2014 Saranac Lake Winter Carnival button
For residents of this former logging town, some traditions never die — they’re just frozen in Flower Lake and thawed out each year for the east coast’s longest-running winter carnival.
For 10 days, this small village seven miles from Lake Placid will host a constellation of over 100 events spread across the frigid landscape, including three sets of fireworks, parades, musical performances and demonstrations from a wide variety of local organizations, from woodmen to women tossing custom-designed frying pans.
Friday, Jan. 31
7:30pm: Women’s Civic Chamber Coronation of Winter Carnival Royalty (Harrietstown Town Hall)
Saturday, Feb. 1
12:30pm: Ladies’ Fry Pan Toss (Riverside Park)
7pm: Lighting of the Ice Palace and Opening Fireworks Display (Ice Palace, State Boat Launch)
8-10pm: Winter Carnival Celtic Jam (Harriettstown Town Hall)
Sunday, Feb. 2
2:30pm: Woltner Summit Spike of the Ice Icicle Contest (Ice Palace)
Tuesday, Feb. 4
5:30pm: Grand Marshal Reception and Royalty Dinner (Red Fox Restaurant)
Friday, Feb. 7
9pm: Performance by Albany-based jam band Conehead Buddha (The Waterhole)
Saturday, Feb. 8
11am: Paul Smith’s College Woodsmen’s Exhibition (Riverside Park)
1pm: Gala Parade (Broadway and Main Street from Ampersand Avenue to LaPan Highway)
Sunday, Feb. 9
3pm: 19th Annual Saranac Lake Young Arts Association Winter Carnival Baroque Concert (First United Methodist Church)
8pm: “Storming the Palace” Closing Fireworks Display (Ice Palace, State Boat Launch)
For full schedule of events, visit saranaclakewintercarnival.com. Runs until Sunday, Feb. 9.
While it may be easy for newcomers to lump the carnival in with the flotilla of one-off wintertime events that dot the North Country, the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival has a long and storied history speckled with a cast of colorful characters and quirky traditions.
“People tended to make their own fun, like stage sets for festivities,” said Harrietstown Historian Mary Hotaling on the roots of late-nineteenth century community events. “It was the way that people tended to entertain themselves.”
The first record of a wintertime gathering in Saranac Lake was a blurb in the Feb. 25, 1897 edition of the Essex County Republican that mentioned a, “fancy dress gathering,” held by a group called the Pontiac Club. About 100 people attended, dressed in masquerade-type attire, to watch a hockey match. Little else is known and it wasn’t until the following year that the events morphed into a singular carnival that included a boys-only “prize fancy skating contest,” an exhibition by visiting professional figure skaters from Utica, a “hocking match,” and the “grand illuminating and storming of the ice fortress.”
Festivalgoers would pretend to storm the fortress like a castle, said Andy Flynn, former Denton Publications Asssistant Managing Editor who currently works for the Lake Placid News, who’s become something of an expert on the history of the carnival.
“Different groups would storm in from different angles,” said Flynn, author of “Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Memories,” describing an activity that was in fashion at the time.
Flynn said the carnival’s modern-day fireworks that draw upwards of 10,000 spectators still contain echoes of wartime displays. The crowd watches the opening fireworks from behind, he said. And during the closing, the public is assembled in the middle of the action.
“It’s an immersive experience and two of the carnival’s biggest highlights,” he said.
Despite it’s storied history, the carnival hasn’t beckoned residents out into the frost every year. There were gaps from the 1920s until the mid-1950s when the town fell silent due to both World War II and what historical documents provided by Historic Saranac Lake, a local non-profit, refer to as “a lack of proper leadership.”
However, it was resurrected in the winter of 1947-48 and has been held annually ever since.
The Ice Palace, which wasn’t constructed for a 35 year period between 1920 and 1954, has also been a mainstay since the time when the carnival’s parade consisted of sleek convertibles with tail light fins humming down a snowpacked Ampersand Avenue.
While the first ice palace constructed in North America was in Montreal in 1883, Saranac Lake may hold the honor of hosting the first palace that was illuminated with electricity. No one seems to know if it was the oldest usage of “colored electric lights” and surprisingly enough, historical records don’t indicate casualties from the then-uncommon usage of threading blocks of ice with electrical currents.
The fireworks display is still referred to “storming” and the fireworks display goes up and over the palace, which is now constructed by an all-volunteer committee as opposed to the architects, many of whom came to the village for tuberculosis cures, overseeing the earlier construction efforts:
Boldface names like William L. Coultier, a New Yorker who designed many of the Adirondack Great Camps and local attractions (including Park Street’s “The Porcupine” and Camp Eagle Island) and his contemporary William G. Distin, have now given way to names like Dean Baker, Jeff Branch and Robin Johnson, the area residents who head the building committee that is informally known as the Ice Palace Workers 101, or IPW 101.
“Modern equipment is used for the heavy lifting,” said event spokeswoman Colleen O’Neill, “but traditional manual methods are also practiced, including the usage of antique hand saws and ice tongs.”
Another manual process which is critical to the construction, said O’Neill, is making slush, a mixture of water and snow.
The slush forms the mortar which holds the Ice Palace together. IPW 101 workers then fill buckets with water, pound in snow, carry it to the palace walls and apply the slush.
Construction of this year’s palace started on the morning Friday, Jan. 17 and will continue until the events officially begin on Friday, Jan. 31.
Other contemporary additions to the carnival include buttons — local cartoonist Garry Trudeau has been designing them regularly since 1981, most of them based on his popular Doonesbury comic strip — and themes, with this year’s tackling a Celtic aesthetic, joining the fray in 1964.
KINGS AND QUEENS
On a broader level, the event that Parade magazine ranked among North America’s “coolest winter festivals” is a people-powered effort organized by the all-volunteer Saranac Lake Winter Carnival Committee, a group of local citizens.
It wasn’t always this way. The committee was formed only within living memory as a way to foster a sense of civic pride, said O’Neill.
“They can be as diverse as organizing a major community event or as seemingly minor as shoveling a neighbor’s sidewalk,” she said. “The assembly is seeking people who help others independently, not necessarily people who are in professions that help or care for others.”
This extends to the selection of a royal court that was once restricted to television personalities, celebrities with ties to the area and winners of contests like the Ms. Rheingold Canadian Beer Queen, said Michelle Tucker, curator for the Curator for Saranac Lake Library Adirondack Research Room.
In 1947, Queen Jean Keating was crowned by famed local hermit Noah John Rondeau, who become something of a novelty, appearing again in 1950 and even coronated as Archbishop in 1951.
Last year’s king was Lee Foster and the queen was Cherie Racette.
Reflecting the modern era’s increased sense of transparency, the public is now asked to nominate their peers. Most have a longstanding history of volunteering in the community, said O’Neill. Past kings and queens chime at a meeting at a “secret location” (with voting done by “secret ballot”) and the winners are announced towards the kickoff date.
After their coronation — this year’s will be held on Friday, Jan. 31 with a reception feast on Tuesday, Feb. 4 — the court will attend key events dressed in royal garb and receive a warm reception from the peasantry.
“When you see them walking around, people cheer,” said O’Neill.
As it enters its third century of attracting throngs to the area, the carnival continues to be a boon for the local economy. The Saranac Lake Chamber of Commerce said that the village sees a fairly large increase from its members as compared to the rest of the winter.
“Lodging properties are hustling and bustling and we’re seeing a spike for both weekends,” said Chamber chief Katy Van Anden.
The event, she said, has been given a boost from being rated second in the country by National Geographic, right behind Anchorage, Al.
“We’ll see economic stimulus until the end of February when the ice palace comes down,” said Van Andren, noting that the chamber receives calls throughout the end of winter from people asking if they can still catch a glimpse of the renewed history that is recycled back into Flower lake year after year.
But before the lake reclaims the castle, we’ve got 10 days of events that are still being fleshed out. “We have lots on the schedule and more coming daily,” said O’Neill.
“And it will only get better.”