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The Ice Palace Rises: History of the Winter Carnival

As the 2018 St. Paul Winter Carnival ice palace rises up in front of us in Rice Park, our staff has been feeling especially inspired to revisit the past while planning for festivities in the upcoming weeks.

The Winter Carnival has long held the interest of Hill Center staff. We recently discovered an essay on winter sports and the carnival penned by Anna Heilmaier, one of the Hill’s earliest librarians who worked here for nearly 40 years. She notes the extraordinary nature of our chilly festivities: “The earliest winter carnivals in St. Paul were no less gay than those of recent years, judging by contemporary accounts,” and cites national admiration for our ice palaces: “the fame of St. Paul’s ice palace goes back more than fifty years.”

What Heilmaier doesn’t mention in her short piece was the Hill’s connection with the Winter Carnival via Louis W. Hill, James J. Hill’s son.

The idea of starting a Winter Carnival came from an unexpected source. In the fall of 1885, several newspaper reporters from the eastern U.S. visited Minnesota, and their resulting articles painted a picture of a frozen, uninhabitable wasteland. James J. Hill and other prominent businessmen wanted to correct this negative image and to draw more visitors and settlers to the area. To this end, they came up with the idea of the Winter Carnival, designed to show onlookers that Minnesota is fun and livable, even in the middle of winter.

The Winter Carnival was put on 1886 through 1888, and then was not held again until 1896. After this, there was a 20 year lull. In 1916, Louis W. Hill entered the story, helping to resurrect the Carnival. As a result of his efforts, he was asked to serve as Carnival president in 1916 and 1917. Louis W. Hill remained interested in the Winter Carnival for the remainder of his life, and offered his support to the next Carnival revivals between 1937 and 1942.

During the 1940s and 1950s—and perhaps during other years left unrecorded in our archives—the Hill Reference Library (now the James J. Hill Center) would close early for the Vulcan Victory Parade. Our records don’t state the specific reason for closing early, but we like to think it was for staff and guests to join in on the festivities.

As we anticipate the next three weeks and the People’s Palace across the street, we here at the Hill find ourselves agreeing with Heilmaier’s parting sentiment:

“However much St. Paul’s winter carnival may change outwardly in conformity with changing times and styles, two factors remain constant: crisp white Minnesota winters and the spirit of good fun and fellowship.”

Stop in at the James J. Hill Center during Winter Carnival to warm up with free hot beverages, activities and special discounts. Check our calendar for more details.


Written by Ann Mayhew, Reference & Support Specialist, at the James J. Hill Center. 
If you have more questions about the reference library our our historic collection at the James J. Hill Center please contact 651-265-5500 or hillreferencelibrary@jjhill.org.

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IMPORTANT NOTICE:

Patrons with accessibility needs please access our ground floor elevator entrance via Kellogg Ave at the back of the building. Please ring the doorbell on the right hand side of door and a Hill staff member will assist you. If you have questions or concerns please call 651.265.5500. We look forward to having you visit.

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