The ‘icebox’ of the nation
Last spring, 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, Colorado ” elevation 8,574 feet, and International Falls, Minn., had battled for the legal right to use the term, “The Icebox of the Nation.” 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 moniker 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.
Until last year, 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 near Winter Park Resort tried to hijack the trademark. After a yearlong fight, the Patent and Trademark Office 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, in 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 weather related matters 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 25 below, the subject of relative frigidity is worth exploring.
Before doing so, however, it should be noted that both Fraser and International Falls 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 and Nome.
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. 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, Colorado, with an average annual temperature of 41.2.
The other measured statistic 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 others would scoff at that notion.
Second, anyone bored enough to scrutinize the nation’s low temperature list would, even if they were focusing solely on winter, immediately recognize that some towns occasionally make the list with lows of, say, minus-40, while others will repeatedly make the list with lows of “only,” say, minus-20.
There are also 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. Still others witness in favor of mean or median annual temperatures. And recently there has been some dialogue about establishing a nationally recognized weather miserability index that would include daytime low, daytime high, cloudiness, wind and amount of snow. Were such an index established and implemented, few would argue that it wouldn’t be dominated by towns in the upper Midwest and Northeast, where entire months pass without the sun 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 blizzards in June and July.
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 since the beginning of 2006, the nation’s low temperature has occurred in Fraser only a couple of 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 42 times each since Jan. 1, 2006. The majority of the nation’s lows in Alamosa and Gunnison in the last two and a half years have occurred in the dead of winter. Leadville has made the list a dozen or so times, as has Grand Lake and Craig.
But, nippy as Alamosa and Gunnison can be, they both pale in comparison to Stanley, Idaho, and West Yellowstone, Montana, both of which regularly make the nation’s-coldest temperature list in all seasons. Stanley was home to the nation’s coldest temperature 116 times 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 nation’s cold spot list, and it likely wasn’t because global warming hit the neighborhood. Rather, its weather station was probably decommissioned or moved, as often happens. Nearby Lake Yellowstone has been home to the nation’s coldest temperature several dozen times in 2008.)
Other towns that frequently are home to the lowest temperature in the contiguous states are Saranac Lake, N.Y., (29 times in the past two-and-a-half years), Truckee, Calif., (12 times) and, yes, our old friend International Falls (12 times).
For the record, the coldest ambient temperature ever recorded in Colorado occurred in Maybell, way up in the northwest corner of the state. In Jan. 1985, Maybell got down to a frosty minus-61.
M. John Fayhee is Editor-at-Large for the Mountain Gazette. His eighth book, “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” will be published by Westcliffe next year. Contact him with corrections, clarifications and observations at email@example.com.
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