Here is a scan of a photo of the snow sculpture that Bangor artist Valentin Henneman created at his home in Bangor in 1923. The late Mildred Thayer of Hampden, whose father was a photographer, gave Bangor historian Richard Shaw a print of the snapshot approximately 20 years ago, in 1995. Note the Shriner fez on the camel. Credit: Courtesy of Richard Shaw

Mainers have always found ways to amuse themselves during the long, cold days of winter, regardless of the era and available technology. In the 1920s, one particularly creative Bangor resident happened to do it on his front lawn.

Belgian-born artist Valentin Henneman, for several winters in the early 1920s, crafted elaborate, life-size, highly realistic snow sculptures on the front lawn of his house, which stood about where Bar Harbor Bank & Trust on Main Street now is, across the street from the Bangor House.

According to newspaper reports from the era, Henneman, then in his early 60s, took to his lawn on Jan. 23, 1923, and using a coal shovel and a carving knife, created a replica of an Auguste Rodin sculpture, a bust of a French painter named Jean-Paul Lawrence. A few days later, he went back out and sculpted a kangaroo, with her joey.

According to a Bangor Daily News article published on Jan. 29, 1923, the sculptures caused quite the stir around town.

“They appear so real from a short distance that many people have been fooled in thinking they are real marble statues,” reported the newspaper, in one of many articles written about Henneman’s snow art.

Credit: Courtesy of Richard Shaw

On Jan. 31, he’d sculpted another bust by Rodin of the writer Victor Hugo and a statue of the Roman god Mercury. A boy on skates soon followed. By Feb. 5, an elephant with two babies had joined his odd little “snow family.” For Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on Feb. 12, Henneman sculpted a bust of the beloved president.

Henneman’s skill with snow attracted attention beyond onlookers — he was asked by the Anah Shriners to create camel sculptures, set in a desert oasis, to advertise the Shrine Circus, which would be in town in February of that year.

The people of Bangor enjoyed Henneman’s work so much that the city commissioned him to sculpt a real bronze bust of Bangor-area native and former U.S. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin, to be displayed on the front lawn of the Bangor Public Library. That bust, completed in 1924, is still in the collection of the Bangor Public Library.

Credit: Photo by Candis Joyce | Bangor Public Library

The following winter, in 1924, he was back at it, creating another bust of Lincoln alongside one of Woodrow Wilson, who died on Feb. 3, 1924. In Orono, fans of University of Maine athletics had Henneman create a sculpture of Bananas T. Bear on campus. This was in the era when UMaine actually had a live bear mascot in captivity on campus, so Henneman had a live model to work from.

Though the public record of Henneman’s snow-sculpting ends in 1924, his life as an artist began far earlier, in his home country of Belgium. Much of his personal history was pieced together by two residents of his home town Oostkamp, Katrien Steelandt and Patrick Vanden Berghe, who came to Bangor in 2015 to research Henneman’s life in Maine.

Born in 1861 in Oostkamp, Henneman made his living as a portrait painter for more than four decades, with many of his paintings still hanging in castles in Belgium, as well as in Oostkamp’s city hall. In 1906, Henneman emigrated to the U.S., initially landing in St. Louis, Missouri. Little is known of his first decade in the state, but it is known that he was commissioned by Bishop Jean-Baptiste Brondel, first Catholic bishop in Montana and a fellow Belgian, to paint an altarpiece for the cathedral in Helena.

Eventually, Henneman became associated with artist Asa Grant Randall, who founded the Commonwealth Art School in Boothbay Harbor. It was there that Henneman met his future wife, Mabel Dealing, a teacher in Bangor. They married in 1918 and settled in the Queen City, where Henneman was an early member of the Bangor Art Society, an organization that remains active to this day.

In his early years in Bangor, Henneman would set up his easel in what was then known as Haymarket Square, located where KeyBank Plaza now stands. According to a Bangor Daily News article published in April 1918, in the midst of World War I, a local man named Percy Lanpher reportedly kicked over Henneman’s easel, accusing him of being a German spy, making strategic drawings of Bangor so German forces could plan an attack. Henneman informed both his attacker and the police that he was Belgian, in fact, and that Belgium, also known as Flanders, was the main European base for the British Army, immortalized in the poem “In Flanders Field.”

In addition to Henneman’s bust of Hannibal Hamlin, the Bangor Public Library has five of his paintings in its art collection, including four paintings of Bangor and one of a scene from the city of Bruges, Belgium. Henneman died in 1930, and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.

Emily Burnham

Emily Burnham is a Maine native and proud Bangorian, covering business, the arts, restaurants and the culture and history of the Bangor region.