LEWISTON — A young boy stood transfixed in amazement as a huge balloon rose higher and higher in the air, launched from Lewiston City Park 150 years ago.

He was much like thousands of young people who watched the hot air balloon flights of the 24th Annual Great Falls Balloon Festival from Simard-Payne Memorial Park Aug. 19-21.

The flight that had held the boy so enthralled ended up transforming his life.

That boy was Ferdinand E. Stevens, a native of Auburn, whose dreams of floating in the sky became a reality. By the late 1890s, he had become a balloonist and aerial daredevil, performing high above tens of thousands of L-A area residents.

Stevens was the major attraction for Lewiston’s Fourth of July celebration in 1901, when he and a partner performed stunts on a double-trapeze hanging beneath a free-flying hot air balloon. He told a Lewiston Evening Journal reporter how he accomplished his young dream.

“It was the wish of my boyhood to become an aeronaut,” Stevens said. “Then six years ago, I purchased a balloon that was 65 feet high by 42 segments wide, and started in on my own hook. I had an aeronaut come from Boston and give me a few lessons as a starter, and then I went at it.”

Stevens said his first ascension was from the Lewiston Fairgrounds. He followed his aerial activities each summer while working for the Dingley and Foss shoe shop in Auburn.

The balloon being used for the 1901 flight was owned by the American Balloon Co. of Boston. Stevens was in their employ at the time of the L-A exhibition 115 years ago.

“I have been making ascensions this year since the middle of May, and have never been injured till two weeks ago, when my balloon caught in a building and I was dragged over 50 feet, injuring my foot, but that was nothing serious,” Stevens said.

“Two years ago, I came down in the middle of Lake Auburn, but as I am a good swimmer, I kept afloat all right until a boat picked me up,” he said. “Six years ago, when I first began, I fell in the middle of the Androscoggin River at Topsham.”

Stevens explained that the balloon that he was using for the 1901 ascent was filled with hot air from a trench. As the balloon filled, it was discovered that it had a rip in the cloth. Stevens interrupted the inflation, took out his needle and thread, repaired the damage, and ordered the process to resume. Fifty men held ropes to steady the balloon once it was inflated.

“We are to have a double ascension, as Mrs. May Sawyer will go up with me,” he told the reporter. “I would be glad to grant your request and take you up with me but we have no car attached. We go up on a trapeze attached to the bottom of a parachute, and shall drop to the ground.”

At 4:04 p.m., the balloon was filled. Just then, “jaunty little May Sawyer appeared in tights. In one hand she held a small American flag and she leaped into the end of the parachute that had the trapeze.”

Stevens sprang to the other end, and yelled, “Everyone let go.”

The news story didn’t explain how the balloon would eventually be recovered.

Balloonists and their exhibitions had become a fairly common occurrence by the beginning of the twentieth century, but the 1901 event was exceptional.

“What a magnificent crowd it drew,” the news story said. “Never before in the history of Lewiston has her beautiful park held such a throng. Thirty-five thousand people was about the lowest estimate of those who were accurate in such matters. Some said forty thousand.”

In the 24 years of the Great Falls Balloon Festival, how many youngsters have been so impressed that their future might be shaped by such an event?

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.