Snowshoes in Franco-American history and culture

Even in the July heat, when Maine air temperatures hovered in the upper 90’s F, the thought of another winter is, always, only 6 months away.  Snow shoes (raquette à neige), relics of winters past, were a generous loan provided to me for the purpose of adding them to the archives and exhibits in the Franco-American Collection, at the University of Southern Maine Lewiston Auburn College (USM LAC). On July 17, a group of students from Haiti will be visiting the Collection and the Franco-Gendron Center, to learn about Lewiston’s Franco-American history & culture. Therefore, les raquettes will be excellent visuals to augment their learning experience.

Antique snowshoes

Antique snowshoes (les raquettes). (L’Heureux photograph)

Two pairs of these in perfect condition snow shoes were obviously hand made. In fact, they’re stamped by the Laconia, New Hampshire manufacturer. Each pair is engraved with the year when they were presumably made. One pair is engraved dated 1944; and 1945 is carved in the wood frame on the second pair.

These snowshoes are made from solid ash with rawhide lacing.

Snow shoes are a traditional image in Franco-American and French-Canadian history. They were functional and recreational.  Snow shoe clubs are still popular.

In 1908, snowshoeing became an organized social sport with the founding of the Canadian Snowshoe Union.

carved date in snowshoes

Carved in the wooden frame are the dates when they were presumably made.

Snowshoe clubs had distinctive colors for their uniforms and insignias.

Clubs often had clubhouses, sponsored various events and participated in competitions.

Louis-Philippe Gagné was the founder of America’s first snowshoe club. A former sports editor for a Québec City daily newspaper, Louis-Philippe Gagné immigrated inn 1922, to Lewiston.

Showshoe stamp Laconia New Hampshire

Snowshoe label made in Laconia New Hampshire

He carried with him the hope of transplanting the raquetteur (snowshoer) traditions to his adopted country.

Louis-Philippe Gagné (April 16, 1900- January 13, 1964) was a French Canadian journalist, snowshoe enthusiast, and politician. Gagné wrote an influential and widely circulated political column in the French language Le Messager and from 1947-1949, he was the mayor of Lewiston, Maine.

Gagné was born in 1900 in Quebec City.  After he immigrated to Lewiston, he became the editor of Le Messager, the city’s French language newspaper. He became a citizen of the United States in 1928 and ran for ward clerk that same year. He was elected to the Lewiston School Committee in 1930 and served in that position until 1934. During the 1940s, he served two terms on the Lewiston City Council. During World War II, he served on the local Selective Service Board.  He also formed a number of civic and sporting organizations, including Le Club Montagnard (The Mountaineer Club), which was the first snowshoe running organization in the United States.

Donald Dubay and Richard L'Heureux with les raquettes

Franco-Americans are familiar with snowshoes! Donald Dubay (left) a native of Lewiston now lives in North Carolina with my husband Richard L’Heureux of Topsham ME. These snowshoes will be exhibited at the Franco-American Collection at USM LAC, in Lewiston.

A history about les racquettes is at this link.

The Louis-Philippe Gagné Papers are held by the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In May 2013, he was posthumously inducted into the Maine Franco-American Hall of Fame, by the Maine Legislature.

A biography of Louis-Philippe Gagné is at this link.

We are grateful to the donor of these antique show shoes, for allowing them to be displayed in the archives with the Franco-American Collection. Merci beaucoup!

Juliana L'Heureux

About Juliana L'Heureux

Juliana L’Heureux is a free lance writer who publishes news, blogs and articles about Franco-Americans and the French culture. She has written about the culture in weekly and bi-weekly articles, for the past 27 years.