Winter Carnival in a Western Town: Identity, Change and the Good of the Community

Winter Carnival in a Western Town: Identity, Change and the Good of the Community

by Lisa Gabbert

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Held annually, the McCall, Idaho, winter carnival has become a modern tradition. A festival and celebration, it is also a source of community income and opportunity for shared community effort; a chance to display the town attractively to outsiders and to define and assert McCall's identity; and consequently, a source of disagreement among citizens over what their community is, how it should be presented, and what the carnival means.

Though rooted in the broad traditions of community festival, annual civic events, often sponsored by chambers of commerce, such as that in McCall, are as much expressions of popular culture and local commerce as of older traditions. Yet they become dynamic, newer community traditions, with artistic, informal, and social meanings and practices that make them forms of folklore as well as commoditized culture. Winter Carnival is the first volume in a new Utah State University Press series titled Ritual, Festival, and Celebration and edited by folklorist Jack Santino.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780874218299
Publisher: Utah State University Press
Publication date: 05/31/2011
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

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Winter Carnival in a Western Town

Identity, Change, and the Good of the Community
By Lisa Gabbert

Utah State University Press

Copyright © 2011 Utah State University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87421-829-9

Chapter One

Relations of Self and Community Participation and Conflict in Winter Carnival People aren't neutral on the carnival. They're either for it or against it. Tom Grote, editor of the Star-News Festivals are ultimately community affairs.... in which many of the basic notions of community are put to test. Roger Abrahams, "An American Vocabulary of Celebrations" Wherever I looked for community, what I found were nonprofits. Miranda Joseph, Against the Romance of Community

Local people in the Payette Lakes area had a range of feelings about and responses to Winter Carnival. Some people loved it, others loved to hate it, but hardly anyone had no opinion about it. Simon Bronner (1981) notes that in Indiana, people were ambivalent about turtle hunting, butchering, and eating, yet they did these activities anyway for a variety of reasons that sometimes were contradictory. The McCall case is similar. Many people in the McCall area supported Winter Carnival because they thought it was important, they thought it was good for something they imagined as the community, and they thought it was fun. They had fond memories of past Winter Carnivals, and the event connected them to friends and family. Yet the festival was also rife with complaints and tension because Winter Carnival was very demanding. It required a lot of time, money, and effort to produce, and it disrupted daily life for ten days by increasing traffic, noise, and crowds. It pushed the limits of patience, tolerance, and generosity. The result could be feelings of ambivalence: sometimes the very same people who hated the crowds and the interruption were the ones who helped make Winter Carnival a reality. Local resident Rob Lyons, for example, chaired Winter Carnival from 2001 to 2003 and codirected it two additional years as well. He expressed contradictory feelings in a quite good-natured way when he pointed out that although he was willing to chair, he usually did not attend:

I don't go to the carnival. There's too many people [visitors]. Well, sorry! [laughs] [But] without the people, there would be nothing here in McCall. Not enough logging to support the town anymore; you have to have the tourists. I think most people know that; I mean, you know it's kind of obvious. Everybody bitches. Very few people are excited that the carnival is coming, I mean, outright. They don't say it. Maybe inside they kind of like it, but outright they don't say it: "Oh, great! The carnival's here!"

In this chapter I explore these contradictory feelings about Winter Carnival, which seemed common. In doing so, I don't want to give the impression that people thought Winter Carnival was bad—indeed, the opposite was true. Most people thought Winter Carnival was good, they supported it, they were proud of it, and they enjoyed it when it came around. At the same time, overlooking these contradictory feelings would ignore an important dimension of festival production, and I believe such feelings are common in other kinds of festivals; the McCall case is not unique. I examine them here in order to better understand how community actually works.

The ambivalence that some people felt about Winter Carnival speaks to broader historic tensions in American society between the values of individualism and the perceived demands of community (Bellah et al. 1996). In a tradition of scholarship dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville, observers have suggested that Americans join voluntary associations and organizations more than their European counterparts, and de Tocqueville thought these practices led to the "habits of the heart" that made for a democratic society. Some scholars think such associations generate social capital and contribute to moral development, and they characterize them as community-generating institutions (e.g., Putnam 1995, 2000). At the same time, however, Americans apparently are ambivalent about joining these organizations because individuals place a strong emphasis on self-sufficiency and are hesitant about giving up some of their freedom for the greater whole. The question, therefore, of how and why people join, volunteer, or participate is important (Ogilvie 2004).

Symbolic cultural performances like festivals speak to these broad tensions between ideals of self-sufficiency and the perceived restrictions of communal life (Errington 1990). Winter Carnival engendered the largest voluntary association in the region and was conducted explicitly in the name of community. This chapter explores the reasons why people participated in Winter Carnival by examining what the deployment of the term "community" accomplished (Creed 2006b). Miranda Joseph writes that "community is one of the most motivating discourses and practices circulating in contemporary society" (2002, xxx), and certainly the idea of community was a powerful motivating force in McCall. People who volunteered or supported Winter Carnival in other ways (such as through monetary donations) ultimately did so in the name of community.

But calls for community through Winter Carnival were not obeyed unreflectively. The immediate, personal motivations for participation illustrate that the idea of community was broad and included a range of elements. People volunteered for and participated in Winter Carnival because they thought it was fun, they enjoyed it, and it connected them to family and friends; they also got involved out of self-interest, guilt, or because they thought no one else would do it. Some people did not enjoy Winter Carnival personally, but they took part anyway because they thought it was important for the greater whole. The call to become part of Winter Carnival in the name of community had a disciplining and regulatory function of which local people were quite aware. This meant that Winter Carnival was not simply an expression of boosterism, as sometimes commodified tourist festivals are thought to be, but rather a complex forum through which ideas about community were debated. Production of the event, whether any individual participated or not, annually called into question commonly held ideas about community: what it meant, and how it operated. By exploring the dynamic tension between the commonly held belief that Winter Carnival was "good for the community" and the actual motivations of individuals who volunteered, this chapter reveals that not only were local conceptions of community broad enough to include conflict and dissent, elements that are often considered antithetical to community, but also that the conflicts that Winter Carnival engendered constituted a public discourse about the nature and meaning of community. It is little wonder that, given the weighted nature of participation, many people both loved and hated Winter Carnival.

Some Basics: Organization, Financing, and Structure of Winter Carnival

To understand why people sometimes were ambivalent about Winter Carnival, it is first necessary to know how it was organized and financed because the organization of communicative resources is important to meaning (Stoeltje 1993; Bauman and Briggs 1990). According to Robert Lavenda (1983), community festivals in Minnesota are organized according to two models: a family style of organization where a single person is responsible for everything, and a corporate style that entails a clear hierarchy consisting of numerous subcommittees. Winter Carnival was a bit of both: it adhered to a corporate style of organization because a main organizing committee existed that had an informal relationship with the chamber of commerce, but it also followed family style because the chair of Winter Carnival was responsible for overseeing everything. Unlike a family style of organization, however, where the chair may serve for a long period of time, the chair of the McCall Winter Carnival rarely lasted more than a couple of years.

Winter Carnival was not a formal organization. It was a for-profit event associated with the chamber of commerce, and it was the chamber's primary way of making money apart from membership dues. The McCall Area Chamber of Commerce was a nonprofit, volunteer, private organization coordinated by a board of directors and designed to promote the economic health of the area. It was called the McCall Area Chamber of Commerce, rather than just the McCall Chamber of Commerce, because of the rural nature of the region: the city's influence extended into a formally designated impact zone beyond the legal boundaries of the town. As an official program of the chamber of commerce, the McCall Winter Carnival was dominated by business and professional interests, suggesting that the festival was a top-down, hierarchically organized affair.

But the relationship between the chamber, the festival, participants, and ideas about community was very complicated because Winter Carnival also depended almost entirely on volunteer efforts. The only paid chamber position, which did not officially have anything to do with Winter Carnival, was an office manager, who was responsible for day-to-day affairs year round and helped with Winter Carnival when it occurred. No one else was paid anything to make it happen. Organizers and volunteers might or might not be associated with the chamber, and prominent chamber members, such as people on the board of directors, might or might not be involved directly in Winter Carnival. As Star-News editor Tom Grote pointed out, there was not a clear, one-to-one correspondence between people who organized, volunteered, and participated in Winter Carnival and the chamber. This complicated the notion that Winter Carnival was merely, or only, a chamber event.

The businesses that the chamber represented generally were small, local, family-owned ones. This was important for several reasons. First, most businesspeople in the region were shopkeepers. To say that Winter Carnival was dominated by business and professional interests means that it was run by working- and middle-class small-business owners, not CEOs of major corporations. Second, historically there have been very few national chains or franchises in the region. There were no national chains or businesses, apart from the Chevron gas station, the Napa Auto Parts store, two banks, and the Subway sandwich shop, in the town of McCall until the mid-1990s. The lack of national chains meant there was a long-standing sense of economic interdependence among people; businesses were a source of employment for residents, and local businesses depended on both locals and tourists for their economic livelihood. Businesses stood or fell on their own without the fallback support of a national headquarters, while the city and civic life generally depended on economic and volunteer donations from local businesses because the city was poor and tax revenue was small.

Ideally the chamber met in late spring to choose a Winter Carnival chair and decide on a theme for the following January. The Winter Carnival chair usually was a member of the chamber of commerce and frequently on the board of directors, although this was not always the case and certainly not a requirement. The chair oversaw the entire festival. It was a problem to find a chair, but once that person was chosen, he or she began to organize the Winter Carnival committee, which consisted of chairs for festival events, plus other necessary positions such as someone in charge of finding sponsors and prizes. The committee numbered approximately twenty people but varied annually. The committee and the chair reported directly to the chamber but had nearly complete autonomy in decision making. To put the committee together, the chair spread the word around town and advertised in the newspaper, announcing when the Winter Carnival meetings would be held. The Winter Carnival chair largely relied on goodwill; volunteers just showed up to the meetings, or not. Some carnival chairs held regular committee meetings so that the volunteers got to know each other as a group; other chairs simply met with event heads individually to get tasks accomplished.

Two types of events ended up on the Winter Carnival calendar: chamber events and private ones. Chamber events were sponsored by the chamber and either made money for the organization or were free. Private events were organized by local businesses, which used Winter Carnival for their own profit. They paid a fee to the chamber to be placed on the festival calendar, and the money they earned from the event went to that particular organization. The chamber in 2009 charged $150 to place for-profit organizations on the festival calendar and $100 for nonprofit ones. Most of the major festival events, such as the snow-sculpture competitions and the parades, were free chamber events, and they were held consistently from year to year if the chamber could secure enough volunteers. Examples of private events in 2009 included snowshoe golf, which was sponsored by the McCall golf course, and an auction presented by a nonprofit organization called the Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary. Organizers for these private events were not part of the Winter Carnival committee and did not usually attend the meetings, although they certainly were welcome. Rather, they stayed in touch with the Winter Carnival chair, but with little interference or direction. A new event ended up on the program if someone had an idea that the committee liked and there was room on the calendar. Comedy night, for example, which was held at the Alpine Playhouse, was a new event in 2007 and was popular enough that a second night was added in 2008. The chamber attempted to schedule several events on weekend nights so that festival-goers had a choice of possibilities.

Each event chair was responsible for organizing a specific event, securing equipment and volunteers, and ensuring that the event ran smoothly. Chairs submitted their funding requests to the chamber and were reimbursed if they spent some of their own money. Depending on whether the event was large or small, chairing an event could be a big job. It was obviously desirable to have event chairs with previous experience. The Winter Carnival chair often contacted people who had previously overseen specific events. Some people such as Diane Wiegand, a realtor and resident of McCall who had organized the Idaho State Snow-Sculpting Championship since 1995, chaired the same event for years. These people knew the logistics of running a specific event, and those events were considered theirs until they opted out, illustrating that there was a sense of ownership in portions of the festival. Organizing and securing sponsorship for events took place throughout the late fall and early winter, right up to the moment that Winter Carnival began at the end of January.

As an organization, the chamber formally helped the Winter Carnival committee by contributing the time of the office manager. Shirley Hicks was one of the office managers during my research period; she answered the phone, helped contact sponsors, did mailings, processed funds, wrote letters, and helped with advertising and coordinating chairs and events. It was difficult to get concrete numbers, but Hicks estimated that Winter Carnival needed about a hundred or more volunteers to operate successfully. Her husband, John, who cochaired Winter Carnival with her in 2007, put the number as high as three or four hundred.

Although Winter Carnival was a for-profit chamber event, it did not always make money. In good financial times, the chamber had approximately twenty thousand dollars in its Winter Carnival account to begin preparations. Some years, however, for various reasons, the chamber started organizing Winter Carnival with no budget at all. In 2008, for example, the chamber experimented for the first time with hiring a professional event-management company to ease the burden of the Winter Carnival chair. The decision, however, was not cost-effective since the profit margin for Winter Carnival is not large, and so the chamber began the 2009 Winter Carnival with no money. As another example, in 2004 the executive director of the chamber of commerce embezzled money so that the chamber actually had a debt before even beginning to organize the festival the following year.


Excerpted from Winter Carnival in a Western Town by Lisa Gabbert Copyright © 2011 by Utah State University Press. Excerpted by permission of Utah State University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Foreword, About the Series Jack Santino ix

Acknowledgments xi

Introduction 1

1 Relations of Self and Community: Participation and Conflict in Winter Carnival 37

2 Sculpting Relationships: Aesthetics, Citizenship, and Belonging in "Winter Carnival Art 68

3 On Neon Necklaces and Mardi Gras Beads: Style and Audience in Winter Carnival Parades 114

4 Creating, Remaking, and Commemorating History in Games of Skill and Chance: Winter Carnival as Historical Process 164

5 Laughter, Ambivalence, and the Carnivalesque: Lake Monsters and Festive Culture 191

Conclusion 223

Appendix. Winter Carnival Events List 232

Works Cited 238

Index 251

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