December 23, 2012

Skiing in Maine: At 91, Benoit will still take a powder


On Oct. 26, at Lost Valley Ski Resort in Auburn, eight amazing skiers and visionaries were inducted into the Maine Ski Hall of Fame at its 10th annual induction ceremonies.

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Andre Benoit began skiing more than 75 years ago, served in the 10th Mountain Division during World War II and is among the inductees in the Maine Ski Hall of Fame.

Courtesy Photo

In the 2012 class were two whose contributions were in the early days of lift and ski area development, two long-time and notable instructors, a Nordic coach of national repute, a former national freestyle champion, and two Maine men who made their mark in retailing.

One was L.L. Bean who introduced skiing to generations through his retail store and catalogs.

The other, Andre Benoit, is a legendary ski shop operator known especially well by us older skiers, and by anyone in southern Maine who took up the sport in the 1950s and bought their equipment from him for some 30 years.

But most of us who looked to his A.H. Benoit & Co. Ski Department on Congress Street for our Northland and Paris skis, Henke boots and Marker bindings were unaware of the tremendous skiing accomplishments of this remarkable man, and were yet to see the contributions he would continue to make to the sport during his long and still-active lifetime.

Benoit's skiing saga began when strapped on skis as a young man, venturing with his buddy, Phil Harmon, from his home in Cape Elizabeth to Fryeburg, where a rope tow had been installed on Jockey Cap in 1936. He remembers that he didn't even have to know how to turn, as the one trail, in his words, "was banked so much on each side that you just let 'em run."

He continued to ski whenever he could during his years at Kimball Union Academy and then at Bowdoin College.

Graduating from Bowdoin in 1943, he joined volunteers from the National Ski Patrol System who formed the now-legendary 10th Mountain Division. After Fort Devens he went to Fort Hale in the Canadian Rockies to train with the 87th Division for two years, learning alpine combat maneuvers in winter conditions while developing his skills in skiing and rock climbing.

As one of the more competent skiers, he was named an instructor helping to hone the skiing skills of the less experienced. He eventually headed for Europe and the division's victorious campaign in the mountains of Italy.

Back home in Portland in 1946, Benoit joined the family clothing business at its established downtown store.

He found time to ski close to home at Pleasant Mountain, making his first turns on the Bridgton hill before there were any trails to speak of. And his memories include introducing his four children to the sport, transporting them between his legs up the original rope tow.

His love for skiing, the growing popularity of the sport and his acute retailing instincts resulted in the creation of a specialty ski shop in 1947 within the walls of the clothing store, at a time when the only place enthusiasts could buy equipment in town was at Edwards and Walker or King and Dexter hardware stores, or at James Bailey Sporting Goods.

As a specialty shop, he was ultimately awarded the franchise, along with Harvey Boynton in Kingfield, for Head skis which at the time was a considerable distinction. He also sold Henke boots, and he recently donated to the Ski Museum of Maine in Kingfield an early pair of leather and plastic boots, the first to introduce plastic as a component of ski boots. Interestingly, thanks to his generosity, the museum also features an original Anderson and Thompson automobile ski rack. Not to mention 10th Mountain Division equipment proudly on display there thanks to him.

Retiring from the retail business some 26 years ago, Benoit devoted himself to both an old and a new skiing passion.

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