It has been more than 100 years since the founding of the Canadian Snowshoe Union. That was in 1908, and about 24 years later the proud “raquetteur” tradition came to Lewiston when a former sports editor for a Quebec City daily newspaper moved here.
Louis-Philippe Gagne stood just 5 feet, 1 inch tall and weighed 110 pounds, but he was a giant in the history of snowshoe clubs and Franco-American culture in this city.
As editor of “Le Messager,” Lewiston’s French newspaper, he wrote political commentary that was read throughout New England and Canada.
He was elected mayor of the city twice. In the early days of radio, Gagne hosted live broadcasts called “L’Oeil” (The Eye) on WCOU, and he was responsible for bringing notable Canadian performers to Lewiston.
Two years after his arrival in 1922, Gagne had founded Le Montagnard, which was the first organized snowshoe social club in the U.S. It was named after Le Montagnard Club of Montreal, the first Canadian Club, formed in 1895. Lewiston’s Le Montagnard Club adopted the original club’s gray and scarlet uniforms, as well as the club’s motto, “Toujours joyeaux,“ meaning “always happy.”
By 1925, he had successfully promoted the formation of several other snowshoe organizations in the Twin Cities, and this area had achieved a status sufficient to host the first International Convention in downtown Lewiston.
Gagne told attendees at the 25th International Snowshoe Congress in 1949 about a vote taken in 1924 on whether to invite the Canadian Snowshoe Union to a convention in Lewiston. Many members were not sure the organization was ready for such a major step, but Gagne had already invited the Canadian clubs, according to the Web page of Maine History Online, which is managed by the Maine Historical Society.
“When the vote was taken, I counted the raised hands pro or con,” Gagne recalled. A few dozen members were present, but no one knew the exact number. “Fifteen voted for the invitation, and when the others raised their hands against, I stopped counting at fourteen,” Gagne said.
Through the decades to follow, the spectacular parades and events each winter brought colorfully uniformed members from many U.S. states and Canada to participate in this outstanding Franco-American tradition.
From its charter membership of 30 members, Le Montagnard’s rolls grew to 1,000 members by 1950. The club built a large chalet at No Name Pond, and from those waters the ice was harvested for ice palaces constructed in downtown Lewiston for numerous snowshoe club conventions.
Those ice palaces arose at City Park, at Park and Pine Streets or at Hulett Square near the intersection of Lisbon and Main streets. News reports said 85 tons of ice blocks went into building the 1935 ice palace. It had a footprint of 31 by 29 feet. It was 26 feet high and featured seven towers.
The stories told of a torchlight parade which went through downtown streets and ended at “the storming of the ice palace.”
The snowshoe competition at conventions included sprints from 100 to 880 yards. Hurdles were usually 120 yards, and marathons were from one to 10 miles. Athletes vied for world championship titles in some of these events.
Some competitors marched many miles on snowshoes to Lewiston’s annual events. At the 1929 international convention, one participant arrived from Manchester, N.H., after a 140-mile trek.
Snowshoe clubs could be for men, women, or mixed. L’Oiseau de Neige (the Snowbirds) was a women’s club in Lewiston-Auburn.
About 15 clubs were in Lewiston-Auburn. They included Les Dames Montagnard, Le Jacques Cartier, Les Amies Choiseies, La Gaiete, and La Feuille d’Erable.
Les Diables Rouges (the red devils) wore red and white uniforms. Fernand Despins, who was one of their members, played Santa Claus in Lewiston for many years wearing his Diables Rouges uniform.
Activities of the state’s snowshoe clubs consisted of much more than winter competition. Members enjoyed year-round activities, including baseball, hockey, bowling and pool. Le Montagnard Band played regularly at City Hall and in the City park. It gained a measure of national celebrity when it was featured in the movie “Peyton Place,” which was filmed in Camden.
Much of this “raquetteur” history is told in photos and captions on the Web page of Maine History Online. The pages of the Lewiston Evening Journal and Lewiston Daily Sun also yield a fascinating picture of the local snowshoe clubs over many years.
Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and native of Auburn. He may be reached by sending email to [email protected]