From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
On the Bookshelf
Lisa Gabbert

Lisa Gabbert spent a decade studying the people and traditions of McCall, Idaho, for her book Winter Carnival in a Western Town: Identity, Change, and the Good of the Community. Photo courtesy of Mary Kay Gaydos.

Finding History in Winter

Sometimes the best way to understand a place is by participating in its traditions. Even if it’s below freezing.

Winter Carnival is a tourist trap, a necessary burden, and a sacred community event. Lisa Gabbert, associate professor of English, decided to write about McCall, Idaho’s annual winter celebration because it is all of these things.

For nearly a decade, she drove a two-lane highway to the remote village along Lake Payette to collect its history. She worked alongside town historians in the archives, volunteered with the Chamber of Commerce, and competed in its annual snow sculpture contest. Her efforts culminated in the book Winter Carnival in a Western Town: Identity, Change, and the Good of the Community, published by the Utah State University Press this fall. The book launches a new series on ritual, festival, and celebration by noted festival scholar Jack Santino.

“Because it is ethnographic research, I had to go and observe and participate,” Gabbert said.

The book chronicles the community’s shift from working-class logging town to resort destination through its biggest annual event: Winter Carnival. The festival began as an all-volunteer event in 1924 to showcase winter sport competitions. However, as ski resorts were built and local mills closed, the town was forced to change its primary economic focus to tourism. This prompted changes of another kind—notably, increases in the cost of living as real estate prices soared. Winter Carnival expanded to a 10-day event to entice tourists to the region.

“The commonsense way that we think about history is in linear form. It’s event-based,” Gabbert said. “That perspective doesn’t necessarily work well in a small community where few events happen.”

Like many small towns, McCall’s history is constructed in terms of genealogy or in relationship-based terms, she said. After perusing the town’s archives and finding the folder about politics nearly empty, it became clear to Gabbert that she needed to find another way to grasp the town’s history.

“I needed a window into the area that was not necessarily linear,” she said. “The festival was the one event I thought would give me the most insight into the community. In the book, I argue that the festival is a way of talking about contemporary issues through another means. Many topics and problems important to the community are played out there symbolically.”

Snow is of central importance to the people of McCall. The town is located in the high mountains, where water is scarce and snow pack is needed for supporting life. Fights over water rights are commonplace. In folklore, harvest festivals symbolize abundance and participants may celebrate by eating lavishly, Gabbert said. “I really felt like that’s what the residents do with the snow during Winter Carnival. They celebrate its abundance and its relevance to the local economy.”

Townspeople sign up for free deliveries of snow to erect sculptures—the main tourist attraction. They hoard equipment to shape it. They need it for Winter Festival to be successful. In McCall, snow and tourism are synonymous with economic prosperity.

“Six months before the festival people start talking about it, wondering what the theme will be,” Gabbert said. “When I interviewed people they would say it’s a tourist thing, but the festival came up in their conversation all the time.”

Her book explores the ambivalence some people feel about Winter Carnival. Two camps exist in the community: those who enjoy the event and those who don’t. Yet almost everybody believes that it is ‘good for the community,’ she said.

However, many store owners apparently lose money during the festival. Through additional questioning Gabbert discovered residents subscribed to the belief that if their neighbor benefits, they will too. After years of participating in Winter Carnival, Gabbert has her own opinion on the matter.

“I think it is good for the community, just not necessarily in an economic sense,” she said. “The festival raises questions about what is ‘community,’ and what is ‘good’? It is a mechanism for getting people to think about community and what it means in actual practice.”