In the past, many Northwoods communities held annual winter carnivals featuring competitions in ski jumping, cross-country skiing, figure skating, ice hockey, curling, snowshoe racing, and sled dog racing. Rhinelander was no exception and embraced what is today called “silent sports.” But in 1950, one young girl stole the show.
As the new year of 1948 approached, Wisconsinites were anticipating the State’s Centennial Celebration. In preparation for this event, the state sports committee sponsored thirteen Winter Sports Carnivals across the state. The primary purpose of the carnivals was to select young women from around the state to vie for the title of Winter Queen. Of the thirteen cities selected in December of 1947, Ashland, Antigo, Wausau, and Rhinelander were chosen to represent the Northwoods. Although the sports committee would finance only the beauty pageant, the cities were encouraged to hold a full slate of sporting events, which most did.
The competition that took place at the January 1948 Winter Carnival produced a multi-year champion in youth sled dog racing. She was an eight-year-old sled dog racer who succeeded in drawing some of the attention away from the beauty pageant.
The dog sled derby for youngsters was held on Oneida Avenue in front of the Courthouse building. In 1948, Joan Knudsen and her collie named Brownie took on all comers and won the race. Joan and Brownie then went to Tomahawk and won that town’s dog sled derby. Brownie retired after the 1948 season but was on hand to watch his successor, a young collie named Angus, pull Joan to victory in the 1949 Rhinelander sled dog derby. In 1950, all eyes were on Joan and Angus as the annual carnival approached. Joan was a three-time champion, and with her partner Angus she was ready to defend her title.
Rules for the race were simple. The dog had to be hitched to the sleigh by a harness. The musher had to sit on the sleigh. If the sleigh spilled over, the rider could remount and continue but had to be sitting on the sleigh as it crossed the finish line. Each racer had a coaxer who could verbally encourage the dog to run. Winners in the semi-finals won a new dog harness. The three semi-finalists raced against one another in a final heat for the trophy. All participants, regardless of win or lose, received a crisp one-dollar bill.
The race was quite popular, and more than 150 spectators were asked to remain on the sidelines and not to crowd the dog track at any time. The competition was heated in 1950, but the three semi-finalists were Dennis Stella and his dog Pal, Robert Eldred and his dog Butch, and of course the defending champion Joan Knudsen and her dog Angus.
The final was filled with all the excitement one could hope for. As the racers took off, the three dogs decided to take matters into their own paws and began to fight. Sleds were spilled, but Joan kept her cool throughout. She got Angus to focus on the goal at hand, slipped ahead of the boys, and became a four-time champion as she crossed first over the finish line. As an awestruck reporter said after the race: “There are queens for carnivals, sporting events, fashions, foods, and seasons. Surely then a 10-year-old Rhinelander girl can be crowned queen too.”