WALLAGRASS, Maine — Here’s a fun fact: The ski industry in Maine got its start up north, where the first chairlift in the state was operating just south of Fort Kent right after World War II.
Later this month the Ski Museum of Maine will posthumously induct Aroostook County native Walter Stadig, the developer of that lift and skiing pioneer, into its 2012 Hall of Fame during an Oct. 26 ceremony at its annual banquet at Lost Valley in Auburn.
Stadig will be inducted along with outdoorsman Leon Leonwood Bean, founder of L.L.Bean, and six other avid Maine skiers in this year’s induction ceremony, according to Scott Andrews, curator of the Ski Museum of Maine.
“I was the one who put Walter Stadig’s name in,” Andrews said. “I was working on compiling a history of skiing in Maine and a number of characters from pre-World War II really struck me [and] Walter was one of them.”
Born in 1889 in New Sweden, Stadig was the grandson of noted ski maker and Swedish immigrant Lars Stadig, according to Chad Pelletier, president of the Fort Kent Historical Society.
When Walter Stadig was just a boy, his family moved to St. Francis, Pelletier said, where his father, Olaf Stadig, was a judge.
Blessed with a nimble mind and mechanical skills, Stadig soon became known for inventing or improving a number of devices and held numerous patents, including one for an early version of the modern-day snowblower that is still used today.
In a separate but not unrelated story, Walter Stadig’s cousin John Stadig was a known currency counterfeiter.
“I find it ironic that both men had this engineering and mechanical talent,” Pelletier said. “But they used it in very different ways.”
By 1914 Walter Stadig was married, living in Wallagrass and working on the “Stadig Rotary Snowplow,” Pelletier said, adding the device evolved through three different versions earning a total of five patents, one of which is still used by Caterpillar in a modern snowblower.
Stadig turned his attention to ski-making in the mid-1930s and began making Swedish “rift skis,” Pelletier said.
Stadig learned to make skis from his grandfather Lars, whose own skis were shipped all over the country — including a pair to President Theodore Roosevelt.
“Rift in a ski means the ski is made with the bark side down,” Pelletier said. “Walter only used birch for his skis because it was more moisture resistant and would never warp.”
According to an advertisement, an 8-foot pair of “Genuine Swedish Rift Skis made by W.L. Stadig, Soldier Pond, Maine,” sold for $7.
Stadig even offered his skis to the U.S. Army for use in ski patrols, according to Pelletier.
“The Army told Walter they were the best skis they had ever tested,” Pelletier said. “But they told him they could not use them because at the time the military only used skis made of hickory.”
In the mid-1940s Stadig designed, developed and was operating Stadig Ski Winter Sports Co., offering, according to its poster, “a thrilling ride in our aerial tramway.” It ran up Michaud Hill in Soldier Pond, just south of Fort Kent, where Route 11 is now divided into four paved lanes for passing and turning traffic.
Outdoor enthusiasts were invited to enjoy an “Uphill conveyance by the ski tramway — the only chairlift in Maine,” in addition to a three-quarter-mile slope set up for skiing, slalom and jumping.
“There were six trails on the hill,” Pelletier said. “If you go for a walk in the woods, you can still see the old reciprocating gear that ran the lift.”
Two sections of the chairlift, along with several pairs of skis crafted by Stadig, are on display at the Fort Kent Historical Society building.
The notion of that chairlift caught on and Stadig went on to design and build chairlifts at Thorn Mountain in New Hampshire.
“Walter operated that chairlift in Soldier Pond for one or two seasons and then went on to build a pair of lifts at Thorn Mountain,” Andrews said. “At the time it was the largest new ski development in New Hampshire [and] it was a really big deal.”
Stadig also worked with his son Bennett Stadig to build several rope tows at Blue Hills outside of Boston, Andrews said.
“Walter Stadig’s contributions to skiing in Maine are notable for two reasons,” Andrews said. “He was a ski maker and he was a ski athlete.”
In 1936 and 1937 Stadig participated in the 176-mile Bangor to Caribou Ski Marathon.
“At the time those were the longest ski races held in the world,” Andrews said. “He was over 50 years old at the time and was the oldest starter in 1936 and one of only five to finish the race that year.”
Stadig’s creations were part of a major boom in the sport that followed WWII, Andrews said.
“His machines and skis got thousands and thousands of people interested in the sport,” he said.
Stadig was 66 when he died of a heart attack in 1953 and he is buried in St. Francis, Pelletier said.
Others to be inducted into the Maine Ski Hall of Fame Class of 2012 are ski instruction pioneer Bruce Fenn; Andre Benoit, a member of the famed 10th Mountain Ski Division and veteran of WWII’s Italian campaign; national ski champion Erlon “Bucky” Broomhall; Frank Howell, one of the freestyle skiers that came out of Pleasant Mountain in the ’60s and ’70s and put Maine on the map as a hotbed of the discipline; Philip Hussey, who, as president of Hussey Mfg. Co. in the 1930s organized a winter sports engineering group that built lifts and ski jumps; and Natalie Terry, who has taught skiing full time since 1969 as part of the Sugarloaf Perfect Turn Program and in her late 80s shows no signs of letting up.