Mellie Dunham was so busy making snowshoes at his family company in Norway, Maine, that he let a letter from Henry Ford languish for several days.
It was the fall of 1925, and Ford was offering Mellie Dunham fame (and some fortune). He invited him to his house in Dearborn, Mich.
Mellie Dunham was born on July 29, 1853, to Christina Bent and Alanson Mellen Dunham. He was a bewhiskered 72-year-old when Ford sent him the invitation to fiddle at his home in Michigan, Ford learned about him when he won a statewide fiddling contest in Lewiston.
Mellie finally opened Ford’s letter, thinking it was an order for snowshoes. He replied he couldn’t get away because he had to split kindling and patch the barn roof, plus do his regular work making snowshoes. The Norway Advertiser got hold of the letters and published them. The national news media picked up the story that Henry Ford had a new favorite. Maine Gov. Ralph O. Brewster sent a press agent to Norway to persuade Mellie Dunham to accept the invitation.
Norway gave Mellie and his wife Emma (known as Gram) a huge sendoff. Schools and stores were closed. The governor came. A parade of citizens, a big brass band and a police escort brought them to the train station, where Ford had sent a Pullman car. Reporters hung on Mellie Dunham’s folksy, backwoods comments and conveyed them to the public. “I only went west once before, to Berlin, New Hampshire,” he said. “We’re carrying coffee along because we don’t know whether the coffee in Detroit will be good.”
Ford had invited 38 other fiddlers to play at his home, but none got as much attention as Mellie. He was celebrated at every stop along the way to Detroit. On. Dec. 11, 1925, he played for a dancing party at Ford’s home. His repertoire included Pop Goes the Weasel, Old Zip Coon, Speed the Plough and Weevily Wheat. The dance was heavily publicized by reporters and photographers from Detroit, New York and Boston. The next day he gave a recital on Ford’s Stradivarius.
Mellie figured he should make hay while the sun was shining. He and Emma boarded a train for New York, where he signed a $500-a-week contract with the Keith-Albee vaudeville circuit. “I came to make some money and I make no bones about it,” he said. The New York Times reported he made $20,000 on his tour.
Mellie Dunham and his Mountain Rangers fiddled for the next 17 months, drawing large crowds throughout the United States and Canada. Some weeks he earned as much as $1,500. Other fiddlers – including President Calvin Coolidge’s 80-year-old uncle – seized the same opportunity. They challenged Mellie to a playdown and signed their own vaudeville contracts.
For a while, the nation was caught up in a country music craze. Ford encouraged local fiddling contests by offering a loving cup to the winner. Other kinds of old-time contests became popular: marble shooting, wood chopping, horseshoe pitching. Merchants found a ready market for old-timey sheet music and songbooks, fiddles and old-fashioned guitars.
Then, just as suddenly, the craze died down. Mellie and Gram Dunham went home to Norway to make snowshoes. But not before the Maine State Legislature gave them three cheers and threw a dance in their honor. They dined with the governor.
Mellie Dunham died at the age of 78 on Sept. 28, 1931. In his obituary, the Times quoted a letter from a Maine forest ranger about Mellie Dunham’s snowshoes. “I do not like to have Mr. Dunham thought of as a sort of itinerant fiddler. He is a craftsman of the best type.”
The newspaper noted he was known throughout Maine as a master craftsman. He had made 60 pairs of snowshoes for Commodore Robert E. Peary’s Arctic expedition.
You can listen to Mellie Dunham here.
With thanks to The Public Image of Henry Ford: An American Folk Hero and His Company by David Lanier Lewis. This story was updated in 2017.