The Whitefish Winter Carnival celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.
Legend says it all started with a conversation overheard at a bar, but it took a group of friends nicknamed the “Dirty Dozen” to make the Whitefish Winter Carnival real.
The “Dirty Dozen” included Norm and Carolee Kurtz, Dick and Jackie Adams, Bobbie and Florence Decker, Tom and Rosemary Darley, John Austin, Bob Palo, and Russ and Mary Jane Street.
During a meeting in the Ptarmigan Room in the Northern Rocky Chalet on Big Mountain in 1959, Norm Kurtz outlined the idea of a winter carnival event on a cocktail napkin.
The story of the carnival was based on a four-act pageant that Kurtz and former Whitefish Pilot owners Dick and Jackie Adams wrote to represent the four seasons and to break up the monotony of winter.
This year’s Carnival main events take place Feb. 1-3 with the theme Woodstock Whitefish. The Grand Parade is Saturday downtown beginning at 3 p.m.
Last year Paul Coats and Patricia Ryan released a children’s book, “Ullr and the Yeti” based on Winter Carnival that tells the story of how a banished Nordic god and his royal family arrived in early Whitefish and excited the whole town with fun, sparkle and some unexpected problems.
At one point, the conceptual plans for a winter carnival were poised for sale to Kalispell, but the Whitefish Chamber of Commerce voted a resounding “no” to that idea and told Kurtz they wanted to run the event.
Loosely likened to the Minneapolis-St. Paul Winter Fest and other festivals held around the Pacific Northwest, the first Whitefish Winter Carnival started with a torchlight parade on Big Mountain followed by a 10-minute parade made up mostly of “Cub Scouts, fire engines and a few corny floats.”
Royalty from St. Paul were invited, and a wide variety of events were scheduled, including ice skating and broom hockey on Central Avenue and the first annual International Metropolitan Cross Country Race, which led skiers from bar to bar downtown — and sometimes through the bars. The sole female ski racer was allowed passage through the men-only Pastime Bar, which is now the Bulldog Saloon, after she bellowed for her beer.
Jack Zerr was crowned the first King Ullr, and Jackie Hythecker became the first queen. When the visiting St. Paul royalty asked where Whitefish’s prime minister could be found, Norm Kurtz was quickly chosen to play the role. On Carnival day, the Yetis attacked the parade and kidnapped both queens. Ransom was paid, and the women were rescued off Big Mountain.
The first Carnival lost money — it cost $2,385 to put on the event, and organizers ended up $296 in the hole.
But hard work and loyalty to tradition has kept the longest regional festival in the U.S. alive and well.
Today, King Ullr and the Queen of Snows is crowned in January prior to the Carnival main events. The Prime Minister, Duchess of Lark, Prince Frey and Princess Freya round out the annual list of royalty.
Over the years, the parade grew to include dozens of costumed groups, including Yetis, Penguins, Rocky Mountain Goats, Klumsy Klowns, Vikings, Keystone Cops, Raggedy Anns, Viking Divas, The Working Women Of Whitefish and the Cranbrook All Girls Bugle Band.
As the second Winter Carnival approached, one newspaper predicted “thousands for the extravaganza.”
That year, onlookers flooded Third Street between Spokane and Central avenues for Carnival events.
In 1962, a contingent of Penguins, Bouncy Clowns, Yetis and Great Northern Goats tagged along with Montana Gov. Tim Babcock to the Seattle World’s Fair. Babcock was knighted by King Ullr VII Russ Street in 1966.
In 1974, Prime Minister Jim Trout made the Carnival a star-studded affair by inviting Hollywood. That year, actor Tim Matheson attended the Carnival. Matheson became known for his role as “Otter” in the film “Animal House.” Actor Dana Carvey served as parade marshal at the 23rd Winter Carnival in 1982. Carvey went on to star in Saturday Night Live.
In 2017, Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards, known for his appearance as a British ski jumper in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, finishing dead last but realizing his dream of becoming his country’s first Olympic jumper, served as Grand Marshal of the parade.
By 1975, Whitefish’s Carnival was reportedly the third largest festival in the U.S., behind New Orlean’s Mardi Gras and the Minneapolis-St. Paul Festival of Lights.
Skijoring was introduced at the first Winter Carnival with racing on Central Avenue. By 1977, skiers were jumping through flaming hoops. After a brief hiatus, the event was moved to the city airport, before relocating in 2018 to the Big Mountain Ranch. The event has continued to grow each year with about 100 competitors and thousands of spectators during the two-day event.
More serene sports flourished in the early years, like dog sled races using household dogs. The Carnival was also kid-friendly — organizers once filled a dump truck with snow and $100 worth of quarters and emptied it into the street for children to dig through.
Temperatures plummeted to 27 degrees below zero during the 1989 Carnival, and police ordered all events to be held indoors. The “parade” was moved inside the Mountain Mall — complete with floats staged so people could walk around them.
Many events held in conjunction with Winter Carnival have become traditions of their own.
The Rotary Club of Whitefish has hosted a pancake breakfast the Sunday of Carnival for decades and volunteers appear to have held a breakfast even at the first Carnival in 1960.
Last year the city of Whitefish began hosting the Snow Sculpture Symposium at Depot Park revising a Carnival tradition of sculpting large cylinders of snow into artistic master pieces.
This year Great Northern Brewery’s Beer Barter returns after a hiatus. The event asks participants what they would trade for a year’s worth of beer.
The annual Penguin Plunge celebrates its 20th anniversary this year with participants jumping in a freezing Whitefish Lake to raise money for Special Olympics athletes.
For more information on this year’s Winter Carnival, visit https://whitefishwintercarnival.com/.