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Of Course, Carnival’s Changed — And?

  • Spectators watch Winter Carnival ski jumping at Dartmouth College's Vale de Tempe in 1938. (Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library)

    Spectators watch Winter Carnival ski jumping at Dartmouth College's Vale de Tempe in 1938. (Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library)

  • A snow sculpture of a castle on the Dartmouth College campus circa. 1924 may have been the first as part of the college's Winter Carnival tradition. (Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library)

    A snow sculpture of a castle on the Dartmouth College campus circa. 1924 may have been the first as part of the college's Winter Carnival tradition. (Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library)

  • Spectators watch Winter Carnival ski jumping at Dartmouth College's Vale de Tempe in 1938. (Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library)
  • A snow sculpture of a castle on the Dartmouth College campus circa. 1924 may have been the first as part of the college's Winter Carnival tradition. (Courtesy of Dartmouth College Library)

The conversation over dinner a few evenings ago included the topical question, “What’s happened to Dartmouth Winter Carnival?”

Simply put, it isn’t what it used to be.

But then, what is?

When my family arrived in Hanover in 1968 and I began my job writing about Dartmouth teams, Winter Carnival wasn’t on my radar. Held annually during the second weekend in February, Carnival (and skiing) was the province of the Dartmouth Outing Club (DOC), not the athletic department. In fact, I made a pact with myself to avoid skis. My job was to be an observer, not a participant. The last thing I needed was to schuss the wrong way and break a bone … any bone.

Still, we could enjoy the spectacle of Winter Carnival, especially the big ice sculpture that dominated the Green in early February, and the creativity of fraternity and dorm sculptures that dotted the campus.

Plus, the now-departed ski jump in the Vale de Tempe at Hanover Country Club was a Carnival signature event that drew a horde of spectators to the amphitheater that remains the summertime landscape for a couple of golf holes.

Winter Carnival was the brainchild of Fred Harris, Dartmouth Class of 1911, who was one of the founders of the Dartmouth Outing Club — the organization that remains the cornerstone of outdoor activity at the College.

Harris came up with the idea of an outdoor winter weekend built around skiing, snowshoeing and other activities designed to get Dartmouth’s all-male student body away from dank and dreary dorm rooms (remember, this was long before central heating) to participate in crisp winter days on the Hanover Plain.

Bit by bit over the next couple of decades, Winter Carnival evolved into more than a long weekend of outdoor activities. It became a social event as well. Young women from mostly all-female college campuses around New England and the Northeast arrived for the festivities, mostly on Boston & Maine trains that deposited them at the Lewiston station just across the Connecticut River in Norwich.

There were outdoor events, to be sure, but there were also dances (featuring the big bands of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s), elegant dinners and the selection and crowning of a Carnival queen (and her court). The women took over fraternity houses — the frat members vacated the premises for a couple of nights, bunking on the floor in dorms — or the rooming houses scattered throughout Hanover’s village precinct.

Dartmouth Winter Carnival became a renowned weekend in collegiate lore, sufficiently so that a couple of young Dartmouth alums from the mid-30s, Budd Schulberg and Maury Rapf, who were making their name as Hollywood scriptwriters, helped to create the movie, Winter Carnival, that was released in 1939 — but proved a nostalgic, financial bust.

To remember firsthand the “glory years” of Winter Carnival means you have some gray hair and have been collecting Social Security for a few years. And to understand why Carnival has changed over the past 40-50 years requires attention to two influential ingredients: Dartmouth’s academic calendar and coeducation.

The coeducation factor is easy to understand. Until 1972, Dartmouth was a bastion of about 3,200 students — essentially all men except for a nominal number of exchange students from several women’s colleges. With the advent of coeducation in 1972, the college evolved to about 4,200 undergraduates, almost equally divided between women and men. Thus, if a Dartmouth man wants a date for Carnival these days, he doesn’t have to rely on an import from Smith, Wellesley, Skidmore or wherever.

Gordie DeWitt, a 1960 graduate who has lived in the Upper Valley ever since, remembers the academic calendar shift after his sophomore year. At that time, Dartmouth went from two semesters to three terms (the four-term calendar, adding a summer session, arrived with coeducation in 1972).

“For years, the fall semester ended in early February,” recalled DeWitt. “Exams ended on a Tuesday, and the spring semester began the next Monday. In between was Winter Carnival.”

It had pretty much been that way since Fred Harris came up with the idea nearly five decades earlier.

“Those were the days when the Western Union telegraph office was in the old Nugget Theater building on West Wheelock Street,” said DeWitt. “They had an old guy who delivered telegrams in town. We called him ‘Mercury’ after the old Western Union logo. During the days leading up to Carnival, he would deliver a lot of ‘shot down’ telegrams to guys on campus whose dates weren’t coming. We’d see Mercury coming down the street toward the dorm, and we’d start booing him.”

Dan Nelson has seen Carnival as a student in the 1970s, as a dean or senior administrator at Dartmouth for nearly 25 years, and as director of Dartmouth’s Outdoor Programs since 2009. His office is still involved with various Carnival activities, but the weekend event now is the province of the Student Involvement Office in Collis Center.

“To think that Winter Carnival today is the same as it was years ago is to presume the world has stood still,” said Nelson. “Carnival was a response to the need to get students outside during the winter. It became a social occasion but it’s still a celebration of winter. And it’s still a success because it meets the needs of Dartmouth students.”

The “Glory Days of Winter Carnival” are akin to White River Junction’s “Glory Days of the Railroad” — memories best remembered in black and white photos. Both conjure images suited to another day. You can still catch Amtrak’s Vermonter to points south, and you can still walk around the Dartmouth Green and see the contemporary Carnival.

Carnival is different, but then it’s not. The snow sculptures are mostly gone or at least much less grand. That’s a function of the time students can invest (this year there was a variation on the theme as students participated in an ice sculpture competition with a first prize of $600). And it’s likely the college’s risk management office would frown on creating the fire-breathing dragon sculpture that was built in 1969 with the help of a snow-covered telephone pole. The dragon’s head faced south toward the Hanover Inn, and the propane-fueled flame was lit only when the wind blew from the north.

There are still three days of activity, in addition to the intercollegiate ski competition (minus the jumping that was eliminated more than 30 years ago), and it’s all suited to the interests of today’s students. For the daring, there was the polar bear dip in Occom Pond. There were the human dog sled and snowshoe races, but skijoring (races with horses pulling students on skis) disappeared decades ago.

There was a 99-cent ski day at Dartmouth Skiway for the less-accomplished skiers. It makes sense if you think about this: How many students arrive at Dartmouth never having seen skis (or snow) and leave four years later with an introduction to skiing that becomes a sport for life? That’s part of Carnival.

There’s still dancing, partying and the social side of Carnival that runs late into the night. If you Google “Dartmouth Winter Carnival 2014” (how different is that from 1914?), you’ll find four pages of activities listed, none of it related to the Town of Hanover’s Occom Pond Winter Party that was held in the middle of Winter Carnival weekend — a different crowd with the same objective: Celebrate winter.

Dartmouth Winter Carnival has evolved over the past century. Fred Harris probably wouldn’t recognize his creation but neither, beyond Dartmouth Row, would he recognize much of Dartmouth’s campus in 2014.

Dartmouth, and its winter tradition, changes with each passing year. And really, what’s wrong with that?

Jack DeGange, a freelance writer, lives in Lebanon. He was sports information director at Dartmouth from 1968-77.