In June 1870, Swedes arrived in Maine and settled in New Sweden, Maine. That year, 150 winters ago, the Swedes dealt with snow the way they knew: with skis. They were the first skiers in the state of Maine.
Maine’s ski history goes back 150 years, but skiing itself has a history that goes back thousands of years. For most of that time it was utilitarian. As the Swedes knew, it was a way to get around in the deep snow of a Maine winter, a way to go to the store or for kids to get to school. In the next few pages, we will look back at how skiing changed over the years. Beginning with the first published image of a skier, we will follow the trail of the sport as it grows and becomes an established sport in Maine, for women as well as men.
Lady in Olaus Magnus:
In 1555 Olaus Magnus wrote A Description of Northern Peoples, a book about the history, customs, and folklore of Sweden. The book included many wood block prints which are the earliest published images of skiers. Among them is this one, the first published image of a woman on skis. In all the many images in the book, she is the only character who is smiling.
This photo of Bertha Files and a friend was taken in the 1890s, outside of Bangor. Bertha graduated from Bates and taught history at Bangor High School.
In December 1903, Country Life in America magazine wrote, “No Sport is more invigorating or better develops all the muscles of the body than a day’s run on skees.”
In 1905 Theo Johnsen started making skis in Portland under the name “Tajco.” Few people skied, so he wrote a book, The Winter Sport of Skeeing, to explain the sport and sell more skis. This was the first ski book in North America.
Johnson wrote, “Any skidor will tell you that skeeing is the most exhilarating, most fascinating, most healthful and most delightful of all winter sports, and that indulged in sensibly and not to excess, it is the ideal outdoor pastime for everybody, young and old.”
Johnsen’s enthusiasm and expectations for the sport were right, but he was early by decades. He closed his business in 1907.
Tajco lady skiing:
This photo is from the 1905 book The Winter Sport of Skeeing by Theo Johnsen. The photo was shot in a studio in Portland against a hand-painted background, probably by Johnsen himself. The model’s hat is held up by wire to create the image of speed. She is skiing with leather toe loops to hold her to the skis, and she is wearing high heels.
Maine is known as “Vacationland,” but where did winter vacations start? Surprisingly, the Brits were among the first to take winter sports vacations. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mystery series, wrote articles about his holidays in the Alps, which spurred the trend. In 1911, A Winter Sport Book was published with quotations and artwork that showed strong, active women.
In 1925, Polly, from the Sanford area, shows off her first pair of skis.
By the 1920s, skiing was starting to gain a foothold, and throughout the mid-1920s, festive winter carnivals brought many people to the sport. The Great Depression in 1929, however, effectively stopped the growth of outdoor winter recreation.
Maine companies Paris Manufacturing, Tubbs, and Bass Shoes were among the country’s top ski equipment makers. This catalog from 1926 shows that women were as apt to be skiers as men.
Skiing was teetering on the edge of the mainstream. It was not quite a common form of recreation, but it almost was. This Paris Manufacturing catalog recognizes that liminal status and says, “Are winter sports a fad, soon to be forgotten? Let us hope that no sport that calls both young and old, too much accustomed to the confinement of winter months with its accompanying colds and sickness, out into the open, into God’s great outdoors, to enjoy anew the helpful sports of our younger days, should perish.”
At the station:
After the Great Depression, it took years for most people to have time and money for leisure and recreation. But by the late 1930s, skiing was an established sport in Maine. Snow Trains brought skiers from the cities to winter playgrounds like Fryeburg, Rumford, and Greenville. The sport was pursued with excitement and enthusiasm by people ready for healthy, outdoor fun.
The Maine Ski and Snowboard Museum in Kingfield invites you to visit. There you will see Theo Johnsen’s book and many photos and artifacts, including little Polly’s skis. The current exhibit is “50th Anniversary of the Tall Timber Classic Races at Sugarloaf,” the only World Cup race to be run in Maine.
For more information on Maine’s skiing and snowboarding past please go to: www.maineskiandsnowboardmuseum.org