There was plenty of hoopla in Waterville on Jan. 23, 1938, when more than 10,000 people arrived by car, bus and train for the opening of Dunham’s Mountain Farm, the newest and most modern Alpine ski facility Maine had ever seen.

Maine Gov. Lewis A. Barrows and Waterville Mayor Robert M. Jackson gave speeches before they rode down a 2,000-foot toboggan chute and tumbled over at the bottom, with nothing unharmed except perhaps their egos. A group of young women in snowshoes played a farcical game of 6-on-6 football to the delight of photographers and newsreel cameras. The Waterville High marching band played songs throughout the proceedings.

But Dunham’s was more than speeches, sideshows and songs. Two innovations helped make this winter wonderland the talk of Maine: a 1,700-foot, tractor-powered rope tow — one of the first in the state — that eliminated the need for skiers to march uphill; and a skiing school taught by 22-year-old Waterville resident George Gagnon, who helped the sport take off in the 1930s and whose efforts ultimately were rewarded with his posthumous induction into the Maine Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame in 2021.

The hall of fame, which has 167 members, was established as a division of the Maine Ski and Snowboard Museum. Inductees include many pioneers who helped grow the sport in Maine, like Gagnon.




Skiing’s growth spurt


Despite the presence of the Great Depression, Alpine skiing grew in the 1930s from a sport for the classes into one for the masses. According to the International Skiing History Association (ISHA), American participation grew from the low five figures in the late 1920s to as high as a half million by 1936. The growth of rope tows, ski trains that eased travel from major cities to distant slopes, and increased literature were cited as reason’s for the sports’ growth, according to the ISHA.

” … it became the great mating scene,” Dave Rowan, the publisher of Ski Area Management, a trade publication, wrote several years ago. “If you wanted to be seen as a ‘sport,’ which was the operative word in the 1930s, you skied in the winter. The sport developed its own clothing glamor, its own songs, its own mystique, its own heroes both European instructor-gods and homegrown racing heroes.”

It was into this world that George Gagnon entered the skiing scene. Born in 1915 in New Brunswick, Gagnon moved to Waterville with his family after his father died in the 1918-19 influenza pandemic. By age 7, he was gliding around on a pair of homemade wooden skis whittled by an uncle.

“It was just a basic ski with a little leather strap that you slid your toe into, kinda like what a cross-country ski is now,” Jim Gagnon, George’s son, said recently from his Southport home.


While in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, George Gagnon met a few of those “European instructor-gods,” Jim Gagnon said.

George Gagnon skies at Mt. Washington in this undated photo. Photo provided by Jim Gagnon

They included the following: Hannes Schneider, an Austrian whose innovations in ski instruction earned him the distinction as the “Father of Modern-Day Skiing;” Herb Schneider, Hannes’s son and, like his dad, a member of the U.S. National Ski Hall of Fame; and Walter Prager, a Switzerland native who won the first world championship in downhill skiing and also was the head coach of the Dartmouth College ski team.

Thanks to these heavy hitters, Gagnon received his ski instructor’s certification and returned to Waterville to manage the ski department at Dunham’s Trading Post, an early sporting goods store on Main Street. After the snow started to melt in central Maine, Gagnon and a few friends would take off for Tuckerman’s Ravine, a longtime haven for spring skiers on the southeast face of Mt. Washington, and nearby Dodge’s Drop, noted for its steep 50-degree slope.

“He would go over on a Sunday when everyone was packing up to go back on the train and go back to Boston,” Jim Gagnon recalled, “and he and his buddies would go around and collect any leftover food, because people would leave the food behind so they wouldn’t have to pack it up. They would live off that food during the week and stay up there and ski.

“(Dodge’s Drop) is kinda like what you see today with extreme skiing, that’s what it was back then. I would say that was kind of the birth of it, almost. They were very adventurous.”

But an adventure of another sort was brewing closer to home. In fall 1937, Ned Floyd, a New Jersey native and frequent Maine vacationer, purchased 3,000 acres of farmland about 2 miles from downtown Waterville, where Quarry Road Recreation Area is today, and set out to create the most modern ski facility in New England. In just a few months, Floyd and Waterville developer Ronald Brown converted the land into Dunham’s Mountain Farm, and Gagnon was tabbed to teach classes four days a week. While he technically wasn’t a “European instructor-god,” he could easily have passed for one, especially when wearing his short-brimmed, high-peaked Tyrolean hat, a staple of Austrian and Swiss fashion.


“Mr. Gagnon looks like, and acts like, an imported Austrian ski expert,” the Morning Sentinel wrote in a Jan. 21, 1938 article. “He has the adaptability to explain points on skiing which are helpful to both the novice and the expert.”

But Dunham’s was more than a place to buy equipment and take lessons, according to Glenn Parkinson, president and historian for the Maine Ski and Snowboard Museum. It was a hub of conversation and advice, a sort of general store for the ski set.

“Those were the sort of places that people would go to not just to buy equipment, but to swap stories,” Parkinson said. “‘Where was the good snow? What trails are in good shape?’ (They would) ask about instructional techniques, having a problem turning to the left or whatever. (Gagnon) was there to answer all sort of questions. He was a travel agent, instructor, equipment guy — a proponent for the sport.”


Military travels



In March 1941, Gagnon enlisted in the U.S. Army, where he joined the newly formed ski troops, whose mission was “to fight in the most difficult, mountainous terrain in Europe,” according to a 2007 NPR article. While Gagnon never reached Europe, his time in the service took him to Mt. Rainier in Washington state, where he became reacquainted with some of his old ski friends from the White Mountains. His travels also took him to Lake Louise, Canada, where he helped develop the “Weasel,” a forerunner to the modern Tucker Sno-Cat that was used transport troops over the snow; Camp Hale, Colorado, where he befriended Friedl Pfeifer, another Austrian “instructor-god;” and the Aleutian Islands, where an injury nearly ended his life. As he was unhooking a truck tailgate for the men to get out, another truck backed into him and crushed his pelvis in 12 places, Jim Gagnon said.

George Gagnon, right, hangs out with an unidentified friend at Mt. Washington in this undated photo. Gagnon, a longtime Waterville resident, is a member of the Maine Ski and Snowboard Museum’s Hall of Fame. Photo provided by Jim Gagnon

“The doctors didn’t think he was going to make it, and they had to rebuild a lot of his internals,” Jim Gagnon said. “They told him, ‘you’re never going to have any kids.’ Well, no one ever told my father what he couldn’t do. He went on anyway to have four kids and go back to skiing as well.” 

After his honorable discharge in 1945 (he declined any disability pay, saying “there were other guys out there who needed it more than I did,” according to his son), Gagnon returned to Waterville and resumed his duties at Dunham’s.

He also held “Winter sports days” for area Boy Scouts, where he taught skiing and winter camping techniques he learned in the service, and taught swimming, diving and sailing in the summer.


Seeing the future



Gagnon also skied at a place in western Maine called Bigelow Ski Range. He helped a group of people called the “Bigelow Boys” lay down the first tracks at Sugarloaf Mountain in the 1950s. According to Jim Gagnon, there were no dreams of creating a premier ski resort; George and his pals simply were looking for another place to ski.

Sugarloaf, ironically, may have eventually rendered places such as Dunham’s Mountain Farm obsolete. (Dunham’s, later called Colby Ski Area after Colby College bought the facility, was abandoned in 1979 due to rising maintenance costs, and was revived in the winter of 2021-22.)

“I don’t remember him having any kind of negative reactions,” Jim Gagnon said. “I’m sure he would have liked to see it go (on), and he’d be pleased to know that it’s going (on) now, and that there are people there doing something.” 

George Gagnon displays some fancy moves in a Portland Evening Express clipping from 1938. Gagnon, a longtime Waterville resident, is a member of the Maine Ski and Snowboard Museum’s Hall of Fame. Photo provided by Jim Gagnon

Gagnon frequented Sugarloaf almost up until his death in 2002 at age 87, by which time skiing had become something not even he nor his contemporaries from the 1930s boom could have even dreamed of.

I know he was glad to see that, and he loved seeing people out skiing,” Jim Gagnon said. “He would stop and talk to people on the slopes, maybe they were having a hard time and he’d give them some encouragement, or maybe he’d just stop and talk to people; that’s the kind of guy he was.”

In 2021, nearly a century after he stepped into those first homemade skis, he was inducted into the Maine Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame, the crowning achievement for a skier and teacher who helped the sport grow in Maine and make it a winter vacationland.

“He’s had a big impact on the sport,” Parkinson, the museum president, said. “He got it up and running as a form of recreation in the ’30s. He brought distinction because of the classy way he did everything. He had the backing of Dunham’s, but he was the guy out front doing stuff. He was impactful, and he did a good job for the state and for the sport.”

Added Jim Gagnon: “He was an all-around guy, but he loved to teach people. If you had some interest, he was right there for you.”

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