Maine’s Winter Carnivals

“I, William the Conqueror of Ice and Snow, the King of the Augusta Winter Carnival for 1923, defender of all Winter Sports, do proclaim, that the Keeper of the Snows and the Winds grant my subjects clement weather and fair skies for their holiday.”

With those words, printed in full page ads in several Maine newspapers, William Gannett opened the Augusta Winter Carnival. He went on to say that the events of the weekend, “will be recorded in moving film, which will picture the merry making.”

Winters in Maine are long, and people look for a way to get outside and celebrate. After the first Augusta Winter Carnival in 1922, Gannett traveled to Switzerland to learn more about how carnivals were run. He wanted people to enjoy winter and to enjoy Augusta. And he wanted to have some fun.

Gannett offered his estate, Ganneston Park, for the Carnival. For years he had wanted to build a windmill, and the Carnival gave him the opportunity. He combined the new windmill with a ski jump. On February 11, 1923, the Portland Press Herald wrote, “The two projects combined produced a building of a most novel design and architecture. Thousands from all over the State have journeyed to see this famous ski jump windmill.”

Cities and towns across Maine hosted elaborate Winter Carnivals, held over several days. Most of the Carnivals had a Ball over which the King and Queen of the carnival presided. In his 1923 Proclamation Gannett stated, “It is ordained that after you have surfeited yourself with outdoor pleasures that you will repair, if you be so minded, to our local hostelry to dine and dance right merrilie.”

In the 1920s, Winter Carnivals brought technological advances such as a “moving film” to Mainers. In the 1924 Winter Carnival in Portland, people were invited to skate on the pond in Deering Oaks, “underneath the electric lights.” At that time moving pictures and electric lights were not common and were exciting to most people. The Rumford Winter Carnivals also offered ice skating under the lights on “Maine’s Finest Open Air Skating Arena.”

In 1924 the Portland carnival featured sled dogs that had been to the Arctic. Exploration of the Arctic was avidly followed by the papers and the explorers, and their dogs were stars. The Queen of the Carnival, Miss Winona, was taken by dog sled to shop in downtown Portland, and people were invited to the shops to see the Queen and her sled dogs. The Portland Press Herald invited people to look for, “Her Arctic limousine with its wealth of fur robes standing in front of a Congress Street store, evidence that the First Lady of the Realm is inside doing her carnival shopping.”

“I…grant my subjects clement weather and fair skies for their holiday.”

William Gannett, King of the Augusta Winter Carnival, 1923. Photo courtesy Collections of Maine Historical Society, Collection number 27721

The Chisholm Ski Club in Rumford organized one of Maine’s biggest and longest lasting carnivals. While it was an important goal of the Carnivals to bring people to town it was also a way to show the fun and importance of simply being outdoors in the winter. The Chisholm Ski Club wrote in 1927, “The ideal of the Club is that every child shall be taught to love to play in the great outdoors, and to enjoy the fruits of health-giving recreation in the crisp, clear air and sunshine of this, our Grand old State of Maine.”

Snow trains brought people from around the state to the Carnivals in Portland, Rumford, and Augusta. There, people could ice skate, watch the competitions, or ride in dog sleds pulled by the famous arctic dogs. Outdoor activities for all were available and encouraged. Competitions included snowshoe obstacle course races, a three-legged potato sack race, and running races for the kids.

For the Carnivals, the ski jumpers were the big draw. In 1924, the Portland Press Herald wrote, “When a crowd of over 5,000 people gather in one locality to witness an event, something must be going on. That’s how it was at the Western Promenade when ski jumpers of international fame lifted howling masses of humans into the heights of excitement and ecstasy. Shooting down the smooth takeoff like rockets, the daring jumpers shot into space far above the heads of the spectators who lined the bottom of the slope just off St. John Street and ended their wild flight.”

The Rumford Carnival also brought in “Daredevil Johnny Thorne.” In 1926, Daredevil Johnny went off the ski jump on a toboggan, and then he jumped through a flaming hoop of fire. Another year, he did a somersault off the jump.

A popular Carnival athlete was Miss Margaret Towne, featured in the Winter Carnivals in Portland, Augusta, and Rumford. In ads for the Augusta Carnival she was the only athlete who was mentioned by name. In 1924 the Portland Press Herald wrote, “Miss Margaret Towne, a winsome lass of 15, clad in an all-white sport suit electrified the crowd thrice with excellent jumps off the high runway. Remembering her from the previous year people cheered her with vim as she sailed on her swift flight through space.” Being female, she jumped as an exhibition, not as part of the competition.

The business community in each town helped support the Carnivals. The 1927 Rumford Winter Carnival program book was 85 pages long, mostly ads from local businesses. The Rumford Garage ad said, “The Home of The Ford Car. Runabout $360, Coupe $485. Place your order today, telephone 50.”

In the 1927 program book Winslow and Company ran a headline, “Sell Maine To The World.” Beyond just bringing attention to their communities, the organizers of the Carnivals wanted to draw much wider attention.  Gannett finished his proclamation by writing, “Therefore, in exercise of the power invested in me, and in order that the nations of the world may know that Maine’s Kingdom of Ice and Snow can outdo Switzerland as a setting for Winter Sports, I make this proclamation.”

Snow trains brought people from around the state to the Carnivals in Portland, Rumford, and Augusta.

The Great Depression brought a stop to the Carnivals, but in the late 1930s they came back. The big Carnivals moved from southern Maine, north to Aroostook County. Showing the emergence of skiing as we think of it today, the events shifted from a focus on jumping to cross country and some downhill events. In 1937 Fort Fairfield held a race that was a precursor to today’s Alpine races. As in the 1920s, snow trains traveled to the Carnivals bringing people from far and wide to enjoy Maine winters.

Maine’s “Kingdom of Ice and Snow,” was once again an ideal setting for “Winter Sports.”

The Maine Ski and Snowboard Museum in Kingfield invites you to visit. For more information, please go to:

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