January 6, 2014

Celtic Carnival buttons signal Saranac Lake's mid-winter fete


---- — SARANAC LAKE — The deep freeze from sub-zero air means good ice here. 

And in this village, ice signals the return of Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival and the necessary palace-building materials.

It appears there will be little, if any, concern for ice thickness on Pontiac Bay this year.

Carnival spokeswoman Colleen O’Neill said they found it was 12 inches thick last week on the Lake Flower ice field.

“We had a thaw, but it should be even thicker by now,” O’Neill said of the impact of the descending Arctic cold that started at minus-14 degrees Fahrenheit on Friday.

“This is all good for us,” she quipped.


The construction schedule for the Ice Palace has not been finalized. But Winter Carnival buttons are in.

Designed by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, they celebrate the “Celtic Carnival” theme deigned for festivities this year.

Trudeau has drawn the artwork for Winter Carnival buttons since 1981. He is the great-grandson of Dr. Edward L. Trudeau, an early infectious-diseases scientist and founder of Trudeau Institute. 

In 1897, Dr. Trudeau was president of the Pontiac Club, a local winter sports men’s club that invented Winter Carnival in the first place.

O’Neill said the buttons will be available in downtown stores starting today and Tuesday.

At $4 each, they give Carnival-goers access to many of the dozens of events lined up this year. Many people collect the annual buttons, as well.


Saranac Lake’s 10-day Winter Carnival begins Jan. 31 and runs through Feb. 9, with celebrations, music and contests every day.

The upcoming fete marks a span of 117 years in carnival time, which hearkens back to 1897 and the winter antics of the Pontiac Club.

The origin of Winter Carnival was a fancy-dress event held on a single day, Feb. 17, 1897, according to Historic Saranac Lake records online.

But evolution of human winter fun progressed to include an elegant Ice Palace, then called a “fortress,” built first in 1898.

Thick blocks of ice were cut and lugged by a horse-driven “ice block” elevator from Lake Flower up to the top of Slater Hill, the knoll where North Country Community College now sits.


In 1898, the two-day “mid-winter” celebration was inaugurated as the Pontiac Club Carnival and featured a “grand illumination and storming of the ice fortress,” on Feb. 2, complete with a parade of decorated sleighs, a “pyrotechnic display” and ice skating.

The Plattsburgh Daily Press (a precursor to the Press-Republican) previewed the village scene on Jan. 31, 1898, when the “mercury dropped” to 30 below zero.

“The whole town is on the qui vive (lookout). The streets are filled with balsam, bunting and colored lights. The castellated fort has a medieval look, and the donjon (castle tower) by the Riverside, which is to be brilliantly illuminated, will be a few attractions of the great fete,” the early Plattsburgh paper foretold.

The current palace site is next to the state boat launch on Lake Flower.


Carnival events were planned every other year, at first, and then became sporadic through the World Wars and the Depression era, according to historic accounts from the Winter Carnival committee’s research.

Even without formal fanfare, villagers staged skating and barrel jumping events on off years, except for a span between 1928 and 1935, when no carnival took place.

That time period, however, saw Winter Olympic planning, construction and events (1932) in neighboring Lake Placid.

Another nine-year stretch, from 1937 to 1946, during World Ward II, also skipped mid-winter’s celebration here.

Saranac Lake’s Winter Carnival Ice Palace was resurrected and has remained a key centerpiece to the village-wide celebration every year since the winter of 1947-48.


Another old tradition is being pulled back into the fray as a new event in 2014, O’Neill said.

It requires an outdoor sporting course reclaimed from carnival’s past: Arctic Golf.

“I was looking through articles archived at the Saranac Lake Free Library,” O’Neill said of her search back in time.

“I went through each year-by-year description and kept seeing Arctic Golf mentioned. It stuck with me, and I was, like, you know what, if it was popular for so many years, we could bring it back.

I don’t know exactly how they used to do it or exactly what it was,” O’Neill said of her research.

“There was no description other than ‘Arctic Golf.’ We are envisioning it as a miniature golf course built in a horseshoe shape on the Petrova School soccer field.”

The snowy “golf course” will have obstacles and challenges for putters looking to get a taste of a summer sports favorite, sans sands traps.

There is also an Ultimate Frisbee tournament being organized on the snowy fields outside Saranac High School

Arctic Golf is slated for the first Winter Carnival weekend from noon to 4 p.m. on Feb. 2.

Carnival Ultimate is set for 1 p.m. Feb. 2.

The Gala Parade is set at 1 p.m. Sat. Feb. 8.


Winter Carnival staff is also redesigning the official website this year, updating it routinely with historic images, schedule additions and news announcements.

The new look gained an official new Winter Carnival logo that is now available on hats and other carnival apparel.

“We’re in the midst of a complete redesign of the website,” O’Neill said.

The website is online at and bills the historic winter festivities as “the most fun you’ll have all winter.”

Email Kim Smith