In the mid-1880s, a few newspaper writers from the east coast ended up in Saint Paul, Minnesota, in winter and weren’t impressed with what they found. Despite being the state capital and its strategic location along the Mississippi River — a critical transportation corridor then and now — the writers couldn’t get over how cold it was. In the reports that followed their trip, they likened the city to Siberia and some even declared that it was unfit for human habitation.
The locals didn’t take kindly to those comments. After all, they sort of liked their cold winters, no matter how dark and gloomy it got. In response, they opted to throw a party to celebrate all things winter. In 1886, the first Saint Paul Winter Carnival was born. That inaugural event featured ice skating, a toboggan slide and an ice palace that was among the first structures in the city to have electricity. The event was an immediate hit and was held off and on over the next half-century before finally becoming an annual event in 1946, one that attracted tens of thousands of attendees every winter. Among those in attendance was Norm Kurtz of Whitefish. One night at the bar a few years later, Kurtz and some friends started talking about how Whitefish needed a mid-winter event to stave off the seasonal blues that usually set in around February. Kurtz suggested they try and replicate the winter carnival he attended back in Minnesota.
“The idea was the result of a little bit of dreaming and a little bit of drinking,” Kurtz said back in 2010.
The first Whitefish Winter Carnival was in 1959 and it’s been held every year since (although it went virtual in 2021 due to the pandemic). The carnival organizers borrowed heavily from the Saint Paul edition, transplanting some of the lore of the original (which just so happens to be the oldest winter festival in the United States). Along with a king and queen, there’s a prime minister and a quirky cast of characters that follow them around, including yetis, Vikings, and penguins. During the early years of the Whitefish Winter Carnival, the event was even graced with the presence of the king and queen from the Saint Paul festival. Susan Abell was the Whitefish queen in 1962 and recalls the Saint Paul delegation warning the Montanans that they needed to do everything they could to protect 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.
But the Whitefish one never died and in 2022 it is celebrating its 63rd year. For more information, visit whitefishwintercarnival.com.