The city of Lewiston never had a shortage of clubs. Some were fraternal clubs or business clubs like Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis and Elks that were founded for philanthropic reasons. Others were private clubs created primarily to get around the strict liquor laws that only allowed hard liquor to be sold in hotels, Class A restaurants, or private clubs.
And then there were snowshoe clubs. They were kind of a combination of both types. They began as an ethnic Quebec import and quickly became a fixture in Lewiston. They evolved into year-round social clubs that shaped Lewiston’s political landscape.
By the 1950s, Lewiston had 17 snowshoe clubs and the original club, Le Montagnard, boasted 1,000 members. They were large, colorful and loud. They held events, wore unique uniforms, had their own marching bands, and hosted international competitions that brought thousands to Lewiston every few years. Not only were the clubs a fixture in the Lewiston community, but they spread throughout French Canadian towns in New England and became a powerful political voice.
There were male-only, female-only and mixed clubs. Lewiston clubs included Le Montagnard (The Mountain), Le Cercle Canadien (Canadian Circle), Le Amies Choisies (Chosen Friends), Le Passe-Temps (Pasttimes), La Gaieté (Cheerful), Le Jacques Cartier, Le Diables Rouges (Red Devils), La Feuille d’Erable (Maple Leafs), Le Hiboux Blancs (White Owls), Les Hirondelles (Swallows), Le Renard (Fox), Le Travaillant (Workers), L’Oiseau de Neige (Snowbirds), Le Cavalier (Riders), L’Acme, La Dames Montagnard, and Les Indiens Sur Raquettes (Indians on Snowshoes).
Other towns with large French populations like Brunswick and Biddeford also had popular clubs and the clubs would travel between the towns for competitions and parties. For the most part, they did not take the snowshoe portion too seriously.
Wear Your Colors
Each club had distinctive colors for their uniforms and patches and many weren’t subtle. Le Montagnard’s were gray and scarlet while Le Diables Rouges were red and white. Uniforms typically consisted of a tuque (hat) with a tassel, jacket with epaulettes (shoulder piece) and insignia, pants, sash around the waist, and long socks with tassels.
Some had clubhouses, including Le Montagnard which owned a large building downtown that had the Ritz movie theatre downstairs and the club house upstairs. You can read all about that building over here. Le Montagnard also built a chalet at No Name Pond where ice blocks were cut to make sculptures and ice castles for snowshoe conventions.
Year Round Merriment
While the clubs may have started as winter snowshoe clubs, they quickly evolved into year-round social clubs and put on dances, pot lucks, and bean suppers, often at lakeside locations.
Some had their own marching bands led by baton-twirling majorettes that would march at city parades throughout the year. The Le Montagnard band (above) was even featured in the 1957 movie “Peyton Place” that was mostly filmed in Camden.
Where it Started
Snowshoe clubs started in Montreal in 1840 with the formation of the Montreal Snow Shoe Club (MSSC), the first snowshoe club in North America. The MSSC held weekly tramps, organized races, had torchlit parades from the McGill gates, and always finished up with loads of food and drink. They laid the basic groundwork for all future snowshoe clubs and their activities ultimately inspired the creation of winter carnivals.
A few hundred years before that, French settlers had copied the preferred form of Native American winter transportation: the snowshoe. They called them raquettes because they looked like the tennis rackets of the time. The snowshoe clubs shortened standard snowshoes to make them easier to run in and began holding competitions similar to a track and field competition including sprints, longer runs, relays and even hurdles.
The early Quebec clubs formed the Union Canadienne des Raquetteurs on March 8, 1907 and held their first convention in 1908. 25 Quebec clubs participated that first year.
The Canadian clubs were quite well known for their “bounce” where they would repeatedly throw a new member in the air using their hands or a blanket and catch them.
A Snowshoe Club Grows in Lewiston
In 1920, a short, mustachioed man from Quebec City named Louis-Philippe Gagné moved to Lewiston. He became the editor of “Le Messager,” Lewiston’s French newspaper, and wrote political commentary that was read throughout New England and Canada. Two years after he arrived, he started the first snowshoe club, Le Montagnard. He named it after Le Montagnard Club of Montreal, adopted their gray and scarlet uniforms along with the club’s motto, “Toujours joyeaux,“ which means “always happy.”
He encouraged the formation of other snowshoe clubs in Lewiston and then, just 3 years after founding Le Montagnard, boldly invited the Canadian clubs to Lewiston for the first International Snowshoe Convention. As the teams with a total of 800 people arrived at the Grand Trunk Railroad station, the crowds gathered to take it all in. Even Maine governor Ralph O. Brewster arrived by trolley to oversee the festivities. There were races in the park, a two story ice palace was built with blocks cut from No Name Pond, and a huge parade of the clubs marched through town.
“No more brilliant spectacle has been seen in this city in years than that of the sportily costumed, jauntily marching band”
The popularity and number of clubs crew steadily and peaked during the 1950s. The snowshoe convention alternated between Canada and the U.S., and Lewiston hosted the most conventions of any U.S. city. The 1950 convention brought 3,800 Racqueteers to Lewiston and was profiled by Life Magazine.
Louis-Philippe Gagné himself was elected mayor of Lewiston – twice. He also hosted live broadcasts called “L’Oeil” (The Eye) on WCOU, and was responsible for bringing notable Canadian performers to Lewiston.
The conventions typically occurred over one weekend in February and featured two hour parades with dozens of bands, various snowshoe races, dinners, a coronation ball and an awards ceremony at the end for the winners of the competitions.
The conventions had a huge effect on the city and brought thousands of visitors to Lewiston to watch and compete. Extra train cars were added to handle the numbers and hotels and restaurants eagerly looked forward to the weekend.
They Did Actually Race
Mixed in with all of the festivities, there actually were competitive races. Running in snowshoes requires training and skill, and some were quite good at it. Gérard Côté, a competitor from Quebec, dominated the events in the 1940s. Gérard happened to be a world class marathon runner who won the Boston Marathon 4 times. In the 1940 Snowshoe Festival, he won the 100 meter dash in 12 seconds and the 10 mile race in 1 hour and 3 minutes. By the time he had finished, his moccasined feet were partially frozen.
At the Lewiston conventions, a Bates College team could always be counted on to participate in the races. Some races were held on or next to the campus which made it quite convenient.
For the years when the convention wasn’t hosted by Lewiston, the U.S. conventioneers would hop on trains and stay up all night, drinking and partying, going from car to car on the way to Montreal, Ottawa or Quebec City. And when they got to the convention, the partying continued. Only a small percentage of the club members actually competed. The rest simply had fun.
Not everyone travelled by train. Some actually snowshoed to the convention. In 1927, two members of Québec’s Le Frontenac snowshoe club snowshoed 427 miles to the convention in Manchester, NH via Lewiston, Portland and Biddeford. Then in 1929, a 282 mile marathon was held from Montreal to Lewiston. It was won by forty-eight-year-old Eugene C’louette, ‘”the snowshoe king.”
As the popularity of the clubs grew, they started to exert considerable influence on local and state politics. The clubs were universally Democratic and getting their informal endorsement meant a candidate would likely get a lot of votes. Le Montagnard held rallies for the Democratic Party at their chalet at No Name Pond, once having Ed Muskie as a speaker.
Many members of clubs, including longtime Le Montagnard presidents Roland Tanguay and Albert Coté, became state representatives. Even Le Montagnard’s bartender was a state legislator. It was said that if you wanted to get elected in Lewiston, you had to be a member of a club – or at least pay them a respectful visit.
In an interview given to Bates College, John Orestis, former member of the Maine legislature and mayor of Lewiston, said that the clubs were run by their President or treasurer who ran the business aspects of the club: the bar, food, gambling and supported the social activities of the club with part of the profits. Then they paid themselves a handsome salary and got around the non-profit status. So if you were campaigning, you made the rounds of all the clubs (buying drinks) and then hopefully got the clubs to “choose” you.
The clubs voted as a block and their vote was often enough to tip the voting scales.
The End is Near
As the years wore on, the snowshoe clubs started to wane. Conventions were still being held, but the number of attendees steadily dropped. Skiing had “overtaken” snowshoeing as the most popular winter sport long ago and the clubs that hadn’t yet closed were mostly functioning as private social clubs with dinners, darts, and cheap drinks. Renewed interest in recreational snowshoeing that began in the 1990s didn’t translate into a renaissance of snowshoe clubs in Lewiston.
Almost all of the clubs are gone now and the last snowshoe convention was held in 2015 and was a small affair. There were about 180 snowshoers who came from Canada, Maine, New Hampshire and New York for the weekend. The convention and events were held at the Ramada Inn in Lewiston. They still had opening ceremonies and a coronation ball and held races at the Lewiston High School (dominated by competitors from Paul Smith’s college in the Adirondacks). This was followed by a parade around the Ramada and a banquet where awards and trophies were handed out.
The organizers from Le Passe-Temps club announced that 2015 was the last year Lewiston would hold the convention.
Video of 1950 Convention in color!
Most photography available online of the snowshoe clubs is in black & white. Color photos are hard to find, let alone video. But the University of Southern Maine found and converted some silent 16mm file of the 1950 convention in Lewiston which provides a wonderful unscripted glimpse into the colors and feel of of one of those weekend. It shows the parade, coronation ball, races, Catholic mass and the bean supper. Enjoy.