Flashback Friday: 1946 Winter Carnival returns from wartime hiatus with boxer-turned-sheriff on the throne

1949 King Boreas Tommy Gibbons Photo: Ramsey County Historical Society, Ken Wright Photograph Collection
1949 King Boreas Tommy Gibbons

January 25, 2019 10:26 AM

The first St. Paul Winter Carnival was held in 1886 - 133 years ago.

There have been gaps along the way, including in 1943, '44 and '45 when the festival was not held as a result of World War II.

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"It was really all hands on deck when it came to the war effort in those years," said Bob Olsen, the Winter Carnival's ice palace historian. "There was not a lot of time for frivolity. Many of the men were away overseas. And everybody else who was around was working on the war effort."

The Carnival came roaring back in 1946 with a 13-day festival officially named the St. Paul Victory Winter Carnival - celebrating the Allied success in Europe and the Pacific.

The event took place from Feb. 22 through March 6 that year, about a month later than usual "in order that as many servicemen and women as possible may be back to take part in it and enjoy it," according to an account in the Feb. 17 edition of the Minneapolis Tribune.

In addition to parades, there was a victory jamboree held at the St. Paul Auditorium, an indoor skating meet and three days of special programs honoring service groups - an Army Day, a Navy, Marine and Coast Guard Day and a Women's Service Day.

Heading things up was that year's King Boreas Tommy Gibbons, the sheriff in Ramsey County who had previously been one of the nation's best-known boxers.

The St. Paul native - whose brother Mike was himself a champion fighter - once went a full 15 rounds with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey on July 4, 1923 in Shelby, Montana before losing by decision.

It marked the first time an opponent had gone a full 15 rounds with the champion. The fight, which was a financial disaster for the small town in which it was held, lives on in boxing lore.

"Nailing him was like trying to thread a needle in a high wind," Dempsey reportedly said of his underdog challenger.

KSTP's Winter Carnival page

After his boxing career wound down, Gibbons returned to St. Paul where he served as sheriff in Ramsey County for 24 years, beginning with his first election in 1934.

"That was a time when there were a lot of gangsters hanging out in St. Paul," his grandson Tim Gibbons said. "And the story my dad always told was that the reason grandpa was elected sheriff was that people figured if he could go toe-to-toe with Dempsey, he could handle some of those gangsters as well."

Gibbons retired as sheriff at the start of 1959, and a testimonial dinner was held in St. Paul where Dempsey was among the featured speakers, according to accounts.

He died at age 69 the following year, but before that, he had been active in civic affairs in his hometown, even earning a glowing "Pat on the Back" from Sports Illustrated in 1958.

"He was an incredible figure," said Tim Gibbons, a developer of the Tom and Mike Gibbons Preservation Society website. "Very charismatic and extremely dynamic. He was very good with people."

Which made him the perfect face for the Winter Carnival when it returned from its wartime hiatus in 1946.

"I think with the war over, people were looking for ways to boost the community and bring everybody together," Olsen said. "And what better way than to bring back the festival with all the parades and pageantry while celebrating victory at the same time."

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Frank Rajkowski

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