Winter Carnival: Steeped in 100 years of tradition |

Winter Carnival: Steeped in 100 years of tradition

Annual celebration of Western flare and skiing heritage returns to Steamboat Springs

Winter Carnival events on Lincoln Avenue.

— Steamboat has been a cowboy ski town for a century now, and the Winter Carnival riders who gallop their horses down Lincoln Avenue every February with young skiers towed behind are living proof.

The Winter Carnival street events that bind town and country folks, skiers and cowboys are a blur of sight and sound. The coats of quarter horses are thick to ward off the winter cold, and they snort vapor from their nostrils as they pound down the street with helmeted children hanging tightly to the tow rope. At the curb, parents beam with pride while they say a little prayer during this Steamboat rite of passage.

The genesis of Winter Carnival is ski jumping — which has been the foundation of Steamboat Springs' annual celebration of snow since its inception in February 1914 — but it might be a few of the other events unique to Ski Town USA that have kept the tradition alive for a century.

The sight of the Lighted Man skiing down the face of Howelsen Hill with Roman candles shooting balls of fire out of his backpack is like nothing else people have witnessed on snow.

The participants in the International Muzzleloading Biathlon, clothed in traditional mountain man garb, combine skiing and marksmanship with the history of the Rocky Mountains.

And the Steamboat Springs High School Ski Band stays on key and in time while cross-country skiing in the carnival parade. It happens only in Steamboat.

Recommended Stories For You

Those signature events and the opportunity to watch real cowboys and cowgirls tearing down snow-covered Lincoln Avenue on horseback combine to make Steamboat's carnival stand out.

The horse-drawn street events have persisted since the second Winter Carnival thanks to strong-willed families who refuse to let go of the tradition. And today, they embody the connection between Steamboat's ranching and resort communities.

"It's very important to us as a tradition and to keep the ranch atmosphere around Steamboat," Doug Wheeler said recently while preparing for the 100th Winter Carnival, which begins Wednesday.

Three generations of the Wheeler family, like the Yeager family, have provided the horses for and ridden in the carnival street events. Wheeler rode with a grandchild in the saddle last winter to begin training a fourth generation. The Wilhelm and Duncan families also have played essential roles in keeping the connections between Steamboat's ranching and skiing histories alive, Wheeler said. Pat Robson, Leo Snowden and others were among longtime carnival riders in other eras.

Ski historian Sureva Towler reported in her book, "The History of Skiing in Steamboat Springs," that skijoring — skiers holding onto the long lead lines of a horse in harness and skimming down Steamboat's Main Street — first appeared in the second Winter Carnival in 1915. By 1916, mounted riders had begun pulling skiers hanging onto a rope down the street.

John Williams, who owned the Central Livery on Eighth Street, provided the horses at the beginning, according to Towler.

The horse-drawn street events — Ring and Spear, Street Slalom, Donkey Jump and the Shovel Race — offer tangible evidence of the bond between the agricultural and resort communities that is worth an annual celebration.

Of course, Steamboat's Winter Carnival embodies many beloved traditions.

Preserving traditions, changing with the times

The carnival parade still incorporates the use of the historic diamond hitch design that was suggested for parade groups by the Ladies Recreation Club in 1927.

The Soda Pop Slalom, which connects Steamboat's youngest skiers with Steamboat Ski Area, has become a tradition of the modern era.

The vintage ski race and fashion show is back for a second straight year, and it's significant that after several years' absence, traditional Nordic ski jumping has made a strong return to the calendar of the 100th Winter Carnival.

It's safe to say that the willingness of the community and the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club to embrace change has kept the five days of Winter Carnival each February fresh and relevant. Witness the bicycle slalom, in which mountain bikers do their best to mimic Alpine ski racers.

Events that have come and gone from the Winter Carnival schedule include freestyle aerials into the downtown Old Town Hot Springs pool in the early 1980s along with events like broom ball on an outdoor ice rink and snowshoe softball. Historic ranching events — the draft horse pulling competition at the rodeo grounds and the chariot races on snow — also have gone.

Change has been a constant in the centurylong tradition of the Winter Carnival.

None of it would have happened without Carl Howelsen, the adventurous Norwegian ski jumper who spread the gospel of Nordic skiing to Colorado's Western Slope as soon as the Moffat Railroad opened Northwest Colorado to commerce and tourism between 1911 and 1913.

Norwegian brings ski jumping to Colorado

Without Carl Howelsen and ski jumping, Steamboat Springs might not be a ski town.

Howelsen had organized winter carnivals in Colorado before setting eyes on Steamboat Springs.

He emigrated from Norway to Chicago, where he fit in well with the Norge Ski Club. But determined to explore the West, he boarded a train for Denver in 1909 and, not long after, put on a ski jumping exhibition at Inspiration Point, now part of northwest Denver.

As told by his son, the late Leif Hovelsen, in his 1983 book "The Flying Norseman," Carl Howelsen and friend Angell Schmidt made their first foray onto Colorado's Western Slope in December 1911, beginning by riding the train to the top of Corona Pass, then skiing down into the Fraser Valley and on to Hot Sulphur Springs. There they encountered John Peyer, a native of Switzerland. Peyer was preparing to host a winter carnival including sledding, tobogganing and ice skating just days later. Howelsen and Schmidt wasted no time building a ski jump in time for the first carnival in Hot Sulphur Springs, according to Leif Hovelsen's book.

Howelsen returned to Hot Sulphur Springs in 1913 and introduced the locals to skijoring at that community's second winter carnival.

Towler reports that it was soon after the 1913 carnival in Hot Sulphur Springs that students attending the Fairplay School in the lower Elk River Valley west of Steamboat caught the skijoring bug, too. They seized upon skijoring as a mode of transportation — a single horse could tow several students to their one-room schoolhouse and home again in time for chores at the end of the day.

To this day, a few families have kept the skijoring tradition alive at Steamboat's Winter Carnival.

Cowboys always part of annual Winter Carnival

Lower Elk River rancher Clarence Wheeler almost certainly was the most-enduring horseback rider in Winter Carnival history.

Towler wrote that he first began riding in Winter Carnival in 1933 at age 19. Doug Wheeler said his uncle continued to ride during Winter Carnival into his 80s.

"If he was still alive today, he'd still be riding," Wheeler said about his uncle. Towler wrote that as a young man, Clarence Wheeler, who was born in a sod hut in Nebraska and worked at his grandfather's livery behind the old Harbor Hotel in downtown Steamboat, was known for "screaming at the top of his lungs" while towing skiers down Lincoln Avenue.

In a February 1982 interview with former Steamboat Pilot reporter Ross Dolan, Clarence Wheeler, then 68 and on the eve of riding in his 49th carnival, said that the carnival had not changed much in his time but that he no longer knew all of the youngsters who were pulled behind his horse.

"Up until 10 years ago, I pulled just about all the kids in town," Wheeler said. "It used to be I'd go down and I knew every kid I pulled."

Wheeler recalled what a strong skier Olympian Gordy Wren was in a Winter Carnival that took pace right after World War II. In that era, one of the street events required skiers to jump or hop over a series of 6-inch hurdles made of wooden lath.

"I pulled Gordy while he was carrying a 90-pound pack on his back," Wheeler told Dolan, "and he'd just float over them things."

Wheeler helped to stabilize the street events in the early 1950s by taking responsibility for ensuring there were at least 10 horses available for the street events, no matter what the weather.

Winter Carnival enthusiast Dean Vogelaar said getting a quarter horse ready for the street events isn't as simple as it might appear.

"It's no easy deal gathering a horse in winter and digging out the trailer," Vogelaar said. "You shoe the horse just for this event and then remove them right after the event."

Shoes on horses' hooves are a nuisance in winter because they trap snow against the hoof.

The horses also have to be exercised and fed an extra ration of grain in the days leading up to Winter Carnival.

"We try to condition our horses," Doug Wheeler said. "They're just like athletes; you wouldn't take a football player and put him on the field without any conditioning."

Wheeler said all of the riders take care to select a horse with the right temperament to handle the noise and confusion of the street events.

"We try to bring a horse that is appropriate for the activity. Safety is a great concern," Wheeler said. "People want to come up and pet them, and kids ski up under your horse."

In all of his years, Wheeler said, the only serious injuries he is aware of involved riders, not skiers.

Ski jumping and the 1st Winter Carnival

It was a chance meeting with Denver outdoorswoman Marjorie Perry and an ensuing train ride that likely first brought Howelsen to Steamboat Springs.

Leif Hovelsen, Carl's son, wrote in his book about his father's life, "The Flying Norseman," that Perry was traveling from Denver to Steamboat on the Moffat Railroad on Feb. 12, 1913, when the train made a stop in Hot Sulphur Springs in the midst of its winter carnival. She was persuaded by the townsfolk to remain until the next day and was so taken by the events that she persuaded Howelsen to come to Steamboat.

And once Howelsen was smitten by the Yampa Valley and resolved to start a Winter Carnival in Steamboat, the train was counted on to attract spectators and contestants.

"February 12 and 13 are the dates set for the big Midwinter Sports Carnival at Steamboat Springs," the Steamboat Pilot reported Jan. 28, 1914. "Committees have been working diligently on the project, and there is much interest and enthusiasm throughout the county. Many are coming from Denver and other points along the (rail) line."

Among the first events of the inaugural Winter Carnival was the annual Medal Shoot of the Steamboat Gun Club. It was followed by a ski race for boys from the Cabin Hotel (near where Bud Werner Memorial Library is today) to the top of Woodchuck Hill (home to Colorado Mountain College's Alpine Campus) and back.

It was followed by an amateur ski jumping contest that wasn't unlike a modern Nordic combined race. Contestants left the hotel every two minutes to make two loops on a 5-mile course that required them to take two rides off the ski jump on Woodchuck Hill, one on each lap.

On the second day of festivities, there was a ladies free-for-all race (presumably a mass start) of just one-quarter mile, and then a race for girls 18 and younger. The first skier to cross the finish line in the women's race was Margaret McPhee, of Denver, with Marjorie Perry coming in second. The Pilot reported that McPhee received a cut-glass bowl worth $8 as her prize, and Perry was awarded a silver fruit spoon valued at $6.

The climax of the event was the Professional Ski Jumping World Championship with cash prizes of $100 for first place, $75 for the runner-up and $25 for third place. Howelsen claimed first place, followed by James Presthus, of Beloit, Wis., and Gunnar Dahle, of Middle Park. Howelsen's longest jump of the day came during an exhibition when he soared 115 feet.

Howelsen spent the summer and fall 1915 raising hogs on his small ranch in Strawberry Park and lining up jobs as a stonemason.

But he had another enterprise in mind, his son wrote in "The Flying Norseman," and he began laying the groundwork for a bigger ski jump across the river from Woodchuck Hill, where he thought world records could be set. That hill, of course, is known today as Howelsen Hill. This week it again will play home to some of Winter Carnival's most notable events.

And so it was that a century ago, Steamboat Springs' destiny as a destination for competitive and recreational skiing was sealed.


Gene Cook, 90, volunteered at Winter Carnival ski jumping competitions in the 1950s

Cook confirmed that in the 1950s, Winter Carnival marked the only time between hunting season and summer when Steamboat’s commercial lodgings were busy. He purchased the Western Lodge on Lincoln Avenue in 1956. “We had four or five good nights during carnival,” Cook said. “The rest of the winter, we might come down at night and rent a room to someone whose car had broken down. We charged them $4.” Cook said the biggest impression that Winter Carnival left on him was the way the entire community pitched in. “What is so significant to me is that everybody was volunteering in planning and executing, and everything worked,” Cook said. Cook was standing on the landing hill of the ski jump during one carnival when Ansten Samuelstuen, known for jumping with his arms thrust forward, outjumped the hill and landed beyond the K Point. Samuelstuen was a member of the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club from 1951 until 1965 and broke the U.S. record in 1951, soaring 316 feet. The record stood for 11 years. Samuelstuen also was a member of the U.S. Olympic jumping team at Squaw Valley, where he placed seventh in 1960. He also competed in the 1964 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.


Katherine Gourley, 87, recalls a Winter Carnival in the 1930s

“At that time, it was ski jumping and that was the thing,” Gourley said. “We came in from the ranch, in the sleigh pulled by horses, because that was the only way. We almost never drove in the winter. It was about eight miles. Both of my bothers (Ivan and Everett Hudspeth) were world-class ski jumpers, and we’d stand out there and watch, and there were no facilities. No bathroom, no food, no lodge. I got a little cold. The big deal was that they gave out the trophies at the Chief Theater. Ivan qualified for the Olympic tryout in 1936, but he didn’t have the money to go and John Steele (Steamboat’s first Olympian in 1932) went instead.”


Nancy Howell recalled her first trip to see Winter Carnival in 1951 or 1952 with a group of students from the University of Denver.

“We came by car and someone forgot to arrange housing for us. When we got here, there were no rooms, but someone said we could sleep on the (wooden) benches in the courthouse. We were so young we could do that. I remember watching the ski jumper Art Devlin break the record. I was right there and saw it.”

Go back to article