Arts & Entertainment

The Legend of Winter Carnival

Whitefish’s iconic celebration of winter gears up for its 56th year

WHITEFISH – Fifty-three years after having a formal teatime with Dick Adams, then the editor of the Whitefish Pilot and a member of the Whitefish Winter Carnival’s “Dirty Dozen,” Susan Abell still remembers how much her hands were shaking.

Abell, then a 21-year-old Whitefish resident, was auditioning to be Queen of the Snows for the town’s annual Winter Carnival, which was in its third year.

“My hands were rattling that cup so much I doubt they could even hear anything I was saying,” Abell said last week at her home on Whitefish Lake.

Even if Adams and his wife couldn’t hear her, it was clear that Abell had made an impression on them because she became the Queen of the Snows for the 1962 Whitefish Winter Carnival.  This year’s signature weekend runs from Feb. 6 to 8 and features a full lineup of events throughout Whitefish, according to carnival chair Paul Johannsen.

“It’s a great Whitefish tradition,” Johannsen said. “Everyone gets involved.”

The legend of the Winter Carnival is based around a god named Ullr who, along with his queen and prime minister, reigned over winter and all of its activities. However, Ullr’s followers eventually became interested in other things and deserted their god and his winter ways. Looking for a new home, Ullr settled in the Flathead Valley and made Big Mountain his home. Unfortunately, the mountain was also home to a fierce band of snow creatures, called Yetis.

When human settlers came to the valley, the Yetis attacked them but Ullr saved the new inhabitants. To celebrate, the new settlers decided to have an annual feast to honor the snow king, which eventually became Winter Carnival.

In reality, in the late 1950s a group of local residents called the “Dirty Dozen” thought Whitefish needed a mid-winter event to combat the mid-season blues. They decided to model the Whitefish event after the legendry Saint Paul Winter Carnival in Minnesota, which dates back to 1886.

The first winter carnival was held in 1960 and in the early days a group from Whitefish, including the Queen of the Snows, would travel to attend the Saint Paul event, courtesy of the Great Northern Railway. While there, they would attend various events, parades and even a grand ball.

“They showed us a good time,” Abell said, reflecting on the 1962 carnival. “It was a fabulous experience.”

Upon returning to Whitefish, King Ullr was named (who in 1962 was Rusty Abell, Susan’s future father-in-law) and then soon after the Winter Carnival would begin.

Back then much of downtown was overtaken with events and the skijoring took place in the middle of Central Avenue. One event was a pancake cook-off and relay race, where participants would frantically stir up the batter and then run it down the street to a griddle to cook it. Moments after the batter hit the hot surface participants would scoop it on to a plate and run it to the judge’s table where the king and queen awaited.

“We did not eat one pancake that was done,” Abell said.

Another favorite event back then was the broomstick hockey tournament where every time a participant received a penalty, they lost a foot off their stick. There was also a tug-of-war on skis and a snowshoe race.

Years after her time as queen, Abell and her husband Charlie, who was king in the late 1970s, still look forward to the carnival every year.

“It’s changed, like all things have changed,” Charlie said. “There are some things we miss and some things are better.”

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