Winter Fun: Carnivals, Outing Clubs and Cold Weather Competitions

By Kathi Caldwell-Hopper

For generations, snow has been a part of life in New Hampshire. Perhaps to embrace, rather than endure, long winters, locals decided it would be fun to get outside, offer some competitions and food and music during the coldest time of the year. That idea became known as a winter carnival, and to this day, nothing says fun quite like a winter carnival.

Winter carnivals and school dances are often part of wintertime events. This old photo of the crowning of Jack Frost and Miss Snowflake at the winter carnival dance, Bristol Community Center, Bristol. (Photo courtesy Tapply Thompson Community Center)

In days of old, when roads were nearly impassable in winter and folks could not travel as far, they made their own fun at winter carnival gatherings that included ice skating, snowmen making, dances and suppers and the crowning of a carnival queen. These simple celebrations brought people out to socialize and have fun during the long winters in New England.

In the Newfound Lake area, the village of Hebron got in on winter carnival fun starting in about 1922. According to A Brief History of Hebron, NH by Ron Collins, that was the year a winter carnival was planned. It was tied in with the area outing and ski clubs, such as the one on Tenney Hill in Hebron. 

Bristol, also in the Newfound area, seems to have embraced the fun of winter carnival events, and such outdoor competitions as a Carnival Log Rolling contest drew big crowds of spectators.

In 1923 the club put together and sponsored Bristol’s first winter carnival. The event proved wildly popular and grew over the years. A typical winter carnival included snowshoeing, ice skating, winter sports competitions, ski jumping, parades and a festive carnival ball with dancing and music by an orchestra; those who braved the winter weather had a social event to talk about for the remainder of the winter.

At some point, the club enlarged the winter carnival to include a Jack Frost and Miss Snowflake dance for high schoolers. The pageant, held at the town’s community center in Bristol, featured competing students from the local high school with the winners crowned during the dance.

Gunstock in Gilford has been the place for winter fun for decades. The resort is no stranger to winter carnivals, starting many years ago. A newspaper article in The Telegraph (Nashua) from 1989 stated that the resort’s winter carnival was set to begin on February 19 with many activities planned, such as a snow sculpture contest, a dance, a torchlight parade down the ski slopes, a ski race, basketball competition and more.

Wolfeboro has offered a fun winter carnival for years, and it all began in the 1940s at the area that would become Abenaki Ski Area. The Abenaki Outing Club members were enjoying winter activities on a hill in the town and wanted to promote winter activities. The club presented a winter carnival in the 1940s, with skiing, skating and other outdoor pastimes.

The idea of a winter carnival got its start in Franklin when the town’s recreation department was given the go-ahead to build a ski area in the town. The Franklin Outing Club stepped in to help the recreation department run the ski area and in 1962, the Great Gains Ski Area (which became the Veteran’s Memorial Ski Area) held its first winter carnival. 

Many years later, the Franklin Outing Club was still offering a winter carnival. Testifying to the staying power of the club and the carnival, 2015 marked the 53rd year of the winter event. Such events as a casserole supper and bonfire, a pancake breakfast, fishing derby does not sound all that different from the events of the old-time carnivals in the early 1900s.

In 1922, a winter carnival was held in Tamworth with Hazel Evans crowned as carnival queen. She rode in the festive carnival parade in a sled led by the famous Chinook sled dog. 

Other outdoor winter adventures have been a part of the Lakes Region for years and perhaps the most beloved is the annual Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby. According to From Yesterday to Today The World Championship Sled Dog Derby by Cynthia Molburg, the races began in Laconia in around 1930 and were part of other events presented by the New England Sled Dog Club. By 1931, the Laconia Sled Dog Club was created to promote the sport in the area. Clearly, the event was very popular, and by 1936, the title World Championship was added.

Sled dog competitors (known as mushers) came from around the country and as far away as Canada to participate in the race. When World War II broke out, the races ceased but saw resurgence in the mid 1950s. At that time, the Belknap County Sportsman Club sponsored the event. Some of the members of the former Laconia Sled Dog Club stepped in to help as well and formed the Lakes Region Sled Dog Club. Many local organizations and such departments as local police and road crews and city officials helped as well. In the 1960s, the races were very popular and brought excitement to the area in the deep winter. Over 40 team drivers might race on any given year and spectators filled the sidewalks of Laconia to cheer on the teams.

Wintertime outdoor lovers joined together all over New Hampshire in the early 1900s to create carnivals and also to enjoy snow sports. Four local men formed the Tamworth Outing Club in 1935. In the group’s initial minutes, it was recorded, “The object for which this corporation is established is to promote and encourage out-door sports and recreation, and to furnish or otherwise secure facilities for the same; and to aid in such development of the region as is consistent with its character and the thought of its inhabitants.”

The club was quite active and they created lots of outdoor opportunities for visitors and locals alike. Their early projects included trail clearing and a rope tow created in 1936 and ski races in the winter of 1937. They also sponsored a sled dog race in 1937 and held popular barn dances in winter and summer. 

The winter of 2016 offers a number of winter carnivals in the Lakes Region, including the 16th Annual Ice Harvest and Winter Carnival in Tamworth at the Remick Country Doctor Museum on Saturday, February 16; the Alton Bay Winter Carnival on February 16 and 17; the Wolfeboro Winter Carnival from February 16 to 24, among others. Although outside the Lakes Region, the Newport, NH Winter Carnival in the Lake Sunapee area has been around for over 100 years and will take place from February 7 to 10 this year in the town of Newport, NH.

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