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When a Maine town was the 'Snowshoe Capital of America'

The people of Norway, Maine worked to put this rural town on the map.

NORWAY, Maine — To hedge from the sales racks in department and outdoor stores, there must be lots of people who want snowshoes. 

But those racks are filled with aluminum and plastic snowshoes, mostly made overseas. Aside from the name and the general shape, they bear little resemblance to the once-familiar wooden snowshoes that Maine produced by the thousands.

And nowhere in Maine were more snowshoes produced than in the town of Norway, which once boasted it was the "Snowshoe Capital of America."

In the 1800s, snowshoe collector Paul Cote said, snowshoe making was a cottage industry, done by individuals on farms and in backyard workshops.

Snowshoes were a necessity in rural Maine, as those who lived on farms, worked in the woods, or hunted had to have them to get around in winter.

A Norway man named Millie Dunham is credited with starting what became the modern snowshoe industry in the town. 

"He was a farmer and would make snowshoes in the winter for extra money, and they were apparently excellent," Sue Dennison of the Norway Historical Society said, "Because Admiral Peary ordered some for his Antarctic trip and then bought more."

She said Dunham taught a nephew snowshoe skills, and the nephew then taught a local man named Tubbs who started a manufacturing plant in 1907.

Tubbs' snowshoes grew, employing dozens of people until it was sold to a company in Vermont. That, setting an example that would become all too common in later years, promptly moved the business out of Maine.

However, some former Tubbs employees who stayed behind started a new company, called Sno Craft, located in the same factory building in Norway. Dennison said Sno Craft employed 40 to 50 people and produced thousands of pairs of snowshoes.

World War II saw a huge jump in snowshoe production, as Sno Craft received government contracts to make snowshoes for the U.S. Army fighting in Europe. 

"Tens of thousands were made for the 10th Mountain Division," Cote said. 

So many were made, he said, that many years after the war, people found warehouses in the U.S. stacked with many pairs of new snowshoes left over from the war.

Sno Craft continued production after the war, and Norway even held a snowshoe festival in 1949—even though there wasn’t much snow that winter. To keep the festival going, the town trucked in sawdust and dumped it on Main Street so snowshoe races could go on.

Over the following years, snowshoe making continued but declined, Dennison said, until the company went out of business in the early 1980s. 

Those years of making snowshoes are remembered in Norway, kept alive by the historical society, and those who remember when making them served as the town's claim to fame. 

"'The Snowshoe Capital of America,' that’s what the sign said," Dennison recalled of a 16-foot snowshoe that once greeted visitors to the town.

No snowshoe makers are left in the town today, and possibly only one wooden snowshoe manufacturer remains in Maine.

The museum curator said that history is a distinction.

"For dinky little Norway, Maine, it was a big deal. And still is."

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