50 Years of Winter Carnivals
A Gold Party for a Special Village
Originally written by Tom Heitz (2008)
“Gold Tinged” by Bill Waller (1974 Chair)
Over the past five decades, the Cooperstown Winter Carnival has provided a welcome mid-winter respite and recreational diversion for villagers and regional visitors alike.
Although visitors are always welcomed, "the Carnival has always been about and for local people," Margaret Savoie said. Margaret is a past chair or co-chair of three carnivals including the 1991 version, the event’s Silver anniversary. "It was great times. It broke the winter doldrums and got people out and about."
Although the carnival has retained much of its original character as an event organized by local residents for the community’s enjoyment, at its inception in 1967 with some exceptions, the event offered a different menu of activities and programs. Newspaper accounts from 1967 and the accompanying dramatic photographs illustrate the novelty and excitement that characterized the first carnival, creating a momentum that continues today, albeit with different attractions.
In its March 1, 1967 edition, The Freeman’s Journal reported: "An estimated 10,000 visitors witnessed the many events which went to make up Cooperstown’s first annual Winter Carnival over the weekend (February 24-26). A highlight of the carnival was a sled dog race held Sunday afternoon which drew a crowd estimated at more than 6,000 persons both in the village, along the east and west sides of Otsego Lake, and at Three-Mile Point. A team of nine Indian dogs, owned and driven by Bob Jones of Canton, captured top honors in the 11-mile race over the icebound surface of Otsego Lake from a starting point at the corner of Main and Pioneer Streets. The Jones team finished in one hour, 18 minutes, in the run against time by the 22 teams entered. A huge throng gathered at the starting point at the busy Main Street intersection and then fanned out down Pioneer Street as the dog teams took off at two-minute intervals down Pioneer Street and onto the lake. The course was laid out on the east side of the lake to a point opposite Five-Mile Point, thence across the lake and down the west side and to a timer’s car at the foot of Pioneer."
Establishing a practice that continues today, the first carnival balanced the outdoor events with entertaining indoor activities that depended on the cooperation and participation of local residents.
The headliner of indoor activities in 1967 was a fashion show and ski film festival which opened the carnival. The Freeman’s Journal reported: "The carnival opened Friday night with a fashion show and ski film program at the Cooperstown Theatre, attended by more than 500 persons. Bill Edwardsen, popular WGY disc jockey, was master of ceremonies for the show which took as its theme an imaginary winter and summer tour of resorts via jet airliners. Some 25 models took part in the show before a set created by David Averill, art instructor of Cooperstown Central School. After the show, a Bavarian party was held at the Hotel Pratt under the direction of Mr. and Mrs. Louis B. Hager, and Mr. and Mrs. Vito Pugliese. Between 400 and 500 persons attended the party, jamming every available spot in the popular hotel throughout the evening. A teen age dance held at the Community House on Pioneer Street attracted more than 200 youngsters."
Back outside, 1967 carnival attendees enjoyed skiing competitions, a sports car rally and a baseball game at snow covered Doubleday Field with players mounted on skimobiles. The Freeman’s Journal described the action: "Ski races were held at Mount Otsego on Saturday morning with four classes run. A gymkhana on ice for sports cars was held concurrently at the foot of Otsego Lake, under the direction of the Turnpike Saab Club. A crowd estimated at 800 attended the skimobile baseball game held at Doubleday Field Saturday afternoon between teams representing Cooperstown and Richfield Springs.”
The gymkhana was a popular event. Past Chairman Hank Phillips was a perennial winner in his class, usually piloting his VW around the circuit faster than anyone else. One year, a passing professional ice racer stopped by and with the approval of the Saab Club, took his high performance, specially equipped racing Saab to the track and eclipsed everyone’s times by a wide margin. He was awarded a special trophy for his performance.
During the 1974 carnival we had an airplane land on the lake, its pilot hitch a ride on a snowmobile to the lakefront and have lunch.
Indoor social events served to thaw out frozen feet and keep the carnival spirit on the upswing with dancing, music, good food and drink. The Freeman’s Journal reported: "Saturday night included two dances - one the annual Susquehanna Ball of the New York State Historical Association which attracted its usual crowd of more than 350 persons at Fenimore House, and a winter carnival dance at the Cooperstown Bowl-a-Rama where more than 300 persons enjoyed the activities. More than 200 persons attended an after-midnight breakfast at the Hickory Grove Inn at Six-Mile Point, and late Sunday afternoon Hickory Grove was the scene of another jam packed event, jazz concert and buffet supper."
Meanwhile, a tradition for future winter carnivals was initiated with a snow sculpture contest. The news report continued: "Another outstanding feature of the carnival was the snow sculpture with some 15 pieces entered. Winner of the top prize was a sculpture of a book in Pioneer Park, entered by Jim Tongue of The Cupboard. Second went to an ice sculpture of a dog, in front of the Carrie Shop, executed by Mrs. Barbara Barrett and Mrs. Doris Rawls."
Over the years, the carnival’s organization has been led by a succession of community-spirited volunteers. The general chairman of the 1967 carnival was the late Joseph W. Canzeri. Canzeri’s top lieutenants, Henry J. Phillips and Richard M. Jacobsen, were both instrumental in establishing the carnival as an annual affair and in building its early traditions. Over the years, the carnival’s chairs, and often co-chairs, have relied on committees to organize and oversee the multiple events. A complete listing of Winter Carnival chairs can be found in this year’s program.
The carnival’s ability to adapt to changing times and tastes, and to survive uncertain weather, has helped sustain it over the years. "One year we were out on the street selling event tickets in sixty degree weather," Savoie recalled. At the other extreme, in 1972, the carnival was inundated by a record-setting blizzard.
The 1974 Carnival saw the end of the Susquehanna Ball at the Fenimore House, demonstrating that as much as the Carnival schedules repeat events, the party evolves. Downhill ski events ended with the closing of the local ski hill, Mt. Otsego. But the party continues.
This year’s 50th Carnival brings back one of the all-time favorites, sled dogs. Nothing speaks winter, and the rugged outdoors like sled dogs pulling their sled over the clean white snow. It has always been a popular event.
This year’s Carnival also brings the fun and great cheer of Brewery Ommegang onto the schedule with a number of events, including the Carnival Opener, and even a Beer sled race.
This year’s 50th anniversary puts the Cooperstown Winter Carnival in the forefront of continuously running Winter Carnivals in the State. Many are older, but few recent Carnivals have a 50 year history of a repeating annual party.
Another special tidbit about the Cooperstown Winter Carnival is that it is planned, managed, run and worked all by volunteers. It really is a community party, put on by the people for the people, with no other goal other than to relieve the winter doldrums with a drumbeat of joyful party.