Participants hurry during the first-ever Partner Carry race at Mount Horeb's Scandihoovian Fest.  (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)
Participants hurry during the first-ever Partner Carry race at Mount Horeb's Scandihoovian Fest. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

Mount Horeb’s festival is quirky by design

Driving north out of the village of Mount Horeb on winding Highway JG, the sounds of hooting and hollering could be heard Saturday from a family game of broomball being played on the slushy ice of Stewart Lake.

This scene from last weekend’s Scandihoovian Winter Festival looks like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting, except the people are wearing pointy red “tomte” hats that are more commonly worn by garden gnomes. 

“It’s a great weekend of family fun,’’ says Karen Reinders of Delafield. She and her spouse’s siblings from as far away as New Jersey gathered for the 9th annual event. 

The festival includes a fat tire bike race, turkey bowling – yes, a frozen turkey is flung across the ice toward bowling pins – and a newer event called “partner-carry” in which spouses are slung over the back of their partners like a sack of potatoes.

For all its quirkiness, Scandihoovian Fest is part of a long tradition of celebrating the midway point of winter. The pagans called it Imbolc and the Christians call it Candlemas. The Irish celebrate St. Brigid’s Day, and the folks in Sun Prairie pull out a groundhog and look for its shadow. 

These mid-winter festivals all mark the moment when we’re moving away from the darkness and into the light of spring.

And in Mount Horeb, a village of some 7,000 people located roughly 30 miles southwest of Madison, a quirky mid-winter festival seems quite fitting, given the village symbol is a troll, a nod to the area’s Norwegian heritage

Despite all the frosty frolicking, Scandihoovian Festival was actually born out of despair in 2012.

It looked to be a long, dark winter after the 15-1 Green Bay Packers lost their first playoff game. Tracy Thompson, owner of Sjolind’s Chocolate House, and her daughter Melissa could feel spirits sag.

“From the counter of a coffee shop, you are really able to take the emotional temperature of your community,’’ she said. “And you could just see it plummet.”

Thompson and customer Dave Hoffman thought Mount Horeb might need a winter carnival. Thompson got out her sewing machine and whipped up a bunch of pointy red hats, worn by the mythical Norse trolls called “nisse” or “tomte.”

They picked Super Bowl weekend, when the local Rotary and Optimist clubs have traditionally held a pancake breakfast and raffle. Dan Ganch, of Mount Horeb, volunteered to organize broomball. 

Another coffee shop customer, Jane Burns, pulled together an adult spelling bee at the historic school house and recruited retired teachers as judges. 

Someone suggested a ritual burning of one of the village’s wooden trolls, a nod to the nordic fire festivals such as Up Helly Aa in the Shetland Islands. Alas, fears of poisoning the crowd with smoking wood preservative nixed that idea.

“It is really local entertainment,’’ Thompson said. “Just neighbors entertaining neighbors.”

A hotdish bakeoff also fizzled as dozens of people showed up at the Lutheran church to taste a mere handful of hotdishes. 

“I learned later that lots of people wanted to bake hot dishes, but they were fearful of being judged,’’ Thompson says. “That’s very Scandinavian, too.”

But other events have become traditions with bragging rights. Mount Horeb resident Jack Lyle is so proud of his title as the first winner of frozen turkey bowling that his red hat is emblazoned with a turkey. 

The spelling bee champions get their names engraved on the Ellen Holk trophy. 

Holk, a former teacher, competed in her last spelling bee at age 97. She went out her final year on the word “chalupa.’’ Taco Bell wasn’t a thing in the era of one-room schoolhouses. 

This year’s bee featured former champions Kellie Monroe Aquino (2016, 2018), Terese Floren (2019) and Adam Mertz (2013, 2017).

“People always ask my winning words, and I have no idea,’’ Mertz said. “But I can tell you every word I lost on. In fourth grade it was syringe.”

This year, “phylum” proved Mertz’ undoing, while Alyson Pohlman of McFarland met disaster with “disastrous.” UW-Madison professor Gregg Mitman, of Clyde, captured the 2020 crown by correctly spelling “aardwolf.”

If watching folks sweat while they try to spell isn’t your thing, you could have listened to the  “Ladies of the Fjord” entertain with traditional Hardanger fiddle music from Norway or decorated your tomte with wool supplied by the Cat and Crow shop. 

At Brix Cider, owners Matt and Marie Raboin demonstrated how they competed in a  “wife carry” in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Matt offered a tip to newbies: “You carry them upside down and they have their face in your butt. it’s awkward, but it’s the best way to do it.”

That was the technique used by the winners of the troll trophy, Jackie and Ryan Monfils, of Mount Horeb. When asked how Jackie kept her red hat on despite hanging upside down, Raboin replied, “Duct tape, I think.”