Steamboat reminisces on more than 100 years of Winter Carnival bringing the community together
As hundreds of youth competed and played outside Olympian Hall under the lights at Howelsen Hill Ski Area on Thursday evening, Feb. 11, the skiing kids of decades ago told stories of past Winter Carnivals.
“Back in the ‘50s, Steamboat basically closed up in the wintertime,” said Pete Wither, 80, a former ski patrol director. “During Winter Carnival, more than one café was open that weekend. Hotels opened back up. It was really exciting to see all the people come to town and watch all the events.”
“Winter Carnival has always been the best weekend of the year,” added longtime ski instructor Nancy Gray, a former carnival queen and grand marshal.
Hosted and taped by the Tread of Pioneers Museum, Winter Carnival Memories was a new storytelling event, complete with hot chocolate and optional Baileys Original Irish Cream.
The maturing storytellers included Wither, Gray, cowboy skier and author Ray Heid, retired rancher and marketing professional Scott Flower, and local history and agriculture advocate Tammie Bowes Delaney of Hayden. Rancher and skier Bill Fetcher and other audience members also added stories.
Even before Steamboat Resort officially opened in 1963, the Winter Carnival was a signature event in town. The carnival was a time for families to take a break from difficult winter chores and have some fun.
“It was really an exciting time for the town of Steamboat — quite amazing,” Heid said.
“This time of year, you want to have some fun, so what a great way to bring the ranching community and the ski community together,” Delaney remembered.
The participants agreed, with a little bit of teasing about past family rivalries, that Winter Carnivals of old were more competitive with ranchers showing off fast horses, children competing in as many events as they could and visitors coming in from other states to take part in races.
“Those were fun times because it became a big deal,” Delaney remembered. “It was very intense.”
Visitors traveled on the train from Denver to watch the events, and residents in the friendly town opened their homes for friends.
Heid told a funny story of unexpected carnival guests when a Steamboat resident invited college friends to visit one Winter Carnival and explained the location of the home near downtown Steamboat Springs. The students were told to bring a sleeping bag and just come into the house when they arrived.
The next morning, one of the young men woke up and thanked the father at the home for the accommodations. But it turns out the guests had accidentally been staying the night with Timor Heid, carnival street event announcer, who lived next door. Later, Timor Heid announced that the boys should have stayed for breakfast.
Several of the panelists remember attending their first Winter Carnival at age 4 or 5. They also remembered the fun and anticipation of getting the chance to ski with flares or jumping through the ring of fire during the night snow.
“Standing on top of Howelsen Hill in the dark, waiting, holding flares, wearing your dad’s old clothes and listening to the people clap with their mittens on, it’s just such a special sound,” Gray said. “You could smell it, feel the excitement. It was one of the coolest things when you are a kid to get to be part of it.”
“It used to be you could be in as many events as possible,” Gray remembered. “You would get on the T-bar fast as you could. You just grabbed a flare and went.”
The participants fondly recalled some events gone by such as the chariot races.
Flower remembered how the ranching families enjoyed the events “to have fun in the winter instead of fighting the weather all the time.” Flower joked about what insurance company executives must have thought about insuring the horse-pulled events on the snow-covered highway. He remembers insurance agents agreeing to cover the event as long as no one got hurt. Flower believes the events stayed injury free, except one year when a horse kicked a woman in the knee.
The storytellers praised the communitywide effort from groups, businesses and families that went into organizing past Winter Carnivals. They also hope that history of a strong volunteer ethic that is integral to Steamboat will continue in the future.
“Everybody in town got so involved; that was the best,” Gray said.
“It’s pretty amazing it’s 110 years we’ve been doing this,” Flower said. “I hope we can keep it up forever.”
“The volunteering is really what makes this community work,” Wither said. “Steamboat is a community first and a ski area second, and I hope it stays that way. The way we can keep it that way is all the volunteering.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email sromig@SteamboatPilot.com.
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