“Fun for all, and all for fun,” was the verdict of one local newspaper; “a Mardi Gras” reminiscent of the pre-prohibition era, according to another. On the weekend of 7-8 February, 1925, eight hundred French Canadian snowshoers descended on the city of Lewiston, Maine (population 30,000), for two days of revelry and winter sports. The festivities, which included the construction of an ice palace, athletic competitions, and a parade through the city, marked the first international snowshoe convention between the United States and Canada.
Snowshoes had been developed by Native American societies thousands of years before they were observed by the first French settlers in Canada, who labeled them raquettes for their resemblance to tennis rackets (a sport very much en vogue in France in the sixteenth century). The utility of the snowshoe in Canada’s harsh climate was soon appreciated by the French colonists, especially the coureurs de bois.
Snowshoeing became an organized sport in 1840 with the foundation of the Montreal Snowshoe Club; by 1907, the practice had spread throughout Québec, and in that year some twenty-five clubs united to form the Union Canadienne des Raquetteurs (Canadian Snowshoeing Union).
The first permanent American snowshoe club, however, was not organized until 1924, in Lewiston. The founder, a recent émigré from Québec, was Louis-Philippe Gagné. Gagné had arrived in Lewiston in 1922 from Quebec City, where he had been a sports editor for the newspaper Le Soleil. He came to Lewiston to work for local publication Le Messager and would proceed to become its editor in due course.
Gagné had been a snowshoe enthusiast in Quebec and set about organizing a club in Lewiston. Le Montagnard (“the Mountaineers”) took its name from a noted club in Montreal and received its modest collection of first uniforms from its sister club. Even as the organization was in its infancy, however, Gagné’s ambition reached further. He proposed that the Lewistonians invite the Canadian raquetteurs to a convention the following year.
The decision to host the convention was controversial. Even some of Gagné’s fellow club members feared that Lewiston was not equipped to hose such a gathering, and that the Montagnard did not have the experience. Gagné himself would later admit that, as club secretary, he manipulated the vote to get his desired result.[i] Hundreds of visitors from Quebec arrived via the Grand Trunk on specially chartered trains, vastly outnumbering the American contingent, which numbered, at most, a few dozen. The visitors were greeted by the mayor of Lewiston, Charles Brann, and the governor of Maine, Owen Brewster.
The program included a mock attack on city hall by the Canadians, followed by the firing of “cannon” in its defense by the hosts. The “attack” forgiven, the snowshoers held races in 100-, 220-, 440- and 880-yard runs, as well as a three-mile run and three-mile walk, in City Park in the afternoon. Later conventions would include more innovative contests, including hurdling. After a baked bean supper at the Armory, there was another “attack” by the Canadians, this time against the ice palace that had been constructed in the park:
The evening was featured by a parade and a fireworks exhibition in the ice palace in the city park, the like of which was never before seen in this city, if in any Maine or New England city. The spectators thronged the streets and stood about the city park, completely surrounding the ice palace, forming a mass at least 100 deep. In fact, so many were on the streets that it almost seemed as if every person in the town able to get outdoors was on the scene.[ii]
Despite the fact that the convention was held during the Prohibition era in the United States, the Lewiston Daily Sun made clear that the snowshoers had little respect for the legislation. Describing the weekend as a “Mardi Gras,” the Sun called the festivities “a revival of the pre-Volstead days” (the Volstead Act was the piece of congressional legislation that enforced the Eighteenth Amendment and outlawed the sale of alcohol) and gave examples of the Canadians, if not the Americans, finding something to fill their flasks. The effects were also clearly described. There were amorous scenes described as being reminiscent of a “mutual petting party” and pranks that included false fire alarms, street cars lifted off their tracks, joy rides taken in hearses and women’s lingerie worn as headgear. Despite such antics, the review of the paper was positive—“visitors found girls ‘safe and sane and kind for gentlemen to handle’” ran one headline, and “‘fun for all and all for fun’ is the snowshoers’ motto,” read another.[iii]
The success of this 1925 convention led to the formation of more snowshoe clubs in Lewiston—among which was Le Diable Rouge (the Red Devils). Existing social clubs, the Institut Jacques Cartier and the Cercle Canadien also created snowshoe teams, forming the other founding members of the American Union in 1925. Lewiston remained the spiritual home of snowshoeing in the United States, even as the movement expanded to Franco-American communities throughout New England, and numerous other conventions were held in the city, both national and international. By 1979, there were thirty-four American clubs and more than two thousand members. At one point, Lewiston alone had more than a dozen clubs.
As the reports of the 1925 convention make clear, snowshoe clubs were more than simply athletic associations, and they acted more as social groups, meeting year-round. Many clubs had lakeside chalets outside the city from where they would embark on their hikes but also maintained downtown clubhouses on Lisbon Street. Like other organizations of the time, many of the clubs were initially only open to men. Some groups opened women’s auxiliary branches, like Les Dames Montagnards, but women’s clubs, such as la Gaité and l’Oiseau de Neige (the Snowbirds), were also formed. The continued tradition of the conventions helped cement the relationship between Franco-Americans and Canada, and the snowshoe clubs continued to conduct all their business in French into the late twentieth century.
[i]. Louis-Philippe Gagné, Untitled (Speech to the 1950 Snowshoe Convention). Manuscript. Lewiston, 1950. FAC, Louis-Philippe Gagné Papers.
[ii]. Lewiston (Maine) Daily Sun, “Canadians Had Good Time and Saw That Homefolk Did Also,” February 8, 1925.