Some notes on the history of the Laurentian Ski Museum
History of the Laurentian Ski Museum
Michel Allard, historian and museologist, May 30, 2018
The origins of the Laurentian Ski Museum
On March 27, 1981, la Société d’histoire et de généalogie des Pays-d’en-Haut (Saint-Sauveur) devotes its monthly meeting to the history of skiing in the Laurentians.
At the end of this meeting, a Research Group is formed with the aim of preserving and conserving the memory of a means of locomotion that has become a sport of participation and competition. Ski has played and still plays a leading role in social, economic, tourist, political, and cultural development of the Laurentians region. The Laurentians region is recognized as the cradle of skiing in Canada, and even in the whole North America.
In this respect, a four-fold mandate is assigned to this research group:
- “Bring together people who have an interest in the history of skiing in the Laurentians;
- promote the conservation of documents that relate to this part of our regional history;
- to produce and promote studies and research on the subject;
- participate in setting up a ski museum in the Laurentians1″.
A year later, the Journal des Pays-d’en-Haut announced in its May 26, 1982 edition: the creation of the Laurentian Ski Museum (now LSM).
The importance of skiing in the history of the Laurentians
Around 1879, Quebec newspapers reported that a man named A. Birch traveled on Norwegian snowshoes (skis) the distance between Montreal and Quebec. Since then, skiing has spread to urban centers.
Around 1892, the Canadian Pacific Railway reached Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts. The railway breaks the isolation, opens the markets to the local productions especially the lumber. It also facilitates the access to the Laurentians for tourism. In Montreal, with the Mount Royal presenting fewer and fewer challenges, many skiers are invading the mountains of the Northern Townships.2
Around 1894, Miss Wand, a New York nurse who owns a convalescent home on the shores of the Lac des Sables in Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, is the first to notice that skiers are hitting the hills and taking the forest trails that surround the village.3
In 1904, the Montreal Ski Club, the forerunner of all ski clubs in Canada, established its headquarters at Lake Manitou, which was then part of Sainte-Agathe.
In 1912, some wealthy owners from Switzerland will establish residences in Sainte-Agathe. Émile Cochand, who was a ski champion and instructor of this sport in the army of his country, will be one of them. A few years later, his wife and he will open the first hotel in Canada to offer ski lessons in addition to food and lodging. They will select Lake Lucerne, located halfway between Sainte-Adèle and Sainte-Marguerite-du-Lac-Masson, as the perfect location for this innovative concept.
In 1913, a first international competition organized in Canada took place in Saint-Sauveur, bringing together students from McGill University and Dartmouth College (New Hampshire).
In the 1920s, skiing became so popular in the Laurentians that in 1927 the leaders of Canadian National and Canadian Pacific decided that each weekend trains to the laurentians will be put into service. They were called snow trains and they brought from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of skiers in the North.
In the 1930’s, ski trail openers the likes of Paul d’Allmen, the Gillespie brothers and Herman Smith-Johannsen called Jackrabbit, drew and mapped a 600-square-mile network of ski trails. This includes the famous Maple Leaf trail who, with its 200 kilometers long, runs across the Laurentians from Labelle to Shawbridge. Americans will call this unique network the “Alouette Belt”.
In the early 1930’s, an ingenious car mechanic from Sainte-Agathe named Moïse Paquette and an engineer and skier from Montreal named Alex Foster, invented almost simultaneously a ski lift called Ski-Tow or Rob-Tow5. This was a first in North America. This invention will experience tremendous development. In addition to improving in the following years, the lift will invade the hills. Researcher Pierre Dumas has listed 603 ski sites that have been in operation in Quebec, including 236 in the Laurentians6. From that point on, we can distinguish alpine skiing from cross-country skiing in Canada.
Skiing is such an important development in the Laurentians that the geographer Raoul Blanchard notes in 1938 that men do not go up in the yards during the winter, but work in the ski industry7. In short, the way of life of the inhabitants in the heart of the Laurentians where greatly shaped by the development of ski.
Since 1945, the management of the maintenance of Route 11 (now 117) by the provincial highways and the growing popularity of the automobile allowed thousands of skiers to explore the Laurentians which is recognized as the Mecca of skiing in North America.
On February 1, 1956, 21-year-old Lucille Wheeler of Saint-Jovite became the first athlete in Canadian ski history to win a medal at the Olympic Games.
Over the years, skiing continued to grow. In addition to alpine and cross-country skiing, we now see freestyle skiing, mogul skiing, skiing for the disabled and new techniques appearing every year. Today, the Laurentians remain at the forefront of innovation.
In 2012, the first year-round freestyle training center opened on the slopes of Mount Castor in Sainte-Agathe.
Thus, it only seems logical that a Ski Museum be found and have a storefront in Saint-Sauveur. Having one makes it possible to preserve the heritage of a means of locomotion that became a sport of participation and competition. An outdoor locomotion technique that played and still plays a major role in the social, economic, tourism, political and cultural development of the Laurentian region. We are located in the region recognised as the cradle of skiing in North America.
Years of wandering (1982-1992)
Taking advantage of the impact created by the LSM Foundation, its first members, who were all volunteers, launched a vibrant call to action to the people of the Laurentians. They wished to collect equipment, clothing, trophies, photographs, illustrations, news articles. In short, all kinds of artifacts and written documents testifying to all aspects of skiing. They also collected testimonials from athletes, skiers and ordinary citizens. The harvest proved to be very fruitful, so much so that, in the following years, volunteer members of the LSM were able to organize exhibitions who would be held in various public and parish buildings in Saint-Sauveur and the surrounding area. At the same time, they set out to find a place where they could organize exhibitions and store the artifacts members had to keep in their garages, hangars and basements.
In 1992, their search for a more permanent location comes to an end. The LSM merges with the Jackrabbit Museum, founded a few years earlier by Alice Johannsen, following the death of her father Herman Smith-Johannsen, known as Jackrabbit. He is one of the pioneers of skiing in New England and the Laurentians. The LSM is moving its Penates to Piedmont in the Johannsen heritage building. However, in 1998, the building was sold and the LSM, while enriching the collection of the famous Jackrabbit, is again roofless and becomes a traveling museum once more.
A renewal of life
In 2000, a new group of enthusiasts, led by former Canadian Olympic Ski Team member Linda Crutchfield, and veteran ski instructor Robert Shelso, took over the museum’s almost derelict project. After many administrative procedures, the group decides to select the restaurant Biggy’s as the new emplacement for the LSM. Located in Saint-Sauveur, they transformed this simple restaurant into an innovative concept the museum-restaurant. Sadly, in 2004, this establishment closed its doors. LSM is back on the road to homelessness. Nevertheless, exhibitions are organized here and there. During the commemorative celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the founding of the municipality of Saint-Sauveur, the LSM presents an exhibition at the St Francis of the Birds Community Center. This exhibition centered on the importance of skiing in the history of Saint-Sauveur is highly appreciated by the general public and attracts the attention of municipal officials.
In the fall of 2007, thanks to the support of the Société d’histoire et de généalogie des Pays-d’en-Haut and the Chambre de Commerce et de Tourisme de la vallée de Saint-Sauveur, the municipality of Saint-Sauveur agrees to locate the Laurentian LSM and the Hall of Fame in the former fire station and police station of the municipality on Filion Street. The LSM occupies the ground floor and the basement while the Chambre de Commerce et de Tourisme, the summer festival of Saint-Sauveur and the Division laurentienne de ski share the premises of the second floor. This is the beginning of a new era.
Finally a permanent place
Very quickly, the members of the Board of Directors of the LSM realized that the task that awaits them was colossal. The building needs to be remodeled so that it can accommodate the different functions of a museum. They pieces of the collection who were scattered here and there in the residences of the members of the museum must be collected, cataloged, archived and kept in optimal material conditions. It also becomes important to present as soon as possible a first exhibition, develop animation programs, and more. In addition to this task, there is an urgent need to find sources of funding. The board members quickly realized that they can’t assign all these tasks to volunteers. The organization of the museum must be rationalized and professionalized.
The position of director of the LSM is then entrusted to Pierre Ùrquhart, director of the Chambre de commerce et de Tourisme de la vallée de Saint-Sauveur, who becomes the most important partner of the LSM. The new director undertakes the recruitment and appointment of a full-time and a part-time graduates, students of the Masters in Museology at UQAM. He also recruits as advisers retirees with museological experience and people who have done research on the history of the region and / or skiing.
Organization of a first exhibition
The team members gathered by Pierre Urquhart set to work. They must carry out several tasks simultaneously. Artifacts, objects and documents collected since 1982 have been repatriated to the new premises and stored in the old cells. A summary inventory provides the information and artifacts needed to develop a first temporary exhibition to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the fondation de l’Alliance des moniteurs de ski du Canada. The central theme of the exhibition is “The teaching of ski through the ages”. Concurrently, the room in the building that served as the garage is transformed into an exhibition hall.
Finally, on July 3, 2008, in the presence of a hundred people, the new premises are inaugurated and, at the same time, the LSM proceeds to the opening of the exhibition “Le ski, ça s’apprend”. The ski community welcomes favorably the new museum.
The first exhibition is a great success and attracts nearly three thousand visitors. It is even presented outside the LSM, particularly in February 2009, in the city of Blainville as part of the Quebec Winter Games. Simultaneously, an educational program for elementary school students in the region is also being developed. In collaboration with the Société d’histoire et de généalogie des Pays-d’en-Haut and the teachers of the Augustin-Norbert Morin High School, members of the LSM visit the classes of secondary IV to teach to the students the Laurentians history and more specifically the influence of skiing on the local history. Other LSM members are invited by the Sociétés d’histoire and the Comités du patrimoine de la région, and even the Université du Troisième Âge, to give lectures on the history of skiing. Some members are even invited to participate in the radio program “De remarquables oubliés”. Finally, more and more journalists are referring to the LSM to obtain information on the history of skiing and of the Laurentians.
In parallel with these educational activities, the LSM continues the inventory of its collection and undertakes to digitize it. Although a former fire station does not meet museum conservation standards, the LSM must accommodate with the fact. Luckily the great majority of preserved objects (skis, equipment, etc.) doesn’t require particularly special conditions of conservation, provided that they are sheltered from bad weather and vandalism. As for the written and visual archives, they can be stored according to the conservation standards. In short, LSM is making every effort to best fulfill its museum functions of exhibition, conservation and education based on research and supported by the community.
In 2011, the Association québécoise d’interprétation du patrimoine (AQIP) recognizes the efforts made by the LSM to preserve the heritage resources of the community by awarding it the Prix du mérite en interprétation — volet communautaire.
Victim of its success, the LSM has to continue its development by improving the quality of its facilities, its programs and more particularly its exhibitions. Doing otherwise would bring the risk of losing the support of the population and the financial support of its many partners. Assisted by the MRC des Pays-d’en-Haut, the municipality of Saint-Sauveur and the Chambre de commerce, the LSM is undertaking the preparation of a grant application under the program of assistance to permanent exhibitions of the Ministère des Affaires culturelles et des Communications. Everyone is helping out. The grant application will be submitted with the valuable help and comments of the Consultant in Museology of the direction de Laval, de Lanaudière et des Laurentides du Ministère de la Culture et des Communications.
In 2012, the LSM won a major grant which enabled it to develop and present a permanent exhibition meeting the standards of museology.
The permanent exhibition
When we mention Quebec or Canada, we think of the winters that shaped and is still shaping the lives of its inhabitants, and particularly those of the Laurentian region. The Quebecker, from the Native American to the newcomers, had to learn to live in the winter, and with the winter. They had to learn how to make a living from winter the same way others learned lived on the exploitation and transformation of natural resources. This is especially true for the Laurentian region around the middle of the nineteenth century. The region, which was originally exploited for its furs and then for its wood, had to adapt to become a place of agricultural colonization to make up for the lack of land in the old parishes and to counter the emigration of Quebecers to the “Factories”. The rocky land proved difficult to exploit. Unable to exploit the forest, most of which had been conceded to logging companies, faced with a climate of snow and cold, the majority of the inhabitants lived in misery and in poverty. However, following the advent of the new train routes and the construction of new roads, these mountainous and snowy lands became, over the years, a privileged place for the practice of skiing. These implantations provoked “[…] a real revolution in the life of the Laurentians; […] and “… is at the origin of the extraordinary development that manifests itself from 1930”8.
In short, in the Laurentians, ski boards have replaced the axe of the pioneer and the plow of the farmer.
It is in this context that the permanent exhibition of the LSM interprets, beyond the historical framework, how the practice of skiing is at the heart of an intense and complex relationship between nature and man. So that man can live in harmony and not in conflict with this rigorous and at first sight forbidding nature.
In this respect, the permanent exhibition focuses on the following theme: “Living in winter (skiing as a means of transport), with winter (skiing as an outdoor activity and as a competitive sport) and from winter (the role of skiing in the social, economic, tourism, even political, and cultural development of the Laurentians region).” In short, it is not a question of limiting oneself to a simple narrative, but to better understand, beyond just the events, the complex and sometimes ambiguous relations that are woven between man and winter.
The establishment of the permanent exhibition
In order to design, develop and set up the permanent exhibition, the LSM assigned this mission to its curator. They called upon to a team of professionals, including a project manager, an historian, a filmmaker, a designer, in addition to a few volunteers to help her achieve the objectives.
Concurrently, it was necessary to complete the transformation of the fire department garage into an exhibition hall. In this regard, a first room was set up to receive the permanent exhibition and a second room was devoted to the temporary exhibitions.
Finally, on May 26, 2012, after two years of hard work, the LSM opens its first permanent exhibition to the public. More than 200 people attended the opening.
The following things
The permanent exhibition has proven to be a success. The number of visitors is increasing slowly, but steadily. As a general rule, visitors are pleasantly surprised by the transformation of a fire station into a showroom and wonder at the quality of the exhibition they did not expect to find in a regional museum institution.
To pay tribute to those who have distinguished themselves in one way or another in the practice of skiing and to ensure that local visitors return to visit the LSM, several temporary exhibitions are presented. A first exhibition was dedicated to Émile Cochand, the first ski instructor in Quebec and Canada; a second was dedicated to the twin girls Rhona and Rhoda Wurtele who are undoubtedly the athletes, women and men combined, having obtained the most medals in the competitions of alpine skiing. At 93 years old, they still practice their favorite sport. A third exhibition is organized in honor of Alexandre Bilodeau the Ace of Mogul Skiing; and finally another exhibition recounts the career of Herman-Smith Johannsen called Jackrabbit, opener of the famous Maple Leaf Trail. Deceased at the venerable age of 111 years old, he has become an icon for those who practice outdoor activities.
Other itinerant exhibitions, sometimes accompanied by a conference on the history of skiing in the Laurentians, are also presented in various municipalities and at special events.
The educational program for children attending the schools in the area is completely redesigned and can now, with the help of a kit, be taught in the walls of the classroom.
A new program designed for the adult clientele, including the seniors living in residences, is also being developed.
The LSM has to respond to numerous requests for information from journalists from the oral, written and digital press and even from ordinary citizens.
The LSM also uses the services of a professional archivist to continue the archiving of its collection of documents.
Finally, thanks to increased financial support from the political and cultural institutions of the region, the LSM can now expand its services.
In recent years, the LSM has won several awards that attest to its quality:
- In 2012, he received an honorable mention in the Governor General’s History Awards Recipients category.
- In 2013, the Conseil régional de développement de la MRC des Pays-d’en-Haut presented the LSM with the Mérite arts, culture et patrimoine Award.
- In 2015, curator Marie-Ève Auclair received the Grand Prize prix Jeune relève from the Conseil de la Culture des Laurentides.
- In 2018, two LSM associate researchers are honored by the International Skiing History Association (ISHA): Pierre Dumas wins the Cyber Award9 for his Repertory of Quebec ski sites; Michel Allard receives an honorable mention at the Skade Prize for his book Le cœur des Laurentides, which places the history of skiing within the history of the Laurentians.
From its creation in 1982 until 2007, the museum had no employees. Thanks to the dedication and hard work of more than a hundred volunteers, the museum was able to collect and preserve documents and artifacts relating to the history of skiing in the Laurentians. Without their perseverance, the somewhat utopian project of an LSM permanently housed in a building located at a stone throw in the center of Saint-Sauveur would never have been possible.
Today, in addition to several amateur volunteers, the LSM can count on a professional museologist as a permanent employee, a few part-time employees, of a few scientific and administrative advisors and finally several volunteers.
All that remains is that the LSM, with its collection, is approved as a museum or an interpretation center by the Ministère de la Culture et de Communications to ensure its sustainability as a place of conservation, exhibition and dissemination of the tangible and intangible heritage of the Laurentian region where, let us remember, there is no recognized museum institution dedicated to history.
- Cahier, no.10 de la Société d’histoire des Pays-d’en-Haut mai 1981, p 13.
- Allard, Michel (2017), Le cœur des Laurentides, Québec, Septentrion, p. 163.
- Wand, Elizabeth, Quisisana Ste.Agathe des Monts, P.Q. s.l.n.d. p.31
- Soucy, Danielle (2006), Des traces dans la neige, Cent ans de ski au Québec, Montréal, Éditions La Presse, p.49 sq.
- Allard, Michel (2017), Le cœur des Laurentides. Québec , Septentrion, p. 164 sq.
- Dumas , Pierre (2018), Géo-répertoire des sites de ski du Québec, Musée du ski des Laurentides, http://www.museeduskideslaurentides.com/index.php?q=node/194
- Blanchard, Raoul (1938) , « Les Laurentides » Revue de géographie alpine, vol 26 no 26-1 p.28
- R. Viau cité par Serge Laurin (1989), Histoire des Laurentides. Québec, Institut de recherche sur la Culture p.587.
- Cyber award: Presented for creating a Website that contributes substantially to the preservation, distribution, and expansion of skiing’s historical record.
- Skade award: Presented for an outstanding work on regional ski history or for an outstanding work published in book form that is focused in part on ski history.