There was a time in the not too distant past when winters were somehow both bitterly and charmingly cold and when kids entertained themselves by playing outside rather than watching TV or playing video games.
There was a time in the not too distant past when winters were somehow both bitterly and charmingly cold and when kids entertained themselves by playing outside rather than watching TV or playing video games. A time when the ice on Honeoye Lake was thick enough — and locals daring enough — to ride go-carts and snowmobiles on top.
From 1961 to 1971, icy diversions brought tens of thousands of visitors to Honeoye for the annual Honeoye Lake Winter Carnival, held on a weekend in late January or early February.
Though the weather always kept organizers guessing, the carnival drew more and more attendees each winter. After 10 years — and hundreds of dog sled races, thousands of cups of hot chocolate and a few dozen skydivers’ jumps — the tradition ended, having become just too big for the town and Chamber of Commerce that had supported it.
The idea for the carnival emerged from a late-1961 meeting of the Finger Lakes Association, a group that worked to promote tourism around the region. Members of the Northern Sled Dog Association spoke at the meeting, describing their racing events to the group and screening movies of sled dog teams in action.
Henry Kleman, George Baker and Otto Uthe, representatives from the Honeoye Chamber of Commerce, were intrigued by the presentation. At the next chamber meeting, they proposed a sled-dog racing event for Honeoye on the last weekend of January — just three weeks away.
Not everyone was in favor of the idea, Baker recalled in a written memoir.
“You couldn’t draw 300 people to see all of Honeoye burn,” Baker remembered one skeptic saying.
But the measure passed. An offshoot committee — the Honeoye Lake Winter Carnival Association — was formed, plans were rapidly drawn up and the first carnival took place as scheduled.
The first two-day carnival, held on Jan. 20 and 21, 1962, drew 15,000 visitors “from as far as the deep South,” reported Rochester’s Times Union newspaper. Youths were crowned as the “snow prince and princess,” and activities included hockey games, public ice skating and an ice boat show. For the most part, the weather was cooperative, though there wasn’t enough snow for a planned ice sculpture contest.
The carnival’s headline attraction was its sled-dog race, featuring 15 teams of one-to-nine dogs each. At just 5 years old, Greg Peet of Kirkville, Onondaga County, was the youngest human racer.
Col. Dave Irwin, billed in the carnival’s souvenir program as a “famed explorer of the frozen north and consultant to the U.S. government on Arctic affairs,” had an exhibit on display featuring trained bears, sled dogs and other “interesting items of Arctic lore.”
Dozens of local organizations participated by sponsoring events or concession booths.
Events are added
The inaugural event went so well that the Carnival Association decided to try it again in 1963. Each subsequent year, events were added to the two-day schedule, and the visitor count skyrocketed. More than 25,000 visitors came in 1963; 50,000 were reported in 1965.
Snowshoes, sports cars, skates, go-carts, motorcycles, ice boats and any number of other conveyances kept the frozen lake occupied for the duration of the weekend festivities.
“The carnival took on the appearance of an outdoor three-ring circus ... when all the events were running simultaneously,” the Messenger reported in 1965.
Carnivalgoers in 1963 watched teams play the Scottish game of curling long before it became an Olympic sport.
There were plenty of demonstrations and exhibitions, including a popular fashion show that in 1969 featured girls wearing bikinis — the models “declined encores despite the wild approval from male onlookers,” a Rochester newspaper reported.
Rounding out the events were wood-chopping and chain-saw competitions, snow-themed balls and dances, photography contests, airplane rides, sky-diving demonstrations, bonfires, trapping and muskrat-skinning competitions, skeet-shooting and the crowning of Miss Winter Finger Lakes. There was always plenty to eat, with various organizations selling hamburgers, hot dogs and other carney food.
Members of the Chamber of Commerce converted an old school bus into a mobile kitchen, whipping up their popular pancakes and hot chocolate inside.
Women from the Honeoye United Church of Christ had such success with their “North Country-style chicken dinner” in 1962 — 460 meals were sold, consisting of 125 whole chickens, 200 pounds of mashed potatoes, 560 home-made biscuits, 250 pounds of squash, 504 home-made rolls, 80 pounds of cabbage salad, and 94 apple and mince pies, according to a local newspaper — that they cooked for each successive carnival, becoming one of its most popular and delicious attractions.
As the carnival grew, the wider media started to take notice. The event was featured in the January 1968 issue of Holiday Inn magazine, and it gained a mention in a 1969 issue of the New York Times.
Weather: The ultimate variable
The carnival’s success each year rested largely on whether the ice was thick enough, the weather “wintry” enough, the snow plentiful enough for the various events to take place. Warm temperatures delayed the carnival by two weeks in 1967 and canceled certain events in other years.
One year, an airplane broke through the thin ice upon landing and started to go under water.
“It was stopped from sinking only when its wings settled atop the ice and prevented it from going all the way down,” recalled John Street, a Richmond resident and frequent carnival attendee.
The January thaw would also turn the makeshift carnival parking lot — a field near Sandy Bottom Park — into a mud pit, causing hundreds of cars to get stuck. Jeff Huff, a former Chamber of Commerce president, remembers being a part of the crew that cleared snow from the parking area in some years and struggled to pull cars out of the mud in others.
On the opposite end of the weather spectrum, an intense blizzard during the 1966 carnival closed the Thruway and stranded many of the out-of-town visitors in Honeoye. Though classes had been canceled, the school opened its doors to the stranded visitors, who slept on mats and cots in the gym.
The end of an era
After putting Honeoye on the map for a decade’s worth of winters, the Honeoye Lake Winter Carnival ended in 1971.
“It was a real happening — a lot of fun for thousands of people — but I think it just got too big, with too many problems and not enough new blood to keep it going,” said Street.
Liability was a concern. The cost of insuring the town against potential lawsuits from injuries became prohibitive, said Jerry Clearman, a former chairman of the carnival committee.
“We also had a few winters near the end when the weather did not cooperate,” Clearman added. It was expensive to put off the entire carnival for a week or two to wait for snow, what with all the preparations that had been made for a given date, he said.
With growing crowds and liability concerns, the carnival was not unlike another local annual event that become too big for its own good: The Wild Water Derby through the villages of Manchester and Shortsville. The annual springtime water race was suspended in 1997 when it became too rowdy. But the Shortsville-Manchester Area Chamber of Commerce resurrected it in 2006 as a kinder, gentler derby — and it has been a family-centered success. Might a such a return the glory days be possible for the Honeoye Lake Winter Carnival?
Clearman isn’t so sure. A few smaller-scale outdoor winter festivals have been held since the carnival ended, at California Ranch Point and elsewhere on the lake — but none had the regularity or mass appeal of the 1960s version, he said.
Beyond the liability and weather concerns, Clearman wonders whether there would be enough interest among younger generations to start up a new winter carnival. Entertainment has changed a lot since the 1960s, he explained.
“Back in the carnival’s early years, not everyone had a TV — and if you did, you were lucky if you got three stations. So guess what? You got outside and did things,” he said, adding, “It was a different time.”
Contact Hilary Smith at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 343 or at email@example.com.