By the light of a full moon, Bob Heunemann pushed a broom across the ice to prepare a track for the speed skaters who would race on Lake George the next day.
As secretary of the Lake George Chamber of Commerce, such labors might have seemed to some to lie outside his job description. But the occasion was a special one. Lake George was to host its first winter carnival in more than thirty years, and the skaters would be among the best in the country.
The spirit that animated Bob Heunemann fifty years ago continues to this day. Through years of unpredictable weather, fickle sponsors and changes in leadership, the Lake George Winter Carnival has endured and grown. Whenever it appeared as though it might be canceled for lack of interest, someone has stepped forward to give it new life.
This year, the Lake George Winter Carnival will honor all those volunteers who have helped make the carnival a success over the past fifty years.
“The volunteers know that the winter carnival brings visitors to the area at a time of year when the lights wouldn’t be on otherwise,” said Lake George Village Mayor Bob Blais. “They also know that events like the Winter Carnival draw residents from their homes and provide opportunities to work as well as have some fun together, making ours a stronger community, one more unified and better able to address the challenges ahead.”
The salute to the volunteers will take place at the Carnival’s annual dinner, to be held at the Georgian on January 28. Music will be provided by Bobby Dick and the Sundowners.
The carnival itself will kick off on Feb. 5 with celebrations in Shepard Park and a Gold Anniversary parade down Canada Street.
This year’s Winter Carnival builds upon fifty years of events.
The speed skaters whom the Chamber brought to Lake George were the International Silver Skates, Olympic contenders and team members from the U.S. and Canada. But local skaters also participated. Winners included Joanne Stafford and Nancy Earl.
Prominently featured in 1963 were Jerri Farley and Howard Bissell, a figure skating act that, according to local papers, “has won plaudits throughout the U.S., Europe and Asia, where they gave a command performance for King Saud of Saudi Arabia.”
Carnival celebrity Charlie “Papa Bear” Albert’s predecessor was a veterinarian from Westport, NY, Dr. Robert Lopez. He was the founder and sole member of the Adirondack Polar Bear Club.
Harness racing was held under the auspices of the Lake George Horse Racing Association. Jack Arehart had reintroduced the event to the area in 1960, when he sponsored races on the Hudson near his Thousand Acres resort. But Lake George had a history of harness racing that dated back to 1915. By the 1930s, the village was a capital of the sport, with purses of sufficient size to attract racers from throughout the country. Hotels and restaurants capitalized on the events, but so did homeowners, who built barns to stable the horses. Some can still recall a horse named George Washington who collapsed and died on George Washington’s birthday.
We not only had a horse racing association, we had the Adirondack Ice Yachting Association. Comprised of six Yankee and three Skeeter class boats, they raced along the lake at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. A few of these still survive, and when the lake is sheeted in black ice, you can see them whipping across the lake.
The Polar Ice Cap Golf Tournament, so named by Albany Times-Union columnist Barney Fowler, made its debut in 1968. By its second year, when Mickey Sinto of Frontier Village defeated 150 competitors, the event was attracting national publicity. A few years later, Bill Dow drew international attention when he established a world’s record by driving a golf ball 865 yards down the lake.
In 1983, Gene Mundell designed a vehicle that could be attached to skis and propelled across the ice. That was the first outhouse race.
“The criteria was very specific; the vehicles had to be real outhouses,” recalled Nancy Nichols, whose restaurant, Mario’s, defeated Lanfear’s restaurant that year.
Over the years, new events have been created and some older ones retired.
This year’s Winter Carnival features a combination of both the old and the new. Events will be held every weekend in February in Shepard Park.
A complete schedule of Winter Carnival events is available online.
Photos: Yankee class Ice boats, speed skaters, hot rods, Bill Dow sets a record. Photos by Walt Grishkot
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