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Bringing Home the Treasures From Oxford Hills' Manufacturing Glory Days

From the late 1800s well into the 20th century, the Oxford Hills region was a manufacturing hub known for high-quality snowshoes, skis, sleds and children's toys. Over the years, many of these Maine-made products became collector's items, and found their way across the country. For the past 20 years, one Oxford man has been making sure some of them are close to home. Doug Tribou, of NPR's Only A Game, reports.

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Originally Aired: 3/19/2013 5:30 PM

Tribou 4

Paul Cote didn't have a plan when he started collecting. Cote owns Pa's Antique Attic in Oxford. He just liked having things with a connection to the place he grew up.

"I got started collecting snowshoes because I'm from the Oxford Hills area and Norway is pretty much right in the heart of the Oxford Hills. And Norway was considered for many, many years the snowshoe-making capital of the world," he says.

Cote's large office has high ceilings and is paneled in knotty pine. The bright, polished boards are the backdrop for the shelves and cases that hold much of his collection. According to Cote, when local residents needed snowshoes, they usually bought them from Native Americans - until the late 1800s. That's when Maine residents of European descent began to streamline the process by using saws, drills and other hand tools that many Native Americans didn't have.

"So they were able to cut lumber in perfect squares and cut long pieces of lumber and select the better lumber and eliminate lumber that wouldn’t be quite so compatible to steaming and bending and doing all these things," Cote says. "They were able to build forms so that they could mass produce snowshoes that all looked the same."

Tribou 5One Norway man who took up the trade was Mellie Dunham. Dunham was a farmer who made snowshoes as a winter side business. Robert Peary used Dunham's snowshoes for his expeditions to the North Pole, including the successful journey that began in 1908. Cote says Dunham also taught the snowshoe trade to a young man named Walter F. Tubbs.

"Tubbs became one of the premium manufacturers of snowshoes and Walter turned the snowshoe industry into an industry, took it away from being a cottage industry," he says. "Had a manufacturing facility, hired people full-time working year-round manufacturing snowshoes for the wholesale as well as the retail trade."

Although the business has long since left Maine, Tubbs snowshoes are still made today. Between the region's Native Americans, Dunham, and Tubbs, Paul Cote had plenty to collect.

"But after I got to the place where I had about a thousand pairs of snowshoes, I thought, 'I'd probably better branch out into something else.' That's kind of where I got interested in wildlife art, locally manufactured wildlife art into the sleds and the wagons and the carts."

Fortunately for Cote, a business once based in South Paris created a treasure-trove for today's antiques collectors: Paris Manufacturing Company. 

"Everything you could make from wood they made - household furniture, sleds, toboggans, skis, and operated plant through the late 1800s and the early 1900s, up to 1925 or so," says Hank Morton.

Tribou 1In the 1860s, Morton's great-grandfather founded the company that would become Paris Manufacturing. At its peak, the mill employed 300 people. Morton (center in photo at right, with sons Ted, left and Tom, right), now 77 years old, joined the family business in 1960. He says eventually sleds became the company's top product.
"For years they manufactured the Speedaway sled in substantial numbers, as many as 400,000 sleds a year," Morton says. "Speedaway - that name has dropped out of public sight. Flexible Flyer was probably the principal competitor."

Today, all that's left of the mill is the smokestack, but Morton and his sons are the fourth and fifth generations of the family in the sled business, now under the name Paricon. None of their modern products - including the Flexible Flyer brand, which they bought in 2005 -  are made in Maine, but their warehouse sits where the mill once stood.

Tribou 2In the late 1800s, earlier generations of the Morton family produced some of Cote's most cherished collectibles:  steel-runner sleds with ornately painted wooden decks. One of his shelves holds about 20 of them.

"They're all hand-painted, all gold leaf. I mean, they're just fabulous pieces of art, and these were $60 a dozen," he says with a laugh. The sleds were 5 bucks a piece wholesale. To give you some example of today's market, I paid $7,000 for this one."

Ben Conant is the curator for the Paris Cape Historical Society. Conant says he often hears from collectors researching their Paris Manufacturing products. "We get more letters, way off, you know - Washington state and Texas. They have a chair that says 'Paris Manufacturing.' They want to know what year it was put out. So, the items have scattered hither and yon."
Tribou 3Cote says in the past 20 to 30 years, as Mainers began to open their barns and attics to auctioneers and antiques experts, he watched people gathering up Maine-made goods. And that's what's kept him inspired about collecting.

"As collectors showed more and more interest and the value went up and up and up, these things continued to disappear from this area of the country, and were collected from all other parts of the country that were more affluent, quite frankly," he says. "It just seemed to me that it would be appropriate to see how many I could rescue and bring back home."

Today, Cote buys and sells sleds, snowshoes, and other locally-produced pieces. He's working on plans for a larger, more public display of his collection. The days when Oxford Hills was a manufacturing center might be a thing of the past, but part of that past has returned.

Doug Tribou is a reporter and producer for NPR's sports program Only A Game, which can be heard Saturdays at 7:00 a.m. on MPBN Radio. 

Photos by Doug Tribou.


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