It all started on a bar napkin.
It was in the middle of another cold Montana winter back in 1959, when Norm Kurtz grabbed a napkin and started sketching out what would eventually become Whitefish Winter Carnival, a storied mid-winter celebration that in 2020 is celebrating its 61st year. This year’s event is scheduled for Feb. 7 to 9.
“The idea was the result of a little bit of dreaming and a little bit of drinking,” Kurtz, who passed away six years ago, said in 2010.
That winter, Kurtz, who worked at Big Mountain and would eventually become president and general manager of the ski hill, assembled a group of people known as the “dirty dozen” to organize a festival to replicate the one he saw in Minnesota a few years earlier, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival.
The goal of the dirty dozen was simple: come up with a community-wide celebration to break up the winter blues that so often set in come February. The event featured a parade, skijoring, broom hockey and more. The organizers also decided to find a king and a queen to reign over the carnival. In those early years, the king was usually an older male and the queen a young woman. Around the king and queen, a unique cast of characters sprung up, including yetis, whose only goal in life is to kidnap the queen. Over the years, other characters have come and gone, including Vikings, penguins, clowns (usually employees of the local grocery store) and goats (usually locals who worked for the Great Northern Railway, which was a major sponsor of the event in the early years).
Noticeably missing from the first carnival was the red-jacket wearing prime minister, who has traditionally served as the master of ceremonies for most events. During the 1959 carnival, Kurtz was serving as the unofficial emcee. As part of the first festival, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival royalty came to Whitefish and when they left town on the train, the Minnesota prime minister took off his jacket, handed it to Kurtz and said, “If there were ever a prime minister of the Whitefish Winter Carnival it would be you.”
In 1962, Susan Abell was named Queen of the Snows for the third carnival. In those days, the “dirty dozen” selected a half-dozen or so young women to be interviewed for the position. Abell, then Susan Monroe, had to go to a tea with Dick and Jackie Adams, who owned and ran the Whitefish Pilot, for an interview prior to being selected. Abell was told to “dress appropriately and wear gloves.” Abell said all these years later, she still remembers how nervous she was to be interviewed by the couple and that her teacup was shaking the entire time. Despite her nerves, she apparently impressed the Adamses because they called the next day to let her know that she would be that year’s queen.
“How I became queen, I’ll never know,” she said in an interview last week.
Abell was introduced during a banquet on Big Mountain in January 1962. As part of the big reveal, Abell was hidden inside a massive snowman made of “chicken wire and Kleenex,” she recalled. The naming of a new Winter Carnival Queen was so important that the newspaper would print an extra edition. The 1962 Winter Carnival king was Rusty Abell, the queen’s future father-in-law.
Not long after the banquet, Abell was sent to St. Paul to attend the original winter carnival. While there she took part in various luncheons, high teas, and balls.
“It was just amazing,” she said.
A few weeks later, the Saint Paul Winter Carnival royalty made the trek to Whitefish. When the king, queen and prime minister arrived on the train, they were welcomed with a torchlight parade through town. Abell said toward the end of the 1962 Winter Carnival, she remembers the Saint Paul royalty warning the locals to cherish their celebration.
“I remember them saying, ‘within a few years, your carnival could die off. People will get used to it and they think it will always happen and that they don’t need to support it,’” she recalled, adding that the Saint Paul festival petered out after a few years before being revived. “I think it’s really neat that our carnival never died and I think that’s because of our people.”
For the Abells, Winter Carnival has always been a family affair. Over the years, Susan’s husband Charlie has been a yeti, a Viking, a goat and, in 1978, a king. Susan Abell said she remembers when her two young boys would help their dad get ready for carnival. They would assist their dad with putting on the yeti costume — which usually included wearing pillows — until the critical final step.
“The moment he put on that terrifying mask, the two boys would start screaming and crying and run away,” she said.
Charlie Abell, who was president and CEO of Whitefish Credit Union from 1967 until 2009, said that back in the 1960s and 1970s everyone in town would get involved in carnival, especially the parade. The Whitefish Credit Union crew would spend more than a month working on their float down at the armory.
“We had to work around the tanks,” he said.
One of the biggest aspects of the carnival over the years was the buttons that gained people access to various events. The sale of the buttons also raised money for scholarships for local students. Patricia Ryan has organized the creation of the buttons for a number of years and said the carnival committee usually orders about 2,800 annually.
Every year, the few buttons that are left end up in the care of Jill Evans, executive director of the Stumptown Historical Society and the “Keeper of Carnival Curios.” The museum has the button from every year, including two from 1976 when the wrong date was put on the first batch of buttons. Upstairs at the museum, Evans has boxes full of old buttons and she said she’s willing to trade specific ones if someone is looking to have the complete set (although no set is complete without the two from 1976).
Evans said the most amazing aspect of the carnival is that it’s run by volunteers. She said that’s reflective of Whitefish as a whole.
Susan Abell said she’s always amazed that the little mid-winter festival hatched on the back of a bar napkin is still going strong after six decades.
“I can’t take credit for saying this, but a friend once said, ‘This whole town has changed in the last 60 years. Everything around us has changed, but Winter Carnival carries on.’”
For more information and a complete listing of events, visit whitefishwintercarnival.com.