Making Wooden Snowshoes

Hometown Heroes, Made in America, People, Traditions
on January 28, 2010
Jerry Harpt The Holmes family — Kenda Rae, Julie and Ken — manufacture 2,000 sets of snowshoes each year. The shoes are patterned on American Indian designs.

Ken Holmes, 50, bends a thin strip of hardwood around an oblong frame at Iversons Snowshoe factory in Shingleton, Mich., fashioning a piece of footwear that will help someone walk atop the snow.

After the snowshoe frame is dried in a wood-fired kiln overnight, Ken's wife, Julie, weaves strips of rawhide leather around the wooden frame, using a method developed by American Indians centuries ago. "I've been lacing for 20 years now," says Julie, 48. "I can do it with my eyes closed."

Iversons, the last large-scale wooden snowshoe manufacturer in the United States, has produced the winter footwear in Shingleton since Clarence Iverson opened a shop in the northern Michigan village in 1954. Iverson, a retired corrections officer, built the frames of white ash wood harvested from local forests and patterned his snowshoes after American Indian designs, though he laced them with cowhide rather than deer or moose hide.

As word of his quality workmanship spread, Iverson began making snowshoes for foresters, loggers, trappers and others who work outdoors in the winter. He also introduced neoprene lacing, which prevents snow from sticking to the shoes.

Iverson sold the company in the late 1980s, and when the business became available again three years ago, Bob and Linda Graves decided that building snowshoes would complement their log home business. They bought the 50-year-old company and moved its snowshoe-making equipment into a building on their lumberyard.

"We are the last of the Mohicans when it comes to making wooden snowshoes," says Bob, 61, a Shingleton native who strapped on his first set when he was 7 years old.

Today, Ken and Julie Holmes, who were employed by the company's previous owners, and their 24-year-old daughter, Kenda Rae, comprise Iversons' experienced workforce. Working as a team, the family performs every aspect of the snowshoe-making process, from steaming and bending wooden strips to lacquering leather laces and fastening bindings.

"I'm proud that I'm part of carrying on the wooden snowshoe tradition after seeing my parents do it for so long," Kenda Rae says.

Iversons manufactures 2,000 sets of snowshoes each year, including six traditional and modern designs, as well as snowshoe-making kits for do-it-yourselfers, wooden-framed fishnets and leather-laced furniture. The shoes range from $170 to $260 a pair, depending on their size and style, and are sold by L.L. Bean and other outdoor and sporting goods stores.

"My favorite Iversons snowshoe is the Michigan model because I can climb up hills, and also walk through water and slush with them," says Donald "Duck" Besaw, 70, of Shingleton, who laced snowshoes for Clarence Iverson in the 1960s and sets and checks traps each winter wearing the handmade footwear.

Trappers, park rangers, maple syrup collectors, wildlife biologists and loggers in northern climes continue to depend on snowshoes to traverse deep snow, but the fastest growing segment of snowshoe users are outdoor enthusiasts who enjoy trudging through the snow for recreation and exercise.

Meanwhile, Bob Graves is intent on preserving and increasing the use of traditional wooden snowshoes so that his grandchildren and future generations know the pleasureand practicalityof making tracks in the snow. "It's fun to watch those little 3-year-olds sloshing around in snowshoes," he says.