Frozen Dead Identity Crisis: Redefining Nederland without its biggest and most notorious festival
Walk along the narrow streets of downtown Nederland, Colorado in any season and you’ll see traces of Frozen Dead Guy Days everywhere. The visitor’s center is stocked with festival merchandise. Wooden cutouts of the eponymous corpse stand guard on sidewalks. An empty coffin propped against the wall would surely raise eyebrows in any other neighborhood in America, but here it’s as casual as a park bench.
It's not a stretch to say that Nederland, a tiny town in the mountains west of Boulder, has fully embraced an identity closely-aligned with its largest—and frankly, weirdest—annual festival.
Frozen Dead Guy Days got started as small community event more than 20 years ago. It came about because of an improbable series of events that brought the cryogenically-frozen body of a dead Norwegian man—the locals call him ”Grandpa”—to Nederland. He’s been kept on ice here—in a Tuff Shed of all places—ever since. The locals found joy in the macabre oddity of their chilly neighbor, and Frozen Dead Guy Days was born.
These days, the particulars of Grandpa’s story have been overshadowed by the wild festival antics of Frozen Dead Guy Days: the death- and ice- themed games and contests, the music, the booze and all the mad fun of the event. The weekend grew over the years, eventually attracting an international crowd and gaining notoriety for the raucous music scene and signature events like the coffin races and polar plunge.
Heather Taylor is a Frozen Dead Guy Days die-hard. She fell in love with the festival 17 years ago, when she first came to Nederland—or "Ned," to the locals
“It was one of the quirky things that this town did that just sucked me in,” Taylor said.
Taylor calls herself a full-on "Nedhead." And in her mind, you can’t really separate the town of Nederland from the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival. They are one and same: weird, uncouth and delightful.
“That’s what (Nederland’s) always been,” she said. “A bunch of hippies, miners, drunkers, rockers, musicians, artists.”
The festival spirit is strong in Taylor, who finds work as an artist, a bartender and musician. In 2009, she was crowned festival Ice Queen.
“It's like being the beauty queen of a very interesting pageant,” she explained.
Ever since, she’s adopted the attitude of an unofficial Frozen Dead Guys Days ambassador to the world.
“The Ice Queen always leads the festival,” she said, reminiscing at the edge of Guercio Field toward the base of Nederland’s downtown district. “The parade would start actually right here, and all the hearses line up and everybody gets all ready with their coffins. And then you parade up First Street and showboat and show off.”
The festival that outgrew Nederland
But where Taylor sees the glory of Nederland, Town Administrator Miranda Fisher sees…something else.
“I see mud. A lot of mud,” Fisher said, standing a day later on the same spot at the entrance to Guercio Field.
The people crowding into the field on festival weekend made the park impossible to maintain. Fisher describes a scene of mud puddles, filth and way too many partiers.
“I think the biggest thing was the damage on our facilities,” Fisher said. “I had seen a few years where the field would just become completely damaged.”
Fisher grew up in Nederland, and it’s not that she’s put off by the festival’s peculiar vibe. It’s just that now, as a municipal official, she sees potential liability everywhere.
“One of the most concerning moments was, there was an extension cord laying with the connector in a pool of water,” Fisher recalled. “I was like, something bad is going to happen.”
The problem, according to Fisher, boils down to Frozen Dead Guy Days simply getting too big for its humble origins in this small mountain town. Nederland is a community of less than 1,500 people. There’s just one hotel and a handful of small restaurants in a narrow historic downtown. Counting every last available inch of parking space, the town can realistically accommodate a couple thousand cars at a maximum.
“Last year we saw about 20,000 people,” Fisher said. “That kind of growth in the event itself is hard for us to maintain from kind of an infrastructure standpoint.”
After the chaos of the 2022 event, the town put together a postmortem taking stock of all the issues. That document cites numerous problems that festival organizers failed to address. For instance, the slippery mess that was Guercio Field. “The ice was not properly mitigated as noted by people falling,” the document reads.
Crowd control was also a major issue. “Snowballs were being thrown at people participating in the polar plunge and coffin race, resulting in people getting injured,” the postmortem stated. “Security did not appear to be present to support.”
There were problems with parking, security and an overly lax attitude toward safety measures. Fisher said those problems forced the town to impose new requirements on festival organizers and increase fees.
Complicating matters, in 2022 Nederland received a Great Outdoors Colorado grant to restore Guercio Field, placing the festival’s main staging ground off limits for the following year. Festival organizers responded by canceling the event for 2023.
That cancellation didn’t last long, though. New organizers bought the event, but they moved it 40 miles north to Estes Park, a larger town with greater capacity for handling an influx of outside visitors. With that, the Frozen Dead Guy Days festival officially broke up with Nederland.
Fisher was both relieved and saddened by the loss. She wouldn’t have to worry anymore about hippies getting electrocuted in the street. But Frozen Dead Guy Days had come to define the town. Now that it was gone, what would be next for Nederland?
Festival Withdrawal Syndrome
For all its chaos, Frozen Dead Guy Days has always been a major economic boon for Nederland.
Kathleen Chippi, owner of One Brown Mouse, a gift shop specializing in locally-sourced clothing, jewelry and art located along Nederland’s First Street, said businesses in Nederland depend on tourism to survive. Frozen Dead Guy Days, she said, delivered the tourists in a big way.
“It brought a lot of people to our community and people always had a good time,” Chippi said. “It did bring in a lot of money.”
Chippi estimates the festival weekend accounted for as much as 25% or her gross sales for the year.
Now that the festival has moved on, the town's economics will change. Nederland officials are taking steps to reevaluate its status as a tourist destination. The town wants to keep the visitors coming—it’s an economic necessity—but the trick is to encourage the right type of tourism, at the right scale for the community.
The town has been working with the Colorado Tourism Office to redefine Nederland’s identity. A new tourism campaign that emphasizes respect for the community—"Do Nederland Right"—is in the planning stages.
Fisher said the ideal Nederland tourist picks up after themselves, treats locals with kindness and wants to integrate—however temporarily—with its unique community.
“I think the people are coming regardless,” Fisher said. “We need to figure out how to welcome them and then show them what it means to be a Nederland visitor.”
A glimpse of Nederland’s future
Deb D’Andrea knows how she wants to welcome future visitors to Nederland.
“I want everybody to dress up in cat costumes,” she said.
D’Andrea hopes to plant the seeds of a new, only-in-Nederland festival legacy with the Bizarre Cat Bazaar that will debut in August. The event takes a cue from Frozen Dead Guy Days, mining the town’s quirky history as the basis for celebration.
This particular history revolves around Fred the Cat, a well-known stray who roamed the streets of Nederland in the 1970’s and 80’s. Fred's life took an unexpected twist when the people of Nederland elected the feline mayor in a fit of frustration with the town government at the time. Fred earned a permanent place of honor in the front yard of Nederland’s town hall, where the cat is still buried with a marked plaque for a grave.
Out of that story, D’Andrea plans to spin the next generation of Nederland festivities.
“It's something that is really fun and it's based in truth,” she said. “We're celebrating the quirkiness of Nederland voting in a cat mayor.”
D’Andrea describes her vision for the event as family-friendly, immersive, and—above all else—fun.
“Picture flags and streamers and dancers and stilt walkers and hula hoopers and jugglers,” she said. "It's going to be something that 'Ned' hasn’t experienced before.”
The concept is a lot more wholesome than Frozen Dead Guy Days, but D’Andrea’s plans are no less eccentric.
“'Ned' is filled with the desire to keep it unique while embracing the future,” she said.
Remedy for an identity crisis
But the people of Nederland have a life apart from festival day, and it’s unlikely any other event could ever engulf the town as thoroughly as Frozen Dead Guy Days once did.
If the community experiences any sort of identity crisis in the aftermath of the split, Jill Dreves, executive director of Nederland’s Wild Bear Nature Center, said Nederland’s tremendous mountain landscape can offer clarity.
“The common thread that we have in Nederland is nature,” Dreves said. “That's why people live here.”
Reimagining Nederland’s identity through the natural landscape is not the hard pivot away from the town’s oddball festival culture that it might seem, Dreves said. She thinks Nederland’s idiosyncrasies are a direct result of the rugged mountains and the eccentric residents the area has always attracted and inspired.
“That's the most powerful thing that this community represents,” she said. “I don't think we'll ever forget Frozen Dead Guy Days. I think that is a part of our history that is cemented forever.”
She said the festival was just one of many examples of “our ability to take something and interpret it into something extremely creative and attractive to outside our town.”
Standing on the edge of a 2,500 acre wilderness, peering through dense pines at the distant, glistening Arapaho glacier, Dreves sees a future for Nederland. Next month, she’s breaking ground here on a new 8,500 square foot nature center at the edge of Mud Lake Open Space, just a mile up the road from downtown.
“We'll be integrating a lot of music and theater and art,” she said. “It's a very artistic vision and it really is capturing the Nederland identity.”
She hopes her new space will keep Nederland on the map as a hub for art and creativity through outdoor exploration.
“The mountain presents that special part of engaging in the arts and engaging in music at high Alpine,” she said. “Whatever that inspires in you creatively is what Nederland is, and I see that as its future.”