Winter Carnival Memories and Traditions

By Allison Neely | University Archives and Copper Country Historical Collections

Participants in the 1955 Beard Contest
Participants in the 1955 Beard Contest. Courtesy of Michigan Tech Archives

Michigan Technological University’s Winter Carnival began in 1922 as a one-day ice carnival presented by the Student Organization. Students performed traditional circus acts–but with students in costumes instead of live animals. According to an article in the Michigan Tech Lode from 1978, the first carnival was held at the Amphidrome and featured four or five student-constructed and manned bucking broncos on ice skates. An even bigger event was held the following year, again with the circus theme, and featured a giraffe made by the Kappa Delta Psi fraternity, a buffalo made by Sigma Rho, and a camel and elephant created by Theta Tau. The Michigan College of Mines band was also featured but only played two songs, a march and a waltz. According to the article, the event garnered wide community attention with approximately 1,100 people in attendance at the 1924 carnival. The carnival proved so popular that the students took their show on the road to Calumet and Marquette.

The carnival was so well-received among the community and students that by 1927 it was established as an annual event. By then, the festival had expanded to a two-day affair and included a formal parade with floats, a dog-sled race, a snowshoe race, and foot races on ice. While college students were the primary participants in the Winter Carnival activities, since the event was a joint venture between the college and the local towns, there were also categories for high school students. Among the highlights of the 1927 carnival was a ski ride behind an airplane on the Portage Canal at 60 miles per hour.!

The very late 1920s and early 1930s saw a hiatus for the Winter Carnival, and by 1930 festivities were suspended in the aftermath of the stock market crash. In 1934, the University’s student chapter of the Blue Key Honor Fraternity resurrected the winter celebration and introduced not only a three-mile snowshoe race, a Snow-Ball dance, a hockey game, and the event’s best known tradition: snow statues. The establishment of the Mont Ripley Ski Hill in 1940 brought festivities across the Portage with ski meets, including the Michigan State Amateur Ski Championship meet, held to coincide with Winter Carnival.

Winter Carnival was again suspended during World War II until 1946. When it was restarted, the carnival saw the inclusion of a stage revue in which fraternities, sororities, and other campus organization presented skits for the enjoyment of the crowd and performers alike. A beard contest was also established in the 1940s.

Carnival grew and evolved over the next couple of decades with attempts at establishing a Fun Night in 1954, which included various student organization booths set up at the Dee Stadium, much like we see at K-Day each year. The Student Council replaced the Fun Night two years later with a concert by groups like the Four Preps or the Limelighters, and in 1961 the Winter Carnival welcomed the inclusion of the popular Broomball event. The Flare Pageant, which had been done in previous years, was restarted in 1962 and featured “skiers carrying colored torches at night down Mont Ripley, forming intricate patterns of light” on the ski hill.

The first place snow sculpture for 1974
The first place snow sculpture for 1974

While Winter Carnival today looks much different from its early years, for the most part Winter Carnival has largely retained its current format since the early 1970s. The snow sculptures, crowning of a Winter Carnival Queen, and annual broomball tournament continue to be staples that have come to define this major Tech tradition. Other events have made fleeting appearances. Highlights of the last fifty years have included some quirky activities unique to the Michigan Tech carnival, including shipments of snowballs sent to Southwest Texas State University for an annual snowball fight. For over two decades, Copper Country snowballs were packed in dry ice and flown to Texas, much to the delight of the Southwest students. Occasionally, the shipment posed some unusual problems like when the 1971 shipment, carefully packed by members of Blue Key, arrived hard as rocks in Texas. Their solution to the problem? A snow cone machine! That’s right, Southwest Texas State students settled for sweet frozen treats instead of a snowball fight that year.

Over the decades, Tech students have competed in everything from snow volleyball and tug-o-war on ice to ice bowling, snoccer (snow soccer), and human dog sled races. One highlight of recent years coinciding with Winter Carnival has been Tech students and community members coming together for a collaborative competition: working together to achieve winter glory in the form of Guiness Book of World Record titles. Since 2013, Tech has held the record for the largest snowball. The snowball, measuring 10.04 m (32.94 ft.) in circumference. was rolled on March 29, 2013. Within the last couple of decades, Tech has also earned titles for most snow angels made simultaneously in one place, largest snowball fight, and most snowmen built in one hour.

Today, the Winter Carnival continues into its 97th year on the Michigan Tech campus and remains an important part of the campus tradition, bringing alumni, students, staff and faculty, as well as a wide range of local and regional community members to Houghton for its annual winter celebration. Once again, students will be back in the swing of spring semester classes and beginning the exciting task of building snow statues on and near campus — so much to look forward to in the coming weeks at Michigan Tech.

Winter Carnival certainly has and continues to have a rich history on the Michigan Tech campus. Interested in learning more? The Michigan Tech Archives holds a wide range of collections and resources pertaining to Winter Carnival at Tech. Included in the Archives’ holdings are records of the Blue Key Honor Society, pictorials, photographs, ephemera, and a plethora of great newspaper coverage in the Copper Country Vertical Files collection.


One comment on “Winter Carnival Memories and Traditions”

  • Barbara Hawksley(nee Barbara Greene)
    January 15, 2019 at 6:53 pm

    I had the pleasure of attending the Winter Carnival last year with my son
    and his wife after missing it since 1947. (I happened to be queen that year)
    We so enjoyed our short time in Houghton and and Tech.
    So many wonderful changes have occured since’47. There were only 32
    coeds that year! It was wonderful to “plow thru” the snow again and
    see so many happy faces and to watch Tech win a hockey game.
    I have been singing the praises of Tech and the UP to anyone who will
    listen down here in North Carolina

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