LOOKBACK: Austin’s winter carnivals on Cedar drew large crowds
Local manufacturer led 1891–1892 festivals before moving away, leaving city uninspired to continue major event
Two toboggan slides kept busy in February 1891 as people of all ages waited for their turn to glide down to the frozen Cedar River as brass bands performed near downtown Austin.
“Many a visitor took his first toboggan ride,” the Mower County Transcript wrote Feb. 11, 1891.
For the first time, the town of 5,000 was hosting a Winter Carnival — featuring an ice palace made from Cedar River ice slabs — for locals and hundreds of visitors who mostly came by train on special discounted rates with the three railroad branches in Austin.
Schools were given holidays on two afternoons to allow “a thousand merry children and young people” to join grownups in doing or watching winter sports on the Cedar’s frozen stretch known then as Lake Lincoln — a backwater, swampy stretch dotted by islands behind Austin’s dam. At the time, the river had several channels that later were filled in, including where the city pool and Cedars of Austin are today.
A month earlier, George A. Hormel had started operating across the river in an old creamery along the Cedar to launch his meatpacking business — today’s Hormel Foods Corp. Yet, it was another Austin businessman — Lewis “L.A.” Foote, owner of the Car Seal Works factory — who was the reason for the highly successful yet short-lived winter carnival of 1891 and 1892.
Foote, a Civil War veteran who moved his business in early 1890 to Austin from the nearby village of Lansing, had built for the 1890–91 winter season a skating rink on the Cedar and a toboggan slide near his factory overlooking the river from Lansing Avenue (today’s First Dr. N.W. on the Cedars of Austin property). This made him popular with local youth and it led to the city’s winter carnivals managed by Foote.
“The name of L.A. Foote will go echoing down the ages as the originator of Austin’s first winter carnival,” wrote the Transcript on Feb. 11, 1891.
A month after another successful winter carnival in early 1892, however, Foote was exploring options for growing his booming business outside of Austin. By June 1892, Foote had relocated his factory to Chicago, adding to an already difficult business time for Austin, which recently lost its clay brick factory to fire.
Enthusiasm for hosting a third Winter Carnival in February 1893 quickly waned.
The Transcript reported in January 1893 that “quite a good many” people favored another carnival with all its features except for an ice palace. It even guessed that Foote would return on a special train from Chicago. A meeting that month to start planning, however, only attracted a hotel keeper, restaurant owner and newspaper reporter.
“Austin people have lost enthusiasm in the carnival business,” a Rochester newspaper wrote.
It was a surprising development after two carnivals that newspapers around the state called them highly successful and popular with locals and visitors.
Freight security, winter sports lead to carnival
In May 1890, the Transcript ran a story about Foote’s business, Northwestern Car Seal Co., coming to Austin with the headline: “Another One of Austin’s Great and Thriving Industries Portrayed.”
Foote had made a name for himself in Lansing, a village nearly five miles upstream on the Cedar River and up the railroad from Austin. He had become known nationally for his convenient and inexpensive products that secure freight in train cars from thieves, replacing the original method of padlocks and keys.
Foote came to Mower County in 1869 from his home state of New York to take charge of Lansing’s railroad business. This made him familiar with the inconveniences of the old ways of securing freight.
By 1881, Foote had his first patent for seal and fastening that could not be cut or broken open without detection. He started making the seals by hand on a small scale in Lansing, and they soon were in high demand by railroad companies nationwide.
When he moved in March 1890 to Austin, Foote had five patents for his seals that now were being made by machinery invented by him. His steadily growing business moved into an 80-foot-long building on Austin’s Lansing Avenue (today’s 1st Drive NW across from 6th Place NW) with engine and store rooms.
Within two months, Foote’s business was busy with 11 employees and considered a “valuable addition” to Austin.
“It is really an interesting sight to see their machinery all at work, the different styles of seals they make and the large quantities of each kind turned out,” the Transcript wrote April 30, 1890.
During his last two winters in Lansing, Foote had led outdoor winter activities in the village that included building a toboggan slide. Months after moving to Austin, Foote proposed a toboggan slide and skating park along the banks of the Cedar River, where Main Street used to drop off.
Foote’s ideas quickly grew into a broader plan for Austin to host a grand winter carnival in which he would lead as a manager.
Foote’s icy feat for Austin
While the Canadian city of Montreal was the first in North America to create an ice palace, leaders in St. Paul, Minn., moved quickly in 1885 to build one in hopes of attracting tourism from Montreal, which was experiencing a smallpox epidemic.
According to the Ramsey County Historical Society, St. Paul hired a duo of brothers from Montreal to design and build the city’s first ice palace made mostly from Mississippi River ice. Towering at 106 feet tall, the ice palace opened in February 1886 as part of a carnival.
After unseasonably warm weather in 1889 and 1890 led St. Paul to cancel its ice palace and carnival (eventually revived in 1896), Austin came forward with plans for its own winter carnival in February 1891.
Austinites admired the St. Paul carnival and seemingly tried to mimic the event by building its own ice castle on the Cedar River and borrowing St. Paul’s winter carnival mythology of the Ice King vs. Fire King.
Locals portrayed a “storming of the ice palace” in which the Fire King must save the city from a perpetual winter caused by the Ice King, who defends his ice palace by throwing snowballs. The Fire King, in return, attacks the palace with fires and fireworks, leading to the Ice King releasing his “hold” on the city.
In Austin, Foote and other organizers had built an ice palace just north of downtown’s Main Street.
“A beautiful ice castle has been built on a picturesque little island near the riverbank,” wrote the Rochester Post on Jan. 30, 1891, adding that plans for the “grand storming” of the palace would feature “the finest display of fireworks ever seen in this section of the country.”
Austin was going to feature a “Carnival King, in his chariot of fire” and Ice Queen with guards of honor; 1,000 horsemen; 3,000 gentlemen and ladies in toboggan and skating costumes, five bands, floats and more.
“The carnival is free to all, and Austin will welcome everyone who will accept of their hospitality,” the Post reported.
St. Paul’s Daily Globe previewed Austin’s first carnival, noting it would have an extensive procession, horse trotting on ice, skating races, several toboggan slides, an ice rink and more.
“A fine ice castle is being constructed on a pretty island in the bed of the Cedar River,” the Globe wrote Jan. 25, 1891.
Members of the Austin Carnival Association invited “every town and city within a radius of 75 miles to organize temporary clubs and come to Austin,” the Spring Valley Mercury reported Jan. 29, 1891.
Locals had met on a Friday night in mid-January at Austin’s city council room to organize and raise money for a quality festival. They scheduled the carnival for Feb. 2–4 when Austin — called the “Queen City” of southern Minnesota — would host the Traveling Men’s Association.
A big article written by the carnival committee ran Jan. 14, 1891, in the Transcript to detail the plans and encourage support.
“Let our people one and all take hold of this grand carnival and make a success of it,” the article stated, adding it could bring “thousands of visitors” to Austin.
“We are linking to thriving towns by railroads which run in every direction. Special, low rates can easily be secured and hundreds of people will flock into Austin to witness the grandeur of carnival week.”
The article proposed numerous ideas, including creating the ice palace at Foote’s Car Seal Works factory overlooking the river.
“No one who has ever witnessed the grand storming of the ice palace in St. Paul would miss anything of the kind if able to be present,” the newspaper wrote.
The Mankato Journal promoted the carnival, saying a “big time is anticipated.”
“They have a fine, little city and take pains in letting the people know it,” the Journal wrote.
“Never before has this city or Southern Minnesota seen such a display,” wrote the Winona Daily Republican about Austin’s first Winter Carnival in 1891.
The newspaper’s headline read: “Austin’s Frolic — A winter carnival closes in a blaze of glory.”
Austin was described as “brilliantly illuminated and the streets crowded” while filled with “delighted and admiring visitors, who have had a day of unalloyed sport at Carnival Park” on and along the Cedar River.
Above-freezing temps (30s to 40s) were the highs during the carnival that attracted an estimated 5,000 visitors, six bands and delegations from area towns, according to the St. Paul Daily Globe on Feb. 5, 1891.
“The storming of the ice palace was a brilliant affair,” the Daily Globe wrote, estimating that 1,500 people took part in the “storming” featuring a “magnificent” fireworks display.
Winter sports were the main attraction each afternoon, featuring toboggan and ski slides that dropped onto the frozen Cedar; horse races on ice; and a skating rink on the river with contests.
On the opening afternoon, the ski slides were open to amateur skiers, which entertained onlookers watching they many unsuccessful attempts. Brass bands from Austin; Wells, Minn; and Cresco, Iowa, played music.
People called “bouncers” went around the carnival to launch people into the air from a bouncing blanket; no one was injured in the process.
Visiting newspaper editors and other prominent guests to Austin enjoyed a banquet at the downtown Tyron Hotel along the river (an old channel) next to what now is the Paramount Theatre.
That opening night, “the grand storming of the ice palace took place, and our streets and the riverbank were crowded with the thousands who had come to see the novel sight. Not one of the throng was disappointed,” the Transcript wrote Feb. 11, 1891.
At 7:30 p.m., the “attacking and defending forces” organized downtown on Main Street before being escorted to the palace through the streets by bands, toboggan clubs and other groups.
This spectacle included a “prolonged and beautiful” display of roman candles and other fireworks. Once the “attacking forces” captured the palace, the night closed with a “grand illumination” of the ice castle that “was brilliant and marvelously beautiful; nothing has ever been seen in Austin to compare with it.”
On the carnival’s second day, a large, torch-lit procession spanning one mile walked through downtown. It included bands, police, toboggan clubs, railroad workers, various clubs and horse-drawn floats, including the Friedrich & Hormel meat market’s float painted and decorated with comical pictures and signs. Those two parted ways later that year.
A man from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was quoted as saying he wouldn’t expect “to see so fine a parade in a city of 20,000 inhabitants.”
Another illumination of the ice castle ended that evening while Austin’s towering courthouse also was lit up. Electric light and Chinese lanterns illuminated Main Street, which was lined with decorative bunting.
The Transcript predicted Austin’s second winter carnival in early 1892 would be even “grander and more magnificent.”
Area newspapers called the first carnival a “big success” and described Austin in flattering terms. The Spring Valley Mercury in neighboring Fillmore County called the carnival a success but opined that “the ice palace was unnecessary.”
In the same Feb. 11, 1891, edition recapping the carnival, the Transcript ran a front-page article and sketch of Foote under its recurring series: “Prominent Men and Women of Mower County.”
“No more appropriate sketch could be given this week than that of L.A. Foote, the originator and boomer of the Austin Winter Carnival,” the article stated.
Foote’s energy, enthusiasm and wisdom were credited as a big part of the festival’s success. The Transcript noted that Foote’s first suggestions of the carnival to prominent Austin businessmen were met with little confidence.
“No city in the northwest, except St. Paul, had attempted such an undertaking,” the Transcript wrote.
Foote’s practical plans led businessmen to see a carnival as a potential success, “and by their united and untiring energies, the grand results of last week were achieved.” Foote put in a quite a bit of work himself, particularly in creating the winter park.
“Several weeks ago, (Foote) suggested a toboggan slide and skating park for Austin; and these were made on the bank of the river and have been greatly enjoyed.”
Foote earned his first patent in 1881 — and found his business in Lansing steadily growing — for a seal and fastening that could not be cut or broken open without detection on a freight car. It was made of a heavy tin strip with patented fastenings at the ends.
“These are made in such a way that they cannot be opened without being destroyed; thus, at a glance exposing any attempt at unlawful entry of the car sealed with them.”
In Austin, Foote’s plant could make 75,000 seals daily with 15 employees. Major railroad companies were buying the seals under a patent “that saves the railroads of the United States millions of dollars annually.”
For a while, the New York Car Seal Company shipped all its tin to Austin for manufacturing seals. Austin’s car-sealing plant is “one of the most prominent and successful,” the Transcript wrote.
“Our pails of oysters come sealed with them. Lumber and coal companies are sealing their private cars with them.
Raising the bar
In fall 1891, plans for the second Winter Carnival started much earlier.
“The Ice King Comes! Let His Palace Be Prepared and Pleasure Grounds Put in Order” read a Transcript headline on Oct. 21, 1891.
Locals believed that planning earlier would help them outdo the first carnival.
Foote already had $200 in subscriptions for what he called “Austin Winter Park” along the Cedar in which a $1 subscription entitled each person to daily admission for the entire season of skating, curling, tobogganing and “breaking your neck on skis and every kind of winter sport,” the Transcript wrote.
More subscriptions to the park would mean more money to spend on the grounds and attractions, including a larger ice palace and two toboggan slides arranged so that “when you have whizzed like lightning down one and gradually lost momentum on the level, you shall find yourself near the ascent of the other (slide) and by a return voyage get back to the starting point.”
Onlookers were given shelter and seats at the park area.
Despite talk of getting an early start with the ice palace, those plans were deferred due to weather and river conditions, the Transcript wrote Oct. 28, 1891.
Yet, local Henry Merrill drew a crowd at that time while wearing rubber boots “reaching up to his neck” to remove stumps and “snags” from the “Winter Park” grounds.
Foote and fellow carnival leader F.P. McBride reportedly were “eager as boys for the opening for they lead off with a prize skating match.” Neither had worn a pair of skates for 25 years and both are “confident of their prowess.” Both agreed not to buckle on skates or try any little ice patches before the opening.
“It is safer to bet on the amusement of the spectators than that either will win,” the Transcript wrote.
In early December 1891, the community’s excitement grew as two toboggan slides went up along the river. One slide was set up on the south side of Foote’s Car Seal Works plant, with the other slide on the river just east of an island that years later was connected to the mainland. This arrangement allowed a tobogganer to slide off one and head riht up the stairs of the other to “take another long ride back again.”
“We know of no more wholesome sport than that to be enjoyed by our fun-loving people upon the ice and the toboggan slides,” the Transcript wrote, adding that at least 500 youngsters played on the slides Thanksgiving Day.
The Transcript wrote in late December 1891 about a local band playing music during night skating at Lincoln Park, which wasn’t a true park but more of a “winter park.” Austin’s first park, Central Park, came along in 1897 along the river (upstream from the dam) although it was in the works for most of the 1890s.
“The skating rinks and toboggan slides were in good order and everything was well lighted up by electric lights,” the Transcript wrote. “There was just enough ozone in the air to put everyone in good spirits.”
Rochester opted to host a winter carnival in early January 1892, drawing about 125 Austinites who traveled by train.
“The experienced Austinites could show them how to celebrate,” the Transcript wrote Jan. 6, 1892.
A week before Austin’s second carnival, Winona’s Daily Republican promoted the free “Queen City’s Grand Carnival” — with ample hotel accommodations and reduced train rates within 100 miles of Austin — that would feature “thousands of dollars” in fireworks, parades and an ice castle storming.
“The big show this year promises to be another huge success and all visitors who attend will be grandly entertained,” the Daily Republican wrote Jan. 21, 1892.
On Jan. 20, 1892, the Transcript noted Austin had several times the amount of hotel rooms than usual for cities its size. Private homes also were opened to those unable without a hotel room.
A large park was created near the Chicago, St. Paul & Kansas City railroad bridge — which crossed the Cedar upstream from the downtown dam — for the use of Shinney Clubs, which were an early form of “pond hockey” teams. Skating and horse-trotting races also would be on the river.
Electric lights would illuminate the winter park area.
The Transcript gave a big preview of the carnival, predicting the three-day event would be the
“grandest spectacle ever witnessed.”
Opening day on Wednesday would be a “free-for-all parade” by all clubs, starting at 2 p.m. The carnival would open with music and then speeches at 3 p.m. Winter sports, an evening Mardi Gras parade and then winter sports in Lincoln Park, including tobogganing, skating and ski sliding.
For the second day, a reception committee would meet all visiting delegations at the “noon trains.” At the time, Austin had tracks running through downtown and the east side. That afternoon would be the annual convention of the Western Traveling Men’s Association, with an expected 1,000 members. Sports and races would follow at Lincoln Park, with an evening parade one mile in length called the Grand Industrial and Club Parade. An evening dance at Armory Hall.
On the last day (Friday), large groups were expected on Visitor’s Day to arrive in Austin from St. Paul, Minneapolis, Rochester, Spring Valley, Cresco, Mason City, Albert Lea, Owatonna and “hundreds of other places.” Train arrivals would be met by reception committees.
That afternoon, music and all winter sports would be featured, with a grand, evening parade of all uniformed clubs with the Fire King and Ice Queen, concluding with the storming of the Ice Castle.
On Jan. 20, 1892, the Transcript ran a headline of “Hurrah for the Carnival.”
“The Fire King will storm the Frozen Citadel of the Ice Queen,” the Transcript wrote.
St. Paul’s Daily Globe reported Jan. 28, 1892, that the carnival’s opening festivities went well in Austin, with the ice castle at Lincoln Park formally dedicated after a parade march from Main Street. The newspaper called the castle “a beauty” and reported incoming trains to Austin were loaded with “hundreds of visitors” from neighboring cities.
The next day, the Globe reported a “large quantity of fireworks was shot off and the ice castle was finely illuminated.”
Albert Lea’s Enterprise newspaper reported “people from many miles” were taking advantage of the discounted train rates and “coming in great numbers to see Austin’s winter show.”
The Transcript recapped the carnival by calling it a “brilliant success” despite the weather being somewhat warmer than ideal.
Temperatures recorded in Minneapolis those three days ranged for highs of 39 to 47 degrees.
This required the remaking of a few ice blocks, made the dirt streets muddy at midday and hampered the use of toboggan slides.
“But there was a large margin of time left for enjoyment,” the Transcript wrote Feb. 10, 1892. “The processions and crowds in attendance were all that could be desired, and the ice palace beautiful and its capture splendid.”
Despite the “soft” weather, the palace’s ice still proved hard on the evening of the storming enactment. A man named Julius Laack sustained a bad cut on his right hand on a sharp edge of ice while “scaling the walls of the Pearl City ice palace,” the Rochester Post wrote Feb. 5, 1892.
This carnival also made big news in the Twin Cities as Minneapolis’ “Sports and Amusements” weekly journal ran photos and a long article about the event in its Feb. 5, 1892, edition. This included a front-page photo of people using the two toboggan slides on the river along with photos of Foote and Austin mayor’s Dr. C.H. Johnson.
“A wonderful winter celebration in which fair women and brawny men in costumes quaint enjoy the sports of a winter season — an ice palace for your life,” the journal wrote.
Referencing those in St. Paul who lost enthusiasm in ice palaces and called them a “ghost of the past,” the journal reported “throngs of people came to Austin from all over Minnesota and a dozen other states, bent on participating in the glory of Minnesota winter sports.”
“Truly a spot more natural favored for the scene of such a carnival as this than Austin, could not be found by searching the wide world over, for Austin is one of the most beautiful little cities in Minnesota,” the Minneapolis journal wrote.
With Austin’s ice palace, the journal described it as nothing like any others, showing “great strength and artistic beauty.”
“As the sun rose high, there gleamed from every angle streams of light and color superbly inimitable,” the journal wrote.
At night, electric lighting at the end gave the ice palace an appearance of being “glittered as a million diamonds framed in frosted silver, and appealed to every beholder by its marvelous beauty.”
End of the road
In a foreshadowing of what was to come a year later, the Transcript suggested, after the 1892 festival, ending the winter carnival on a high note.
“If the carnival reached the high tide of success this year, it would be better to leave it there than to court a gradual decadence by trying it again too soon,” the article stated.
The Transcript thought the best lesson from the carnival was the value of a united effort by all Austinites and to put that effort toward achieving other important goals for the city, such as a better county fair in the summer that could bring greater benefits to Austin. The article noted the carnival’s biggest beneficiaries are the hotels and, even more so, the saloons. Most merchants traded less than usual on carnival days.
“It would be possible to provide amply for winter sports by a skating rink, toboggan and ski slides and a course for speeding horses without the expense of the ice palace and the carnival features,” the Transcript wrote.
Doing that would carry no risk of blizzards or “soft weather” because there always is “some part of the season suited for such (winter) sports.”
More than a month later, the carnival’s visionary, L.A. Foote, was reported to be looking at relocating his Car Seal Works factory out of state. At the same time, Austin was reeling from the loss of its pressed-brick factory to fire.
“Two of its most-important industries, and yet Austin remains a very wide-awake, flourishing city,” the Freeborn County Standard wrote March 23, 1892.
By April 1892, Foote reportedly was expected to move his business to Chicago. Two months later, Foote moved Car Seal Works to Chicago, where he spent the rest of his life.
By July 1892, Foote’s old factory overlooking the Cedar was occupied by a dye house. Within the year, that business was replaced by the Austin Broom Factory.
“We expect to see this industry develop and become one of our prominent enterprises,” the Transcript wrote.
In Chicago, Foote, among his achievements, patented a car seal while working as assignor for the Chicago Car Seal & Manufacturing Co. In 1905, Foote patented a seal for milk bottles at the same company.
Foote died in 1915 at age 75 from pneumonia, leaving a wife and son.
Winter fun without the party
In December 1892, even with Foote’s absence, Austin opened new toboggan slides — 10 feet higher — and a skating rink. Longer and steeper than ever, the slides offered a “leap of over 40 feet down the steep, swift decline (that) surely will give a novice unspeakable sensations.”
Snow in the large rink had been partially removed and Lake Lincoln — the Cedar River — offered smooth ice that likely would be crowded with skaters.
“A visit to the banks of Lake Lincoln and to Lincoln Park reveals something of the fun in store,” the Transcript wrote Dec. 14, 1892.
Austin youth seemed joyful at the “return of the Ice King.”
“Rosy cheeked boys and girls of Minnesota prefer the bracing atmosphere and invigorating sports of our snow-covered hills and our ice-bound rivers and lakes,” the Transcript wrote.
Enthusiasm for being outdoors in the winter continued in Austin.
“Minnesota’s pure air and doubly distilled ozone are the very elixir of life to the tens of thousands of happy youth with which our prairies and cities teem,” the Transcript wrote.
Despite all the positivity, optimism for a third winter carnival was minimal.
“While it is probably that we shall have no carnival celebration this winter similar to last winter’s demonstration,” the Transcript wrote, “yet preparations are going on and are partially completed to give to our lovers of winter sports the amplest opportunities for the fullest enjoyment of them.”
Despite talk of a lot of Austinites being in favor of hosting a third winter carnival, an organizational meeting in January 1893 only drew three people — hopes for another were done.
That month, the Spring Valley Mercury wrote about an “unfortunate” past year for Austin after the city lost both its brick works plant and fiber factory to fire, leading to unemployed workers. Then Austin lost the Car Seal Works plant when Foote moved to Chicago.
Railroad shops — a big industry in Austin — also were shedding jobs, the Mercury wrote Jan. 5, 1893.
“On all sides, it has been a decreasing payroll,” the Mercury wrote. “The effect on the businessmen has been most disastrous.”
Tough times definitely were happening on Austin’s economy.
“We hope that the worst has passed,” the Mercury wrote, “and that the city may soon pass the panic feeling now existing there.”
Little did Austinites know that help was on the way in the form of George A. Hormel’s new meat packinghouse along the Cedar River that started operating in a remodeled creamery a year earlier.
On the Sunday before opening it, Hormel and his fiancée, Lillian, spent the afternoon skating on the Cedar River.
“At sundown, we crossed the river for her first inspection of the plant,” Hormel wrote. “It was a thrilling moment.”
Yet, it wasn’t an easy road ahead for Hormel.
“As we walked about, never a hint of what those little buildings would really represent crossed our minds,” Hormel wrote. “We were to find, with time, that they often represented a taskmaster so hard, so demanding, that we would ask ourselves, again and again, what can we ever gain to compensate for what this monster costs us?”
For Austin and many others, Hormel fortunately never gave up on his dream.