St. Paul is home to the Winter Carnival, a celebration of frozen winters going back to 1886. But you have to cross Annapolis into West St. Paul to find the Winter Carnival Museum. It’s open year round at West St. Paul Antiques, a shop run by Floyd and Linda Ruggles.
West St. Paul Antiques opened in the late 1990s and within a few years they added their first display of Winter Carnival memorabilia.
“Most people don’t see the artifacts because they’re in private collections, and that’s one of the reasons I started showing the collection,” said Ruggles. “They’re actually seeing the light of day and people are enjoying it and getting more involved with the carnival.”
Today there are 75 showcases dedicated to the Winter Carnival Museum, with new displays added each year. Ruggles estimates it takes up a fifth of his shop. And that’s not even his full collection.
“We don’t have the storage here, so I store the tubs and things I acquire in my office,” Ruggles said. “I feel like I’m in a storage locker sometimes.”
When pressed to put a number on his collection, he says it’s over a million pieces. It’s likely one of the largest private collections of Winter Carnival artifacts, eclipsed only by the Minnesota Historical Society. But Ruggles’ collection is viewable to the public year round, while the Minnesota Historical Society doesn’t have the space to make their full collection available to the public on a regular basis.
“That’s what I’m trying to do—keep the Winter Carnival going year round,” Ruggles said.
Meandering the Museum
Winter Carnival buttons are pretty common, and Ruggles has plenty of those. But he has so much more. There are elaborate coats, gowns, and uniforms from Winter Carnival characters, royalty, and marching bands. The collection includes posters, patches, pamphlets, plates, pennants, and pins. There’s an actual taxidermied mountain goat from a 1938 Glacier Park Marching Club float sponsored by Great Northern Railway. How about a slew of sponsored beverages, including 1979 Winter Carnival beer, 1980 Jest Fest beer and more recent themed flavors from the Northern Soda Company such as Vulcanus Rex cream soda and King Boreas Ice lemon soda? Three giant “drips” sit atop various displays—fiberglass and plastic Hi-lex gnome costumes worn by Boy Scouts marching in Winter Carnival parades going back to the 1940s.
The oldest items go back to the very first Winter Carnival in 1886, including a tiny diamond-shaped pin that hung on birchbark canoes at the first ice castle. The newest addition includes an entire wing of Vulcan memorabilia from the 1972 Vulcanus Rex, Roger Sorenson, as well as giant recreations of Winter Carnival buttons throughout the years that appeared on the side of a 1989 float. Ruggles will continue to add items through this year’s Winter Carnival.
“People will say ‘Well, you must have one of everything.’ Not even close, not even close,” said Ruggles.
Items are often displayed with photos of the original owner and recognition of how Ruggles acquired it. People will often visit from out of town to see a family members’ item on display.
“It’s taken on a life of its own over the years,” Ruggles said. “I couldn’t even imagine when I started putting this together that it would take off.”
The Winter Carnival Itself
Ruggles remembers going to the carnival as a kid and watching the parades. He also remembers hunting for the medallion with his own kids.
“I still have stories about those adventures,” Ruggles said. “We never came close to finding a medallion, but those are the adventures a family remembers.”
Ruggles yearns for the days when the Winter Carnival was a bigger deal.
“Back in the early ‘50s and ‘60s, it seemed like every company was involved in the Winter Carnival,” Ruggles said. Take Montgomery Ward and their marching band as an example—it had 1,500 members (and yes, their banner is in Ruggles’ collection). “It’s tough to get people involved in things anymore because their lives are too busy.”
The Business of Antiques
The antique business has faced challenges of late, with the industry in decline amid a shift to online sales. Locally, Ruggles saw a drop in business for about 15 months with the closure of the High Bridge, then COVID hit just as customers were returning.
“We reopened back in June of 2021 after being shut down for 14 months,” Ruggles said. In that time he’s seen his customer base flip from people in their late 50s and early 60s to younger couples in their late 20s and early 30s.
“Prior to COVID I would say the antique business was in decline,” Ruggles said. “But right now with the average age of our customers and it seems like new faces coming in all the time—now I can see a future, one I wouldn’t have predicted.”
“We were looking at possibly retiring—after being shut down for 14 months, I just didn’t know if we would even have a customer base or a business,” said Ruggles. “Now, after being open for several months, I have to readjust my plan. Instead of downsizing and liquidating and getting out of the business, we’re probably going to stay in for a long run.”
Ruggles equivocated—“I’m not sure, it’s a day to day thing,”—but he’s more positive than you might expect for someone who’s shop was closed one year ago.
The Value of a Free Museum
Given the challenges, it’s easy to wonder about the business sense of giving a fifth of his floor space to a free museum. It’s a considerable investment.
“It comes back in full just from the thank yous and the appreciation that people have,” said Ruggles. “I don’t do a lot of advertising, so it’s word of mouth. I’m very pleased with the number of people that come through.”
Ruggles has also been recognized by the Winter Carnival itself. In 2012 the Vulcans knighted him as “Archduke of Antiques” and in 2020 King Boreas appointed him “Lord Floyd, Keeper of Winter Carnival Treasures.”
“It’s an honor,” Ruggles said. “What I enjoy is the families, the Winds and the Vulcans and the different royalty families coming in and enjoying the collection and seeing what’s new.”
Local stories like this are brought to you by our generous members. You can join them and support local news in West St. Paul by becoming a member through Patreon.