History Spotlight: Colby’s Winter Carnival Event

The Colby Outing Club first started the Winter Carnival in 1937, yet since then the once-popular weekend has fallen out of favor. 

The first Winter Carnival was held in February 1937.  A November 1936 Echo article  outlined the plans for the weekend, which included a hockey game against Boston College, an interfraternity winter sports meet, an intersorority winter sports meet, an ice sculpturing contest, a “Carnival Ball”, and the selection of a Carnival Queen as events.

By early December, the event had already grown into a two-day affair, with a full-on ski tournament for fraternity members. Although the Mules lost their hockey game to Boston 3-2, the Carnival was remembered as a wildly popular event.

The next year, the Outing Club went to even more extraordinary lengths to promote the Carnival. Students spread the word through local posters, and according to an Echo article from February of 1938, “even the New York Times carried a carnival story” (though it can’t be assumed that Colby’s carnival was included in this.)  Although weather conditions were not ideal, that year’s Carnival was also hailed as a success and the event was solidified as a Colby tradition.

In 1939, the Carnival again appeared as a mammoth event with no fewer than seven different committees involved in the organization of the weekend. The Carnival had become one of the school’s most popular events and was forecasted by The Echo to be “the best in the history of the state of Maine snow events,” according to a January 1939 article.  Another  article from that year described the position of Carnival Queen as “one of the most coveted co-ed honors” at the school, stating that “the reign of the queen, although short, is enjoyable.”

So, why have so few people on campus today heard of this once-momentous festival? Today, the school holds a celebration when the ice over Johnson Pond is thick enough to skate on—surely an enjoyable event, but nowhere near the scale of the original Winter Carnival. Today there is no Carnival Queen, and the most anticipated rivalry hockey game occurs toward the beginning of the season, rather than in early February.

From The Echo archives, the Carnival was held more or less consistently between 1950 and 1980. That isn’t to say it didn’t have its rough patches—in the early 1940s, it ceased for several years until 1944, when the Winter Activities Association planned its own carnival that featured guests from Bowdoin, Bates, the University of Maine, and the Coburn Classical Institute.

This revival of the Carnival was a success, and the event came back in full force for the next several decades. The Colby Camera Club started a snapshot contest that became popular and the crowning of the Carnival Queen was always a newsworthy topic. 

The Carnival also hit a rough patch in the late 1970s, when it disappeared for several years before a revival in 1981. This revival, however, was not as successful as some had hoped—in an editor’s column from the same year, one Echo writer cited time commitments and bad weather as reasons for the event’s waning popularity.

Their fears appeared to be unfounded, however. The Carnival continued consistently until 1987, when the weekend’s festivities were marred with law-breaking. “In addition to assorted fights, extensive vandalism, thefts from a Waterville hotel, and the assault of a Safety and Security officer, several students were once again fined for underaged drinking,” reported the Echo in February 1987. Additionally, the committee was criticized for setting the theme for the weekend as “Colby Country Club.”

Since that year, the Carnival has been held sporadically. It reappeared in the early 1990s and 2000s, with a brief appearance in 2009. Yet most students currently on campus do not know of the school’s former winter tradition, one of the biggest weekends at the school.

The investigation of the Carnival raises the question: is this tradition worth reviving? It would be difficult and involve a lot of planning, yet what true traditions are left at Colby? With the demise of Loudness, there are fewer longstanding traditions, especially during the winter months. If the weekend could be kept clear of lawbreaking and insensitive themes, it has the potential to be a fun, lighthearted event not only to keep students active and involved but also to improve Colby-Waterville relations.