"The Broken Country and Long Winter": The History of the Winter Carnival

by Jennie Rhodes | 2/8/19 2:55am

 While today’s Winter Carnival typically includes a dip in the icy waters of Occom Pond and an ice sculpture competition, previous Carnivals used to include elaborate figure skating shows and keg-jumps. How did the Carnival evolve through the ages?

In 1910, president of the newly formed Dartmouth Outing Club Fred Harris, Class of 1911, devised an idea for a “field day” to promote skiing and winter sports on campus. On the weekend of Feb. 26, 1910, students competed in individual and relay ski and snowshoe races. This weekend was meant to be the “culmination of the season,” according to an article published by The Dartmouth promoting the Carnival. The event proved to be a huge success for students, faculty and the town of Hanover. 

“The great popularity of the work of the Outing Club is due partly to the broken country and long winter, as well as to the considerable number of students who have learned at home the joys of winter sports,” The Dartmouth wrote in a review of the weekend.  

The plans for the 1911 Carnival were set in motion shortly after the 1910 Carnival. Even more winter sports would be featured, and a dance would culminate the weekend. Early on, Harris and the students planning the annual event realized that the event lacked a female presence. In 1912, The Dartmouth wrote that the Carnival would not succeed without women. 

“But when guests come to a college event at a men’s college, most of the guests are going to be feminine,” The Dartmouth wrote. “Thus it is that, while ski and skate and sled are still the hard core of the Carnival, an average newspaper reader, is quite likely to get the impression that it is exclusively a snow-trimmed revelry with an overall emphasis on the photogenic quality of the female frame in winter fashion.”  

Soon the Carnival became a staple New England social event. Students would invite “a date from hometown or neighboring women college” to the Winter Ball, according to Peter Frederick ’65 in an interview with the Dartmouth. Students would also take their date to a winter-themed theater production. Women throughout the east coast soon began traveling to attend the Carnival.  

“A girl may go to the Harvard-Yale game, and also to the boat races at New London, but unless she has a bid to the Dartmouth Winter Carnival she cannot claim to have hit all the high spots of New England college life,” a 1923 Dartmouth advertisement for the Winter Carnival stated. 

That same year, the first Winter Carnival “Queen of the Snows” was crowned. Describing the Queen of the Snows criteria, a 1928 event program remarked, “Not only beauty, but the spirit of New Hampshire snows and Hanover winters will grace her personality and costume.” 

This pageant attracted hundreds of contestants, some of whom were aspiring movie stars. In addition, another few hundred women would travel to Hanover as dates for the students. There were so many women on campus that the students in fraternities had to move out of their houses so that women could have a place to sleep, according to Frederick. 

However, in 1972, the pageant ended. This coincided with the year that Dartmouth began admitting women. 

The College then attempted to transform the Carnival back into a winter sports-focused celebration. 

While ski races have been a constant sporting event since the conception of the Carnival, most of the other events have come and gone. One of the first competitions added to the races was Skijoring, in which students would race on skis pulled by horses. This race either happened down Main Street or Tuck Drive. It was so difficult that often no racers completed the race without falling. The last race look place in 1934. 

A few years later, the “Outdoor Evening” was added to the roster. This included an ice skating show put on by members of the Dartmouth ice skating team, as well as Olympic figure skaters. According to the Hanover Gazette, there were more than 2,000 spectators for this event in 1947. The Outdoor Evening of 1960 was even televised on NBC.  

A major competition from 1922 to 1993 was the 50-meter ski jump. On the Saturday of Winter Carnival, students would sit on the Hanover Golf Course and watch the ski jump with 85-foot tall steel trestles. It was a main source of excitement on campus, according to Frederick. 

Since 1925, the focal point of the Carnival has been the snow sculpture situated in the middle of the Green. Since the first sculpture — a medieval castle — students have been the ones to build the centerpiece. Past sculptures include a fire-breathing dragon in 1969, a 47.5-foot snowman in 1987 and a “Cat in the Hat” that was featured in USA Today in 2004. The 1987 snow sculpture once held a Guinness World Record for the world’s tallest snowman.  

In the 1960s, each fraternity would make a smaller-scale snow sculpture in front of their respective house, competing for the prize of best sculpture. According to Frederick, every year it seemed as if each house had at least one person who knew how to carve snow.  

“It was a huge uniting event with the brothers and some friendly competition,” he said. 

While snow sculptures have been a “unifying symbol of the community,” seven years ago, the number of students participating in the build significantly dwindled, o much so that in 2015 only one student signed up to build the sculpture. As a result, the College cut funding for the sculpture completely, according to Chris Cartwright ’21, one of this year’s sculpture build leaders. 

Last year, however, Andrew Yohe ’18 and Zoe Dinneen ’18 decided to bring the sculpture back. In order to carry on the tradition for the 2019 Carnival, they taught James McHugh ’19 the ins and outs of snow sculpting. McHugh is adamant that the sculpture tradition must continue. 

“Traditions are important, especially during winter when everyone is cooped up inside,” he said. “It is good to bring people outside for a common goal. People get excited about it. It really is a core part of Dartmouth’s identity.”  

Since the College does not fund the sculpture’s construction anymore, the builders secured funding from alumni and the Sphinx Foundation. Alumni will also assist students to build the sculpture. According to Frederick, in 1964, president John Sloan Dickey even assisted with the building of the sculpture.  

“The sculpture building provides an opportunity for everyone to get together and bond,” Frederick said. “If you go out and it’s negative 30 degrees, moving snow will help people bond. Everyone has a story of Winter Carnival and almost everyone deals with building a statue — the one on the Green or at their fraternity house.” 

Each fraternity had their own parties for Carnival weekend, which included unique traditions for each house. The Psi Upsilon fraternity hosted a keg-jumping competition, which began in 1982. Drunken, skate-wearing contestants vaulted themselves over an increasing number of beer kegs. After a contestant completed a jump, he downed a shot.  

However, in 1998, president James Wright enacted the Student Life Initiative, with the goal of creating all co-ed Greek organizations. As a result, all Carnival celebrations were canceled that year.  

“Fraternities and sororities were upset with the news,” Meg Lysy ’99, co-chair of the 1996 Winter Carnival, recalled. “They felt like the Greek system was being devalued.”  

While fraternities still hold parties today, most rituals have been disbanded by the College. The Psi U keg-jump was discontinued in 2001 over safety and liability concerns. 

Traditions, like the Psi U keg jump, Queen of the Snows, snow sculpture and Skijoring may come and go. What remains is that Winter Carnival is a celebration of the winter season and the sports that come with it.  

Lysy said she still believes Winter Carnival is “the magic of Dartmouth,” where “the community embraces the season and comes together as the family we are.” Embracing the winter season is the true spirit of the Carnival, according to her.  

“I still see people enjoying where we are,” she said. “They are still willing to be outside, having fun in the snow. It does not have to be skiing or sledding to be fun. It can just be running around the Green with your friends. There is still the spirit of embracing where we live. It really is a joyous event.” 

As Craig Thorn ’80 wrote in The Dartmouth, the Carnival is about being part of the Dartmouth community and celebrating the Dartmouth spirit.  

“They do these things, often drudgeries, because the spirit of Carnival is contagious, an instant’s exposure and it spreads like measles, except that it never goes away,” he wrote. “There is no special reward for the great majority of these men as only 15 from the freshmen competition during the whole year and very few from the upperclassmen are elected into Cabin and Trail; it is the idea of being even a small part of this huge machine that offers enticement.”