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Mountain 101: The 'Icebox of the Nation'
Frosty battle had no scientific underpinnings
John Fayhee

Given the teeth-chattering temperatures that have descended upon the Mid-Valley this winter, I thought it might be timely to revisit some Colorado weather history that made national news more than a decade ago.

The news had to do with the crazy-assed battle between two frosty towns over the title, “Icebox of the Nation,” which, in the mind of many people, falls into the same category of bragging rights as “man with the foulest flatulence.” I mean, what municipality in its right mind would want to be known as a place where you can catch frostbite the fastest?

But I digress. 

In 2007, one of the longest-running climatological battles in the country was settled, not by the National Weather Service or the faculty of some esteemed university, but, rather, by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. For many years, Fraser, Colo. — elevation 8,574 feet — and International Falls, Minn., had battled for the legal right to use the term, “The Icebox of the Nation,” which, as previously indicated, you would think would be something a town would want to keep very much under wraps.

In 1989, the matter was supposedly settled when International Falls, with a population of about 6,500, paid Fraser, population about 1,000, $2,000 to essentially drop its frigid contention.

Once that check was cashed, International Falls registered its gelid sobriquet with the Patent and Trademark Office and that was that. Fraser was still legally allowed to market itself as the “Icebox of Colorado,” or the “Icebox of the Rockies” or whatever it wanted, so long as that very specific term — the “Icebox of the Nation” — was not invoked.

And, with that, all was well in the land of icicles and frozen nose hairs.

Then, International Falls committed a frosty faux pas: The city failed to file the paperwork required to renew its trademark. And Fraser pounced. The little town, located near Winter Park Ski Area, tried to hijack the trademark. After a year-long fight, the Patent and Trademark Office once again sided with International Falls when it granted the city, located near the Canadian border way the heck up in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, Trademark Registration Number 3,375,139.

But here’s the thing: That trademark was in no way shape or form based upon climatic reality; it was, rather, based solely upon the fact that International Falls proved “longest continuous use” of “Icebox of the Nation” in a marketing sense. The city offered anecdotal proof that it first used “Icebox of the Nation” in 1948 and photographic proof, in the form of a PeeWee hockey team that traveled to Boston wearing jackets adorned with the slogan, since 1955.

Though the Patent and Trademark Office decision was based solely on commercial history, it could not have integrated weather considerations into its decision even if it wanted to, as there are no set criteria for determining what town is in fact the “icebox of the nation.”

Yet, since all matters weather related are of import in mountain towns, if for no other reason than to have something to argue about in bars in February when it’s 10 below outside, the subject of relative frigidity is worth exploring.

Before doing so, however, it should be noted that both Fraser and International Falls, both of which are without a doubt mighty cold places, ought to be somewhat ashamed of the specific wording of their legal battle because, as we all know, the true iceboxes of the nation are all found in Alaska. No matter how you define the term, rare is the day when the superlative bone-chilling stats are not found in the Last Frontier. When it comes to cold, neither International Falls nor Fraser can hold a candle to Barrow, Nome and Chicken.

That aside, the ambiguous nature of climatic reality itself makes this a tough argument.

There are two main statistics (that is to say: weather-based data that is measured and catalogued) that can be invoked when this icebox-of-the-nation argument manifests itself in bars on the aforementioned 10-below February nights.

One is average annual temperature, which is kept by the National Weather Service. And, there, International Falls reigns supreme, being listed by the NWS as the coldest city in the Lower 48, with an average annual temperature of 36.4 degrees. The only mountain town that makes the top-10 coldest annual temperature list is Alamosa, Colo., with an average annual temperature of 41.2.

The other measured statistic that is applicable to this argument is the nation’s low temperature, which is measured and catalogued by the NWS. This is admittedly a specious prism through which this argument can be viewed, for at least two reasons.

First, many towns that find themselves often listed as having had the coldest temperature in the nation achieve that recognition in the summer. And while many people might argue that having the nation’s low temperature in July actually trumps, or at least ties, the concept of having the nation’s low in January, many other people would scoff at that notion.

Second, anyone bored and/or OCD enough to scrutinize the nation’s low temperature list (read: me) would, even if they were focusing solely on winter, immediately recognize that some towns occasionally make that list with nation’s lows of, say, minus-40, while others will repeatedly make the list with lows of “only,” say, minus-2.

Moreover, there are people who would rationally argue that the icebox of the nation ought to be based upon the number of times a town boasts the country’s lowest daytime high temperature. After all, even though it may reach absolute zero at midnight, most of us at that hour will be snug in our beds with the furnace raging. Verily, during the recent Arctic vortex that froze the living crap out of the upper Midwest, weather people were quoting the “coldest temperature ever recorded at noon” distinction. That, in my mind, beats the frozen snot out of a nighttime low.

And recently there has been some drunken dialogue (at least among my ne’er-do-well compadres) about establishing a nationally recognized “weather miserability index” that would include nighttime low, daytime high, cloudiness, wind, amount of snow and number of times you busted your ass by slipping on ice. Were such an index established and implemented, few would argue that it would not be dominated by towns in the upper Midwest and Northeast, where entire months pass without the sun once peeking out. 

The only way the mountain towns of the West might make their way onto such an aggregate index of hideous weather would be for duration to be included. After all, even places like International Falls (or for that matter, Fairbanks, Alaska) rarely get snowstorms in June and July. Such can’t be said for places like Leadville, Silverton, Summit County and, yes, Fraser.

Since the main category that the West dominates on this icebox argument front is the nation’s low temperature on a given day, it might be illuminating to examine some rudimentary regional stats.

The main thing to note is that, since 2006, the nation’s low temperature has occurred in Fraser only a couple dozen times. Twenty years ago, it was listed more often. These things go in cycles. The Colorado towns that have been home to the nation’s low temperature more than any other are Gunnison and Alamosa, which have held that hypothermic honor almost 100 times each in the last decade. The majority of the nation’s lows in Alamosa and Gunnison during that period occurred in the dead of winter. Leadville has made the list a dozen or so times, as have Grand Lake and Craig.

But, nippy as Alamosa and Gunnison can be, they both pale by comparison to Stanley, Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Mont., both of which regularly make the Lower-48’s-cold-temperature list in all seasons. Stanley was home to the nation’s coldest temperature 116 times in 18-month year period, between Jan. 1, 2006, and July 31, 2008, while West Yellowstone made the list 94 times in that span. (It should be noted that, in 2008, West Yellowstone’s name suddenly disappeared from the Lower 48’s cold spot list, and it likely wasn’t because global warming hit the neighborhood. Probably, its weather station was decommissioned or moved, as often happens. Nearby Lake Yellowstone has been home to the coldest temperature in the lower 48 many times.)

Others towns that frequently are home to the lowest temperature in the Contiguous States are Saranac Lake, N.Y., Truckee, Calif. (usually in the summer months) and, yes, our old friend International Falls.

For the record, the coldest ambient temperature ever recorded in Colorado occurred in Maybell, way up in the northwest corner of the state. On Feb.1, 1985, Maybell got down to a scrotum-shriveling minus-61. That cold snap hit the entire state about 20 seconds after I returned from an extended trip to Central America. (I shiver at the memory.)

Basalt reached minus-24 that day and had a daytime high of only 2. Makes the recent teeth-chattering weather seem benign by comparison.

M. John Fayhee was the editor of the Mountain Gazette for 13 years. He is the author of 10 books, including “The Colorado Mountain Companion,” from which this column is excerpted.