The word “artisan” is defined online by Merriam-Webster as “a worker who practices a trade or handicraft; a person or company that produces something in limited quantities often using traditional methods.”
Merriam-Webster further explained that in America, where most factories produce goods on a large scale, artisans make only fine objects sold at higher prices than the same manufactured goods, such as artisan bread, cheeses, and chocolates. And consider the current popularity of artisan beers. In addition, some artisans make furniture, home decor, guitars, and banjos.
The same also goes for artisan-made traditional snowshoes and snowshoe makers. Keep in mind the word “traditional” concerning snowshoes reflects a wood-framed snowshoe of various shapes and sizes with leather or neoprene webbing for decks. But, again, the artisan carefully produces a craft of high quality.
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A brief history
United States snowshoes crafted by artisans and artisan companies appeared around the mid-nineteenth century. According to the University of Maine’s Hudson Museum, “Maine was the center of snowshoe production from the 1850s to 1940s, and Maine Indian snowshoes were renowned for their superb craftsmanship and durability.” They noted that non-natives also crafted traditional snowshoes and borrowed Native American snowshoe designs and construction techniques. Notably were “Penobscot Indian Snowshoes,” used by Henry David Thoreau in his Maine wilderness travels.
Snowshoeing author Steven Griffin wrote that in 1906, Walter Tubbs made ash-framed snowshoes in Maine, and his snowshoes were selected by Admiral Byrd’s 1908 expedition to the South Pole. The Tubbs company was sold and later relocated to Vermont.
During the mid to late 1800s and early 1900s, people used traditional snowshoes for work in logging, trapping, park and forest services, and other outdoor occupations. However, there was also some recreational snowshoe activity evident, given the existence of snowshoeing clubs. During that time, “Snowshoe clubs were formed, especially in Quebec and eastern Canada, and in New England states, and people gathered for winter hikes, races, and parties,” according to Griffin.
Increase in popularity
Traditional snowshoe makers, artisans, and production companies grew as recreational snowshoeing began to grow in the 1950s. At that time, brothers Gene and Bill Prater started making wood-frame snowshoes with rawhide webbing. This timeframe was two decades before Bill Prater started producing aluminum-frame Sherpa Snowshoes. The Praters are credited with creating the traditional western mountain snowshoe, a shoe narrower than bear paws without a pointed tail. In collaboration with Dave Felkley, Gene Prater also wrote the famous book Snowshoeing: From Novice to Master.
By the 1980s, recreational snowshoeing interest increased and boomed to its present popularity status. Although modern aluminum-frame and plastic snowshoes have dominated the snowshoeing industry in recent years, traditional snowshoes persisted and are continually made today by many snowshoeing enthusiasts.
A few traditional snowshoe artisan companies today
Today, several companies are makers of traditional snowshoes in the U.S., either on a small-scale basis or in more massive production. However, the production methods of smaller companies involve craft-based and hand-made techniques that are artisan in nature. Thus, they are still making traditional snowshoes the traditional way.
As a child, the only snowshoe company I had heard of was Iverson Snowshoes because the company was in Shingleton, 70 miles from where I grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Clarence Iverson began making traditional snowshoes in 1954, using Michigan’s white ash, rawhide, and copper hardware in his productions. However, he has been credited for later creating neoprene-coated nylon lacing, a maintenance-free alternative to traditional rawhide.
The company has changed hands a few times since its beginning. Today, Iverson Snowshoes have 17 models and sizes woven in rawhide or neoprene lacing and paired with leather or neoprene bindings. In addition, they coat their snowshoes with a poly-lacquer that reduces snow buildup when wet and sticky. They also sell four binding styles, including their new “Iverson AA” harness.
Iverson Snowshoes has a team of artisans who handcraft their shoes based on designs they have perfected over the years. Their snowshoe styles include Ojibwa, Alaskan, Tundra, Modified Bear Paw, Michigan, Green Mountain, and Cross Country and Racer models.
A popular product of Williams and Wilcox’s Country Ways handmade snowshoes in Minnesota is their snowshoe kits with their TechDeck nylon lace for you to do your own lacing. They also sell completed hand-crafted traditional snowshoes, among other crafted items, including furniture. Their goal is “To build gear with the very best in design, materials, construction, and ultimate function.”
Country Ways promotes their snowshoes as “off-trail,” emphasizing the benefit of a traditional snowshoe’s flotation value in deep snow.
Using white ash and webbing weaved by a craftsperson, they then dip the snowshoe in varnish tanks 3 or 4 times for 24-hour periods. Their styles with varying sizes for both kits and finished snowshoes include Ojibwe, Alaskan, Green Mountain Bear Paw, and Huron.
Northern Toboggan Company
For the Northern Toboggan Company of Minnesota, artisan toboggans and other sleds are their forte. A family-owned company with a master craftsman and artisans has made high-quality sleds for many years. Their vision includes “helping others connect with the joys of nature, family, and the nostalgia found at the top of a sledding hill.”
But sleds are not their only product. Northern Toboggan Company is coming up on its sixth year producing crafted traditional snowshoes. Based on centuries-old traditions and using the wisdom of an experienced mentoring crafter, they have discovered “many of the intricacies of building traditional snowshoes that perform superiorly.”
Using steam-bent wood and webbing and dipping processes by their artisans, they craft and sell both snowshoes and snowshoe kits. Their product line includes Ojibwe, Green Mountain, Alaskan, and Huron snowshoes.
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Coos Canoe and Snowshoe
In the east, one of the traditional snowshoe makers is Coos of New Hampshire. They make their ‘shoes of ash wood, woven rawhide webbing, leather or neoprene bindings, and crampons/cleats. Their snowshoe products are modified Bearpaw, modified Maine, Ojibwa, and Alaskan.
They state, “The modified Bearpaw is the most popular as it is quite usable in most all conditions.” They use ash which grows locally in New Hampshire, saying, “It bends well, is strong yet light, and is also attractive.” For deck weaving, they use rawhide from cow, moose, and deer hides they obtain locally from farmers and hunters. Coos states, “Again, we are back to basics with making traditional snowshoes.”
In addition to making snowshoes, Coos Canoe and Snowshoe also craft canoes and rocking chairs in the traditional way.
Read More: Making Your Snowshoes From Scratch
Maine Guide Snowshoes
Bob and Andrea Howe take pride in their handmade traditional snowshoes and the community services rendered via their snowshoe business. Out of Pleasant Ridge Plantation near Bingham, Maine, family-owned Maine Guide Snowshoes are crafted using white ash for their frame, a “rope” material for their webbing, heavy-duty polyethylene harness (binding), and their “star studs” ice grip traction device.
No longer using rawhide for webbing, they now specialize in using a double-braided polyester rope, a strong, tough, no-stretch, anti-scuff, UV and abrasion-resistant material that holds up well and comes in a variety of colors. Their snowshoe styles include Alaskan, Beavertail, Modified Bearpaw, and a short-tailed style called Sportsman. Moreso, their relatively recent “Hunter Rabbit” model has taken the forefront in sales. Designed by Bob Howe, this snowshoe has a turned-up front and a slightly turned-up rear that offers ultimate performance in snow.
Maine Guide Snowshoes also makes and sells heirloom-quality home furniture. Bob Howe says, “These pieces are made with white ash, the remaining wood which is unusable for snowshoes; this allows us to utilize the whole tree and eliminate waste.” In addition to being environmentally conscious, they are community conscious. The Howes support programs that provide snowshoeing opportunities to the public, such as contributing to the costs of events for the Pine Grove Program, a non-profit organization that offers free outdoor adventures to veterans and other American heroes. And snowshoe rentals are free to the general public on Sundays.
One of the unique traditional snowshoe makers and artisan teams in Fort Kent, Maine, is Brian Theriault and his 99-year-old father, Edmond. The father-son pair of Theriault Snowshoes are “Master Traditional Snowshoe Makers,” winning fellowship awards and crafting snowshoes from scratch for over 50 years.
Edmond and Brian were concerned about the art of snowshoe-making dying, so they wrote a snowshoe-making instructional book with detailed photos, diagrams, and weaving patterns titled Brown Ash Snowshoes: A North American Tradition. In addition, they produced a snowshoe-building instructional DVD. One can purchase both the book and DVD from their website.
Along with their concern about the dying art of snowshoe-making, Brian was awarded a traditional apprenticeship through the Maine Art Commission Award Program for 2022. The Theriaults welcome 13-year-old friend, Bret Babin, “his new young and very smart apprentice,” as Brian says. “I am happy to have Bret working with me and keeping the art of snowshoe making alive.”
Unique to their snowshoe-making process is they start from the ground up. First, the Theriaults select the best black ash tree from the forest. They then cut, split, and bend the wood frames on molds using tools they designed and perfected over the years. Fleshing and scrapping the hide is their process to make rawhide for webbing. And finally, they weave rawhide onto three styles of ash frames they designed. Edmond states, “Just a little strip of wood, a piece of skin, and you have transportation.”
Read More: Ask Us Your Traditional Snowshoe Questions
Hats off to artisans nationwide
Hats off to artisans nationwide for their contribution to keeping the tradition of traditional snowshoe making alive. Their creative hand-crafted production methods and high-quality wood-framed products make traditional snowshoes available to us.
According to NPD Group Inc. (an American market research company), the good news is that snowshoe sales experienced a dramatic sales growth last season to the tune of a 254% increase, partly due to the COVID pandemic as more people began recreating outdoors. However, this season’s snowshoe sales have softened some even though NPD does not differentiate between traditional and modern snowshoe sales. The projections reflect a continuing interest in snowshoeing in the future in the United States.
From what I can see, there appears to be an ongoing interest among many snowshoers in getting back to basics, snowshoeing in the traditional way, and enjoying the benefits of wood-frame snowshoes. Thereby this keeps traditional snowshoe-making companies in business into the future.
What are your thoughts about traditional snowshoes and traditional snowshoe makers? Please share with us in the comments below.
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