50 years of Klondike Kate: ’71 winner Carol Carney is still feisty, friendly and ready to sing.

24January 2021

The St. Paul Winter Carnival’s “mistress of fun, frivolity and good fellowship,” Klondike Kate, is known for her exuberance, her feistiness, her merriment and the likelihood she’ll break into song at just about any time.

And 50 years hasn’t changed any of that for Carol Carney, Klondike Kate, 1971. Without much prompting, Carney, 85, launches into the song she sang when she won the Klondike Kate sash: “She’ll Be Comin’ ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes.” She sings it just as she did five decades ago. “I started off slow and sexy, then got kind of wild,” Carney said in a phone interview in mid-January.

Klondike Kate, a character based on a Yukon Gold Rush saloon entertainer, had been missing from Carnival for more than a decade when the St. Paul Jaycees revived it in 1971. Carney remembers looking through Halloween costumes for a festive frock for that first competition.

She said he was told to mingle with members of Carnival’s Royal Guard to gain a bit of influence before the competition. “I don’t know if I was good or bad at that,” she says.

But she does know she didn’t rely on any liquid courage for the contest. “I don’t drink booze,” she says. “I just love people.”

Carney was born in St. Cloud and grew up in St. Paul, where she says she used to put on a lot of shows in her dad’s garage. She was Homecoming Queen at Mechanic Arts High School, but there was no singing and sashaying to gain that crown. In fact, Carney says she didn’t even know she was in the running for the title.

“A lot of stuff has happened to me by accident,” Carney says. Like the time she went shopping for shoes for her 4 1/2-size feet, and wound up working as a shoe model. Carney went on to modeling school “and one thing led to another.”

Klondike Kate was one of those things. Carney says she competed for the sash “because I love Winter Carnival.”

“We got involved in everything going on,” she says. “We like to have fun.”

Carney worked to instill involvement in her daughter, Lori Bestler, encouraging her to compete in pageants. Bestler, who is caregiver for her parents at their Lindstrom lake home, says she did so reluctantly, but over the years took third place at Karl Oskar Days in Lindstrom, Miss Congeniality in the Miss Maplewood competition and won Miss Shamrock in St. Paul for St. Patrick’s Day 1979. It gave her courage, says Bestler, who operates Mindscapes Unlimited, a mind coaching center that she says helps people manage their energy. “I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today without her strength,” Bestler says.

Carney also had to persuade her husband, Jim, to accompany her to the many events and parades that Klondike Kate attends. She didn’t drive back then, so Jim would have to act as chauffeur. “Mom would tug him along,” Bestler says, but he was – and is – her mom’s biggest supporter.

Those events and parades were just part of being Klondike Kate, and it didn’t end when a new Kate was named in 1972. The group of previous Klondike Kates eventually started performing together at Winter Carnival cabarets. Carney was president of the group for many years, and was sometimes called “Queen of the Klondike Kates” but says she wanted all of the Kates to be equal.

Carol Carney was the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s first Klondike Kate in 1971. Here she is 50 years later, photographed Jan. 20, 2021, at home in Lindstrom. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

“I used to say, ‘Listen, I may be the president of the Klondike Kates, but we’re all presidents of the Klondike Kates. We’re all one, we’re all here for the Winter Carnival,’ ” Carney says.

Kate and the Carnival Royal family act as ambassadors for Winter Carnival, which is celebrating its 135th year starting next week. The Kates make more than 100 appearances a year, singing in parades, at community events and benefits and senior citizens’ homes. In the early days of the organization, Carney set up a lot of appearances on her own, Bestler says.

“She’s a big PR person,” Bestler says of her mom. She would call up officials running parades and nursing homes and offer to perform.

“We’ve gotta make this thing go,” Carney says. “We’ve got to make people love us the way we love them.”

There were uncomfortable moments, she admits. Sometimes the Winter Carnival parades were on bitterly cold days. At first, Carney says she turned down offers of blankets to keep her warm. It didn’t seem right for Klondike Kate to be wrapped in blankets.

“Then I realized, that’s kind of dumb,” she laughs, remembering one cold parade where “I couldn’t move my lips.”

It wasn’t all parades and performances. There was the time in the 1980s when Klondike Kate actually went to the Yukon. Carney’s son, Mike, lives in Fairbanks, Alaska, and on a trip to see him, then St. Paul Mayor George Latimer arranged for the family to stop in Anchorage and meet the mayor, who was a friend of his. Carney had an official meeting with the mayor and truly was an ambassador.

She made many appearances on Twin Cities television and in telethons, and though she hasn’t made appearances with the Klondike Kates for a couple of years, she was in the limelight a couple of years ago with her “Grand Casino Story.” In an ongoing promotion, Grand Casino asked visitors to share their stories and Carol replied with an escapade involving a trip to the ice machine and getting locked out of her room. She was in a commercial that ran for two years and featured on billboards, Bestler says.

Here are all 50 of the St. Paul Winter Carnival Klondike Kates

Carol Carney was the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s first Klondike Kate in 1971. Her many winter carnival medallions and buttons are on display in glass cases. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)
  1. 1971 — Carol Carney
  2. 1972 — Shirley Gustafson*
  3. 1973 — Shirley Jones*
  4. 1974 — Dorothy Freyberger*
  5. 1975 — Sherri Kay Stetzer (Unk)
  6. 1976 — Billie Jean Morseth*
  7. 1977 — Sandy Wylie*
  8. 1978 — Claudette Rieschl
  9. 1979 — Dianna Weber (Unk)
  10. 1980 — Trish Stefanson*
  11. 1981 — Pat Videen*
  12. 1982 — Scottie McFarland (Unk)
  13. 1983 — Patt Leivermann
  14. 1984 — Jeanne Cummings
  15. 1985 — Connie Crowell
  16. 1986 — Dianne Long Pine*
  17. 1987 — Nancy Moshier
  18. 1988 — Nancy Hottinger
  19. 1989 — Cyndy Cheyne*
  20. 1990 — Celeste Gagliardi*
  21. 1991 — Patty Palodichuk
  22. 1992 — Liz Manbeck
  23. 1993 — Lois Laurie
  24. 1994 — Linda Underhill
  25. 1995 — Barbara Sorensen
  26. 1996 — Phyllis “Philly” Chickett*
  27. 1997 — Shar Salisbury
  28. 1998 — Renee Jackson
  29. 1999 — Barb Yozamp
  30. 2000 — Judy Nelson
  31. 2001 — Wendy Miller
  32. 2002 — Eileen “Dolly” Sparber
  33. 2003 — Kimberly Tsoukalas
  34. 2004 — Kari Shaff
  35. 2005 — Paula Berends
  36. 2006 — Britt Tany Wells
  37. 2007 — Darice Koepke
  38. 2008 — Audra Weier
  39. 2009 — Darci Strutt
  40. 2010 — Suzanne Leisman
  41. 2011 — Anita McColley
  42. 2012 — Peggy Sweeney Junkin
  43. 2013 — Anita Mack
  44. 2014 — Kathy Rustin
  45. 2015 — Rochelle “Shelley” Brown
  46. 2016 — Theresa McConnon
  47. 2017 — Kristen Oster
  48. 2018 — Natalia Hemmingway
  49. 2019 — Sheryl Williams
  50. 2020 — Shelley Pabst

(* indicates deceased, Unk is unknown)

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