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Fiddles, Snowshoes Model T's and the North Pole! The Story of Mellie Dunham.
In the pursuit of trying to slip at little bit of education into my kids life during the chaos of summer vacation I embarked on a history trip through the small town of Norway, Maine. This is the town that I call home in the summer and is where I played as a child. It was during a walk on Main St. that I started to think of all the interesting people and things that have happened in this small town.
Norway, Maine is a little town in Oxford County. It is in the foothills of the White Mountains, an hour North of Portland, and about 45 minutes west of Lewiston and Auburn. The population is under 5,000 people and Main Street is just a shadow of its past. Yet, this small town abounds with famous people and history makers.
One, of the many history makers in Norway and in Oxford County was a gentleman by the auspicious name of Alason Mellon Dunham. Mellie (as he came to be known) was born on July 29, 1853 at the family farm just west of town.
Mellie grew up doing hunting, fishing and helping out with the family farm. It was through his love of the out doors and probably out of necessity that at the age of 12 he traded for a pair of snowshoe frames and re-strung them with rawhide. This, small incident was the start of something big for the young man. By the time Mellie was in his 20's he had become a professional snowshoe maker.
At the age of 13, Mellie decided (as the story) goes he liked the sound of his neighbors fiddle and decided to try it out. Well, he not only liked it but had a natural talent for music. The story goes on to say that Mellie bought his first fiddle from a local named Abner Jackson. Which was sold to him in pieces with the assurance that if he could fix it up it would probably sound fine. Apparently the fiddle was put back together and sounded just fine because by the early 1900's Mellie was well known for his snowshoes and fancy fiddle playing for local dances.
Mellie and the town of Norway, Maine was first put on the map in 1906 when he was commissioned by Admiral Robert Peary to make 60 pairs of snowshoes for his first expedition to the North Pole. When Admiral Peary did finally make it to the Pole in 1908-1909 he was wearing Mellie's snowshoes. The snowshoes that were made by Mellie were in fact one of the few things that Peary didn't make himself for the trip.
Mellie, after the excitement of making snowshoes for his friend Peary, fiddled his way back into the history books in 1925 at the ripe old age of 72. In October of 1925, he entered a fiddle playing contest in Lewiston. When he won the contest he was declared the the Fiddle Champion of Maine. However, the story doesn't end for Mr. Dunham and his family here.
Whether, it was the confidence of winning the title of Fiddle Champion, a whim, or pressure of family members Mellie wrote a letter to Henry Ford offering his services as fiddle player. During, the "Roaring Twenties", Mr. Ford was trying to re-popularize old time country dances. As it often happens, in the case of history, Mellie's offer of his fiddling services were declined by one of Mr. Ford's erstwhile employees. But, through means that we will never know, Mellie's letter reached Mr. Ford's desk.
Henry Ford, sent and invitation to the Dunhams to come to Dearborn, MI to play for him and his family. This invitation was not in of itself remarkable, as Mr. Ford had previously invited other fiddlers to play prior. But, for 72 year old Mellie Dunham it launched him into rock star status overnight on the Vaudeville circuit in Boston.
The Dunham's toured the Vaudeville circuit from December 1925 to May of 1926. After there successful Vaudeville tour the Dunhams returned back to Norway where they picked up their former lives of playing local dances, snowshoe making and Mellie began recording records for the Victor Talking Machine Company and published a book of fiddle music which contained four original pieces. Mellie died in 1931 in Lewiston, Maine after a short illness.
Not much is left of Mellie's personal memorabilia from his heyday as a fiddler or snowshoe maker as his family home burned in 1930. Yet, you can still find copies of his sheet music, and hear the recordings of his music.