Image: Antique skis
Pat Wellenbach  /  AP
Bindings are seen on a pair of old skis from the 1930s at the new Ski Museum of Maine in Farmington, Maine.
updated 1/5/2007 12:06:32 PM ET 2007-01-05T17:06:32

The popularity of skiing snowballed in America in the 1920s and '30s, creating a new industry for a number of companies that cropped up over schuss-happy Maine. Then came World War II.

"Please have patience," Maine's Bass Boots advertised to anxious ski-boot customers after it turned its attention to making cold-climate boots for troops. After the war ended, a new Bass ad in 1946 proclaimed the good news, "You can buy Bass boots again."

That's just one snippet of history on view at the new Ski Museum of Maine, which opened Dec. 1 in this college town in the heart of Maine ski country.

The history of skiing goes back thousands of years to northern Europe and Asia. Pieces of skis dating back 5,000 years have been found in peat bogs, and cave drawings just as old suggest early use of a form of skis, said Glenn Parkinson, author of "First Tracks: Stories from Maine's Skiing Heritage" and ski museum board member.

The new museum helps to secure Maine's place in the sport through its collection of wooden and newer skis and equipment, ad displays reflecting earlier eras of skiing, and a growing archive of records, documents and memorabilia.

But it's more than just a collection of artifacts, Parkinson said.

It's also a place where Maine's skiing heritage is preserved, where visitors can relate what they see to their own feelings and memories.

"Heritage is the feel of the wet wool and the taste of the hot chocolate from the years gone by," Parkinson said. "It touches on the soul of the sport."

The museum is housed in the same building where the Sugarloaf USA logo, a blue and white triangle that's well-recognized in Maine and beyond, was first designed, according to the museum's consulting curator Megan Roberts, a lifelong skier who is pictured in a couple of the photos on display.

Sugarloaf Mountain, in Carrabassett Valley, and the Sunday River resort, in Newry, are sponsoring the museum's opening exhibit, which runs through March.

Maine follows other states, notably Colorado, and neighboring New Hampshire and Vermont, in establishing a ski museum. The New England Ski Museum, of which Parkinson is president, is located at Franconia, N.H. Vermont's ski museum is at Stowe.

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Sugarloaf played an indirect role in the creation of Maine's museum about a dozen years ago.

The Sugarloaf Ski Club was looking for a place to preserve old documents, banners and other items in its possession. It also wanted a place where similar items from across the state could be kept, Parkinson said.

Artifacts were first stored in an old schoolhouse in Kingfield, then moved to Carrabassett Valley. In the meantime, organizers obtained grants to properly archive documents, trail maps, patches, ski magazines and other items.

The timing of the museum's opening is important. With the first generation of Maine skiers who took up the sport in the 1930s and '40s dying, a cache of historically valuable items in basements, attics and garages is being unearthed, Roberts said. People seem more than willing to donate or lend the museum their antique equipment.

On the day the museum opened, many of the 200 people who stopped by offered old skis, poles and boots. When it was clear their donations would be accepted, some returned with armfuls of additional gear, Roberts said.

The museum now has ample displays and more in an archive and storage area upstairs, but it hasn't yet reached the point of turning things away, she said.

The oldest piece on display is a ski resembling a weather-worn barnboard with a slightly bowed tip believed to date from the 1890s, a decade or so after the sport first caught on in Maine. Roberts said it was probably handmade and used by a farmer to get around in Maine's deep snow.

A pair of 8-foot wooden jumping skis as well as numerous sets of long, wooden skis, are also in the collection. The bindings -- ranging from primitive leather toe-loops, to bear traps and more modern variations as the sport grew in popularity -- reveal the ages of the skis.

Some are accompanied by bamboo poles with worn paint and baskets fashioned from leather and metal or wood.

A set of white skis and accompanying gaiters (a protective shell worn from knee to ankle to keep snow out) pay tribute to Mainers who were part of the famed 10th Mountain Division, an Army unit that trained in Colorado for winter and mountain warfare.

The 2006-07 exhibit focuses on Maine businesses that blossomed around the sport, such as Wilton's Bass Shoe, Norway's W.F. Tubbs Co. and Bangor's S.L. Crosby. At Paris Manufacturing Co., a ski maker, Finnish-American craftsmen skied to and from work, Roberts said.

An early catalog of Theo. A. Johnson Co. of Portland, whose boat-building venture turned to skis a little more than a century ago, trumpeted "The Winter Sport of Skeeing."

A Tubbs catalog gave a more elaborate pitch: "More and more, as people realize that an outdoor winter vacation on snow-clad hills and highways, on frozen lakes and rivers, is health-building _ a tonic as essential as a summertime vacation in the open; skis will be in even greater demand."

The museum's present site may or may not be the permanent one, said Greg Sweetser of the Ski Maine Association and a Maine Ski Museum board member. But Farmington "is a great first home base," he said.

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