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HISTORY BUFF: Snofest was Nelson at its wackiest

Jean-Philippe Stienne writes about the 1980s annual party
Unusual traffic on Baker Street. Opening stages in the Snofest ‘85 outhouse race. Photo from the Nelson Daily News Collection at the Nelson Museum

by Jean-Philippe Stienne

In February of 1979, amidst a spectacular fireworks display, Mayor Bill Freno ignited hundreds of Christmas trees on the waterfront. With a ‘whomp’ of igniting gasoline, Nelson’s Snofest was born.

Nearly 2,000 people attended the first Snofest, which was planned in only six frantic weeks and turned out to be one of the wildest and wackiest annual traditions in Nelson’s history.

In addition to the pyrotechnics, other events in the first year included a ski jumping demonstration on Hendryx Street, a packed Gong Show in the Civic Centre, snowmobile races on the Nelson airstrip, and free skiing at Whitewater for everyone dressed as a clown. According to the Nelson Daily News, there were many takers.

By 1981, events included hang gliders descending from Elephant Mountain to land at Chahko Mika Mall, a scrawny beard contest, a Baker Street snowshoe race, and a challenging “snogolf” event at the Nelson Golf Club. Indoors, there was Aquafest — teams from Nelson City Council, the Chamber of Commerce, the Gyro Club, and the school district competed in air mattress races, a bellyflop contest, and heritage-themed bathing suit contests at the Aquatic Centre. City councillor Ruth O’Bryan made a splash in this latter category with her daring pinstriped knee-length bloom outfit with matching mobcap.

The Baker Street tug-of-war was a highlight of Snofest. The event featured teams from local businesses and fire service crews from Nelson and beyond. For a period in the 1980s the Western Canada Tug-Of-War Championship was staged at the festival. Outhouse races became synonymous with Snofest; the Privy Grand Prix featured teams in outlandish costumes racing their decorated toilet on wheels though the streets. Other popular events included a children’s parade, a polar dip at Lakeside Park, and an abominable snowman hunt at Kokanee Creek Park.

Ben Anderson and Cam Zukowski in action with the Royal Inn winning tug-of-war team at Snofest ‘82. Photo from the Nelson Daily News Collection at the Nelson Museum

The event received support from the local business community and city council, particularly as it brought in visitors to boost the struggling local economy. Before the festival, Nelson politicians, Chamber of Commerce members, organizers, and Snofest mascot “Old Koot” were dispatched on busses to places like Sandpoint and Spokane with invitations to come to Nelson for the festivities.

Lonnie Facchina (formerly Lang) served on the Snofest organizing committee from 1986 until 1993. She remembers the goal was to get the community together for fun and games and to shake off the winter blues. Lonnie recalls some of the popular earlier events such as the ski jumping on Hendryx Street could not be held in later years because of insurance costs. Other organizers of Snofest in the early years included Lyle Hornby, Jerry Cushner and Denny Edgar.

Snofest official cartoonist Judy Mulloy created artwork for brochures, advertising, and the annual Snofest button. She recalls taking a break from the drawing board to decorate Baker Street’s lamp posts with burlap and crowns of cedar bough, turning them into Kootenay-style palm trees for the 1987 Hawaiian theme, ‘Palm Trees-n-Powder.’

Ruth O’Bryan cheers on teammate and fellow city councillor John Neville in the inner tube race at the 1981 Aquafest as part of the year’s Snofest activities. Photo from the Nelson Daily News Collection at the Nelson Museum

Fellow organizer Kevin Cutler came up with the ‘Miami Ice’ theme for Snofest ‘88. This featured a memorable Don Johnson look-a-like contest at the annual “Old Koot” Talent Show. In the same year, famed rock band Trooper headlined a Snofest concert at Mary Hall on the David Thompson College campus.

Snofest ran for 13 of 14 years between 1979 and 1993 — 1989 saw a break from the Snofest fun as Nelson welcomed the BC Winter Games. Snofest would return for four more years before financial difficulties brought about the end of the festival, but its legacy of fun memories and lasting friendships remains.

Jean-Philippe Stienne is the archivist and collections manager at the Nelson Museum Archives and Gallery. History Buff runs monthly.