A young carnivalgoer enjoys sugar on snow, served just as it has been served for 68 years.
Courtesy photo
A young carnivalgoer enjoys sugar on snow, served just as it has been served for 68 years.

Marking midwinter

Brattleboro Winter Carnival continues apace — and evolves — after 68 years

A tradition carries on this week with the start of the Brattleboro Winter Carnival's 68th year.

Since 1993, Carol Lolatte has brought her organizational talents to the committee organizing the celebration, and Lolatte, who by day works as recreation and parks director for the town, has served as president for the last three years.

"I have the hat that I wear for the [Recreation and Parks] Department and the hat I wear for the senior citizens in town. Helping run Winter Carnival fits nicely with what I do for a living," Lolatte said.

"I like that there is something special to look forward to in the middle of the winter - it provides cabin fever relief," she says. "We're indoors, and we're outdoors, and the Carnival provides something for everyone."

The sugar on snow event, held in the Harmony Parking Lot on Feb. 17, certainly proved that point.

Sugar on snow - where maple syrup heated to 235 degrees F turns into a taffy-like confection when drizzled onto a bowl of snow - is one of the original events created by the founder of Winter Carnival, Fred Harris, a Dartmouth graduate who wished to emulate and bring to his hometown of Brattleboro his experiences at the Dartmouth College Winter Carnivals of his youth.

That first year, in 1957, Harris and his Carnival Committee created a three-day event that piggybacked the nationally renowned Harris Hill ski jump competition with a snow sculpture contest, sugar on snow, a well-attended downtown parade, torchlight skiing, fireworks at Living Memorial Park, the first Winter Carnival Queen Pageant, and other activities.

Brattleboro native Betty Henry remembers those early carnivals.

"I can well remember standing on Main Street, watching the big Carnival parades," remembers Henry with a sigh and a smile.

She remembers "a float for each queen contestant," each "built with chicken wire and napkin stuffing."

"To a young child, it was magical," Henry says.

The highlight of Winter Carnival was the crowning of the Carnival Queen. The first year saw 32 candidates vying for the crown.

For years, both married and single women were contestants. And in the earlier years, the public could vote for the candidate of their choice, which, in turn, was figured into the process of judging.

Henry used to attend the Saturday night event.

"As a teenager, we used to get a group of girls together and go to the pageant, usually held in the [Brattleboro Union High School] gymnasium. First, we'd vote downtown," she says.

"There were points given for talent, interview, [and] evening gown, and instead of a swimsuit competition, there was the "playsuit" competition," Henry continues. "We thought it was great fun."

Both the Queen's Pageant and Princess Pageant for children ended in 2017.

Lolatte is pleased that the Carnival continues to change with the times.

"Those beginning Carnivals centered around downtown and the Queen's Pageant," she says. "There have been a lot of different events come and go as time and traditions change."

But some things never change.

"Sugar on Snow, the Variety Show, and the events at Living Memorial Park are all still with us," Lolatte says.

"We work hard to make the week either free or very affordable for all attendees," she adds, "It's pretty incredible that we've had this continuous tradition in our town for all these years."

The morning of the Sugar on Snow event on Saturday found Lolatte looking around at the many volunteers and businesses who still support the event.

More than 253 servings of sticky goodness were served up, under the organizational charm of Milt Gilman, who for more than 40 years has corralled his team of 25 or so Brattleboro Rotarians who volunteered to serve the event.

Together, people of all ages consumed approximately 20 gallons of maple syrup donated by the Robb Family Farm of West Brattleboro and 20 dozen homemade doughnuts from the Guilford Country Store.

As one walked through the service line, there were only smiles.

First came the snow in paper bowls topped with fragrant, sticky hot syrup, followed by the doughnut. Finally, a dill pickle was placed on the side of the bowl - the very same way it has been served for 68 years.

Brattleboro Rotarian and local business owner Greg Worden was pleased.

"This was the biggest crowd we've had in years," he said with a huge smile.

As times have changed, the Winter Carnival Committee goes with the flow.

This year the committee is pleased that the Windham Philharmonic has joined the group offering a free concert on Monday.

"From the Windham Philharmonic to the Chamber Series, from the Brattleboro Music Center, to the Ice Kings and Queens Drag Show - and that's just the music!" she says with a laugh.

"Talk about something for everyone," she says.

Throughout the week, the Carnival features events all through town, from pancake breakfasts at the Elks Club to tours of decorated ice shanties, from the Thirsty Goat Bar at Retreat Farm (where Vermont craft brews are served) to a life-sized Candy Land game at Brooks Memorial Library.

One thing that hasn't changed has been the level of community support through both individuals and businesses in town.

The first Carnival was sponsored in part by the Brattleboro Outing Club and the Women's Evening Club, along with several businesses in town. The program for the Queen's Pageant was sponsored by the All States Cafe on lower Main Street, which burned down in the Barrows Block fire in 1977.

The regular Carnival program was sponsored by The Latchis Hotel.

"Latchis Hotel is one of the very few Modern Hotels in New England," the ad reads. "It is equipped with the finest beds....the building of fireproof steel and concrete construction and every room with private bath and telephone, "the ad read.

Locals will remember many of the other sponsors listed in that first program, which included Red Circle Auto Supply on Elliot Street, Tom Thumb Snack Shop, Frances Stores, and the Royal Diner, all on Main Street; H. Margolin & Co., manufacturer of leather purses; and the Estey Organ Company, among many others.

Local sponsorship is also something that hasn't changed.

"We partner with so many businesses that help keep our Carnival affordable," Lolatte says.

Just as it has always done, the Winter Carnival's 17-member committee of volunteers will meet in April to select officers. In September, the work for the Carnival will begin in earnest.

"It's about the many partnerships with businesses and organizations throughout the community, who every year provide winter fun for the entire community," says Lolatte. "I think Fred Harris would still be proud."

For more information and a schedule, visit brattleborowintercarnival.org.

This News item by Fran Lynggaard Hansen was written for The Commons.

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