February is here, and our beloved Iceworm is preparing to saunter down the streets of Cordova to celebrate the spectacle that is the annual Iceworm Festival.
After 61 years of celebration, the festival has evolved from a two-day affair into a week-long celebration, rich with history and brimming with activity. This year, we’ll take a look back at 1961: the year of the very first Iceworm Festival. Keep your beards groomed and your eyes peeled for the Iceworm Magistrate as we venture into the history of Cordova’s pride and joy.
Every Cordovan knows how long the winter months drag on. In 1961, a few Cordovans, including the famed M.K. “Mud Hole” Smith, got together and decided the best way to combat the winter blues would be to throw a party. Knowing a mascot had to be created, a $15 cash prize — roughly $150 in today’s money — was put up for whoever submitted the best design. The 150-foot, 37-legged Iceworm, designed by Ted McIntire of KLAM-AM, was the first of its kind, and started the Iceworm legacy.
In a 1987 piece written by Lavon Branshaw, the former director of the Cordova Historical Museum, she said “it was a beautifully put together piece of workmanship with varied and brilliant coloring.” They must have been right, as the Iceworm was brought to compete in Anchorage’s annual Fur Rendezvous “Rondy” winter festival later that year, and won first prize in the parade.
Barbara Beedle, often referred to as “The Mother of the Iceworm Festival,” said in a 2015 interview with Senior Voice that she had to take the wooden structure’s head off to make it fit in the plane to Anchorage.
“It used to cost just $25 to fly him up,” she said. “It was worth it. We won first prize in that parade the first year. Now the Iceworm is always a part of the Rondy Parade.”
Many events and contests were hosted at the first Iceworm Festival parade as well. Sidewalk crab feeds, beauty and fishing contests, and street dances were just a few.
One of the events, which Cordovans are all too familiar with, is one of the festival’s oldest running bits. Since the first festival in 1961, people have prepared their facial hair accordingly.
In the 1987 piece, Branshaw said: “All males capable of growing a beard were to start the process on the same day in December. If you didn’t comply, you could be arrested and dragged before the ‘Iceworm Magistrate’ for punishment.”
She continued: “’Mud Hole’ Smith, owner of Cordova Airlines, (was) sentenced to shout loudly ten times, ‘Fly Pacific Northern Airlines.’”
Other traditions include a dog catching contest, where the owners would release their dogs into town, and whoever could round up the most would receive a prize. There were even skiing and dog sled races — or foot and bike races, depending on the snow — that were hosted, Branshaw said, even with “all cheating and shortcuts tolerated.”
Now, 61 years, countless Iceworm variations, and quite a few memorable floats later, the festival hosts a plethora of activities. This year’s celebration runs through Feb. 4.
Art shows, paper airplane contests, basketball camps, dances, cribbage tournaments, cookoffs, live music, the variety show, and the Survival Suit Race are just a few of the activities that bring our community together during this historical event. The Iceworm Festival has been, and will continue to be a testament to the beautiful sense of community found in Cordova, Alaska.