Telling Alaska’s Story: Fur Rondy celebrates rich history over 87 years

The winter festival, which runs from Feb. 25 to March 6, is celebrating its 87th year and its rich history.
Published: Feb. 21, 2022 at 7:16 PM AKST
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Anchorage’s Fur Rendezvous is about to get underway. The winter festival, which runs from Feb. 25 to March 6, is celebrating its 87th year and its rich history.

Fur Rondy Executive Director John McCleary explained the festival was conceived in 1935 as a winter sports tournament.

“The whole festival started with a bunch of hockey players who went up to Fairbanks,” said McCleary. “And when they got beat they came back to Anchorage and said, ‘this is ridiculous, we have to have our own winter festival.’ And that was in 1935.”

In 1936, one of those players, Vern Johnson, created the Anchorage Winter Sports Festival. Two years later the name was changed to Anchorage Fur Rendezvous.

Rondy, then a three-day event, was set to coincide with the time that trappers came into town to sell their furs, a tradition that continues today. Anchorage residents looked forward to the event to break-up the long winter, which included sports tournaments, a children’s sled dog race down Fourth Avenue and a torchlight parade.

World War II put Rondy on pause from 1942-45. It returned in 1946 with a new event, the Alaska Championship Sled Dog Races. McCleary said people would line the streets in downtown Anchorage to watch their favorite sprint mushers go by.

“It was the thing to do, was to watch your favorite town hero or musher come compete against the rest of Alaska, “he said.

McCleary added that the purse in 1946 was $175. This year’s purse is $60,000.

The ‘50s brought new events like the Eskimo Blanket Toss, and the very popular Miners and Trappers Ball in 1951. The costumed dance was extremely popular and in later years, getting tickets for it was considered a major achievement.

Highlights of the ‘60s included the first carnival rides by Golden Wheels Amusements. The 70s brought the Rondy Melodrama, Rondy on Ice, Outhouse Races, and the first official Rondy Fireworks show. Two events that originated in the ‘70s, the Hot Air Balloon display and the Rondy Grand Prix car races have since been cancelled.

McCleary said some events have come and gone over the years but new ones are being added all the time, including the popular Running of the Reindeer that debuted in 2009.

“It’s the way that Rondy will survive,” McCleary said. “Is to bring in and cultivate the new Rondy generation.”

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