Image: Snowmobile Museum
Pat Wellenbach  /  AP
Hundreds of power sleds line the walls of the United Sports Antique & Vintage Snowmobile Museum, in Turner, Maine. Restored power sleds dating back a half-century line the wooden shelves of the museum.
updated 2/11/2009 10:36:44 AM ET 2009-02-11T15:36:44

If there's a heaven for snowmobiles, it's in an unobtrusive western Maine warehouse whose owner calls it the state's best-kept secret.

Shiny, restored power sleds dating back a half-century line the shelves of the United Sports Antique & Vintage Snowmobile Museum. They include long-discontinued brands, rare if not one-in-the-world models, behemoths pushed by rear engines, and one that would work well in a James Bond flick with its exhaust pipes jutting menacingly from the front hood.

Ski Cat, Sno-Pony, Ski Whiz, Fox Trac, Swinger, Gilson, and even the only snowmobile ever manufactured in Maine, Whippet, are represented in Paul Bernier's museum, located modestly behind his snowmobile accessories showroom.

Bernier is constantly adding new models to his collection, now closing in on 300, and rotates the displays so all get properly featured. This offers repeat visitors a new experience every time they return, said Bernier, 52, whose own fascination with power sleds goes back to his childhood.

"I call this the most diversified museum. ... I do the old rear engine, I do the race sleds, I do the sled that you had when you were a kid. So anything unique, I'm looking for it," said Bernier.

In one form or another, snowmobiles have been around since the early 1900s, often used in their earlier days as work vehicles for utilities, ski areas and loggers. A machine that's been described as a powered toboggan fitted with skis was patented in the late '20s, and by the 1970s more than 200 brands were on the market. The total is now less than a half dozen, Bernier said.

Bernier has built his inventory to 70 makes and is constantly looking for more. There are other collectors and museums in the United States and Canada, but believes his is the most diversified.

The New Hampshire Snowmobile Association has a museum in Allenstown that boasts a rare model T Ford that was converted into a snowmobile, and an "oddball" collection that includes Evinrude, Sears and Homelite makes, a couple of Ski-Daddlers and a Sno Ghia. At least two museums are based in Wisconsin, one in Washington state and one in Michigan, according to the Vintage Snowmobile Club of America.

Bombardier, maker of Ski-Doo, has a museum in Quebec. And in Fredon, N.J., the Snowmobile Barn displays more than 250 sleds, including a 1951 Bombardier 12-passenger tracked vehicle designed for use in the Canadian countryside as a wintertime school bus or emergency vehicle.

For Bernier, collecting started simply enough. He began setting aside old models he took as trades when he owned an Arctic Cat dealership in the 1980s and '90s. He now limits the business to snowmobile repairs, and sales of trailers and accessories.

The castoffs wound up in an old chicken barn he rented, but as the numbers multiplied, he built a heated warehouse that is now the museum. Its entrance is at the rear of his accessories showroom. Some customers entering the business think they're already in the museum when they see a limited selection of vintage sleds gleaming from high shelves.

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Many if not most of the 100 or so visitors who stop by on an average weekend are not necessarily looking for the fast, the sleek or the rare models, said Bernier, who charges no admission.

Bernier said that for years, "I was chasing the high-dollar race sleds. And then I realized that when people were coming in, they were looking at these sleds I really didn't think much of. I asked them why, and they said the first thing that they noticed was the sled they had as a kid. It just made them feel like a kid again."

Bernier understands the nostalgia. He yearns for the Auto-Ski he owned as a kid in the '70s — not one like it, but the one he actually owned. If it's sitting in someone's barn or tucked in the woods somewhere, doesn't matter.

"If anyone has an Auto Ski, I'm looking for my childhood sled," he said.

He puts a strong emphasis on keeping his collection diverse, with the old rear-engine models like one that was used for years by legendary Maine fishing and hunting guide Joe King. Unlike most of the other machines that are restored and gleam like new, King's old Polaris twin bears faded red paint and signs of wear. Bernier said he keeps it like it is to preserve the hand-painted Maine registration numbers to prove it really was King's.

His collection includes a 1959 Polaris Sno-Traveler measuring nearly 13 feet that went up Mount Washington in New Hampshire without any brakes. There's a 1972 Viking Vigilante with a 650 cc engine covered by a shimmering metallic purple hood, which won best of show in a national competition a couple of years ago.

Some of the makes Bernier houses might have a familiar ring even to the uninitiated. A Massey-Ferguson on display looks at first glance like a mini-tractor from the front. Another farm tractor company, John Deere, also put a snowmobile on the market. A model painted in Deere's unmistakable green shade takes its place in Bernier's museum, as does a 1974 Harley-Davidson, rigged in the motorcycle maker's black-and-orange.

Mercury, the marine engine maker, came out with a snowmobile in the late '60s powered by a two-man chain saw engine.

It was a 1970 Boa Ski with a powerful 850 cc engine that featured the "stinger" exhausts protruding gun-like from the front. Only two were ever made and the model in Bernier's museum is the last one known to exist.

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