pounds, breaking the fisherman’s code of secrecy.

From Page’s lips, word of the region’s bounty spread through the pages of the New York Times, whose editor counted Page among his acquaintances.

Soon, outdoor enthusiasts from far and wide began to converge on the region en masse, and with them came railroads, sporting camps and resorts. While the advent of the automobile, and with it the opportunity to vacation farther afield, spelled the end of Rangeley’s golden era, the region remains a beloved haven for outdoor enthusiasts of all stripes.

The Rangeley Lakes Region Historical Society had run a small museum on Main Street in Rangeley for decades, but didn’t have the space to show off its ever-growing collection of outdoor-related pieces.

“We simply weren’t able to do justice to this aspect of our heritage,” said Historical Society President Don Palmer, who oversees operation of the museum with his wife, museum director Stephanie Palmer.

Starting around the turn of the millennium, though, members began discussing how to best showcase the organization’s growing collection of sporting memorabilia. Plans for a second location took shape over the next decade.

The result of those plans was completed five years ago. The Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum sits on the former site of the old narrow gauge railroad station at the corner of routes 4 and 17 in Oquossoc village. Since it opened, the museum has become a destination in its own right.

The attention to the region’s outdoor heritage seems only fair for an area that has its own style of boat named after it. Two Rangeley boats, heavy-duty, attractive wooden hybrids of a rowboat and canoe invented in the area during the 19th century, are among the many pieces in the museum’s collection — one inside the museum and a new one out in front.

Much of the appeal of the museum, which was named “Best Sporting Museum in New England” by Yankee Magazine, lies in getting to know the people who made the region famous. Strolling through the collection, you’ll meet Freemen Tibbetts, the Rangeley guide with a reputation for honesty who built many of the fishing camps along the Kennebago River.

There’s Ed Grant, the Maine Guide, humorist and entrepreneur renowned for his tall tales, and there’s Louise Dickinson Rich, author of “We Took to the Woods” and other classic books about her family’s rustic Depression-era lifestyle in the region.

Herb Welch, owner of Welch’s sporting goods store, was a true backwoods Renaissance man. Trained as a fine artist in New York and Paris, Welch returned to Oquossoc to live out the rest of his life. In addition to his painting and sculpture, Welch was a champion fly fisherman, a sought-after taxidermist and fly tier, a semi-professional baseball player, a singer and a storyteller, among other talents.

Carrie Stevens, the famous fly tier known for inventing the Gray Ghost and other beloved streamers, was from Upper Dam, near where Mooselookmeguntic and Upper Richardson lakes meet. The museum proudly declares itself home to the largest collection of Stevens flies in the world.

And no stroll through sporting history in the region would be complete without Cornelia “Fly Rod” Crosby — not just the first female Maine Guide, but the first Registered Maine Guide period — who hailed from nearby Phillips. Among her numerous claims to fame, Crosby was friends with Annie Oakley.

Crosby’s lifelong passion for the outdoors began when she was young and her doctor told her she would die if she didn’t get ‘abundant doses of fresh air.’ Taking the advice to heart, Crosby soon became an expert at hunting and fishing, surpassing most of her contemporaries in pastimes largely dominated, even to this day, by men.

Notable visitors to the region — including Stan Bogdan, maker of “the world’s pre-eminent fly reels,” and President Dwight Eisenhower, whose 1955 visit is memorialized in a special 60th anniversary exhibition — also get their due.

And to keep things interesting for returning visitors, the gallery space at the rear of the building features larger temporary exhibitions, offering the flexibility to highlight a revolving array of new and borrowed pieces while still maintaining the core collection that so ably tells the region’s story.

Now through October, when the museum closes for the season, the gallery will be home to the exhibit “From Paddles to Pack Baskets and More . . . the Rustic Woodcraft of the Great North Woods,” showcasing a collection of backwoods handicrafts from the region, including a birch-bark canoe, hand-carved paddles and sculptures, woven pack baskets and snowshoes that look good enough to, well, be displayed in a museum.

“Our goal from the beginning has been to present the richness of our history in an entertaining and informative fashion, and we hear over and over again that we’ve succeeded at that,” says Palmer.

“We see many people coming back two or three times in one week, because it’s just too much to absorb in a single visit.”

The Rangeley Outdoor Sporting Heritage Museum

Where: the corner of Routes 4 and 17 in Oquossoc Village in Rangeley

FMI: www.rangeleyoutdoormuseum.org and 207-864-3091

2015 hours of operation:

* August: daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

* September: Wednesday-Sunday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

* October: Friday-Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

* Open Columbus Day 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

* Closing for the season on Oct. 18 at 4 p.m.

Upcoming events:

* Aug. 13: Benefit auction and dinner, Bald Mountain Camps, 4:30 p.m.

* Aug. 15: Author Rob Romano meet, greet and book signing

* Aug. 19: The Historical Society will host a performance of Dr. Jo Radner’s, “Braving the Middle Ground: Stories of Pre-Revolutionary Northern New England,” at Rangeley High School, 7 p.m.

* Aug. 22: Oquossoc Day featuring “North Woods Law” wardens, L.L. Bean’s Bootmobile, Rangeley Region Guides and a sportsman’s shooting gallery, in Oquossoc Village, 10 a.m.-4 p.m..

* Aug. 29: Author Cathy Scott and master bamboo rod builder Dave Van Burgel, book signing, rod building and casting demonstrations, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.

* Sept. 12: Rangeley Regatta: regional middle school students compete in both boys and girls divisions in rowing races in classic Rangeley boats on Oquossoc Cove, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

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