Ithaca is ICY—Winter Carnivals in Tompkins County

Isaac Sobers' horse and cutter, Verne Morton Collection, The History Center in Tompkins County

Isaac Sobers' horse and cutter, Verne Morton Collection, The History Center in Tompkins County

Tompkins County’s 2017 cold season has started off with a whimper, so it’s hard to believe that the first winter carnivals are upon us, with both Trumansburg (December 2) and Ithaca (Ithaca's Ice Festival is December 7-9) celebrating theirs in early December. Winter carnivals are long-standing area traditions that celebrate the activities that come with plunging temperatures—ice skating and hockey on frozen ponds and sometimes even Cayuga Lake, sledding down great hills of snow, making snow forts and even ice sculptures, and of course enjoying seasonal comfort foods.

“Winter festivals can be a particularly joyous opportunity for communities to come together and forget about their to-do lists,” notes folklorist Hannah Davis, the upstate regional representative for the New York Folklore Society. In winters past, carnivals would have been a welcome break from agricultural chores, including carving blocks of ice for food preservation. Millie Sherwood grew up on her family’s farm in Freeville. She recalled her wonderment about ice carved in winter surviving through the summer:

“The ice for the refrigeration before electric refrigerators . . . came from blocks cut during the winter from the pond on the farm and nestled away under layers of sawdust in the icehouse until called for in the summer months. To this day I cannot quite fathom how ice can last for months encased in nothing more exotic than sawdust, but there it was in August, to be hoisted out and cut into the right size for the icebox, then swung by the large ice tongs into a little red wagon to be trundled home and put to good use. Of course there was always a bit chipped off for us to munch on along the way.”

Though ice carving had its practical uses, it has also been a festive feature of winter carnivals. The long-standing and vaunted Montreal Winter Carnival has inspired a number of regional imitators. The January 1884 carnival, for example, consisted of “ten thousand blocks of ice . . . used in the construction of the ice palaces,” reported the Ithaca Daily Journal.

Such winter festivals have roots in both native and immigrant traditions. “Some wintertime events, like Christkindlmarkts and similarly styled craft sales, are easy to attach to the traditions of European immigrant groups,” explains folklorist Davis. “But every community has seasonal celebrations. The Haudenosaunee, for example, gather to play snow snake, a throwing game, in the winter months.”

Read on for some noted winter carnivals that have marked the winters of seasons past in Tompkins County.

Ad for Junior Week Winter Carnival, Cornell Daily Sun, February 6, 1905

Cornell’s Winter Carnival

From the early 1900s through the 1940s, Cornell hosted an active Winter Carnival on Beebe Lake during Junior Week. It involved ice skating and tobogganing and included ice hockey and ice skating exhibitions.

Ithaca Journal, February 4, 1965

Ithaca Journal, February 4, 1965

Ithaca’s Winter Weekend

Beebe Lake skaters (above) prepare for Ithaca’s first Winter Weekend in February 1965. The festival included a roster of active winter activities, including ice skating races, a snow and ice sculpture competition, hockey games, and a figure skating exhibition.

Ithaca Journal, February 2, 1987

Ithaca Journal, February 2, 1987

The State Park’s Winterfest

The Finger Lakes State Park sponsored an annual Winterfest in the late 1970s to 1980s at Robert H. Treman State Park. Activities included cross-country ski lessons, ice sculptures, and sleigh rides.

Ithaca Journal, January 19, 1984

Ithaca Journal, January 19, 1984

Winterfest in Trumansburg

Trumansburg’s WinterFest has been staged for 22 years. On the town’s Main Street visitors enjoy food, music, and shopping. Past festivals have offered sleigh rides, a tree-lighting ceremony, and a visit from Santa.

Groton Winterfest

The Groton Winterfest first took place in 2002 and included carnival fare and kids crafts.

Ithaca’s Light in Winter

Though defunct, this mid-winter festival merged art, music, and science to shine a light on the season. It began in 2004 and even included an ice-climbing exhibition on a cliff near Vann Natta’s Dam on Six Mile Creek that year.

Share your photos of winter carnivals past to include in the winter carnival gallery. Email to or post on Facebook @IthacaHeritage with the hashtag #WinterCarnivals.