How some plywood and paint became a Coupeville holiday tradition

This simple but beautiful holiday tradition just seems to fit in perfectly with little Coupeville.

As I drove into Coupeville last week, my eye was constantly drawn to the painted plywood snowmen that are affixed to many of the utility poles this time of year, and I couldn’t help but smile broadly as I saw people posing for pictures next to a snowman. I thought to myself: This is such a simple, low-tech but beautiful holiday tradition, and somehow it just seems to fit in perfectly with historic little Coupeville.

And, being curious, this immediately set me on a course to find out when and how this plywood snowman tradition began and who keeps it going year-after-year. That led me to a conversation over coffee with two members of the Coupeville Lions Club, Sandee Allen and Vicky Reyes. I learned that the Lions Club has taken over responsibility for installing, storing and refurbishing the snowmen for the last two years from a volunteer group that had done it previously. Sandee is co-chair of the project with Jan Graham, and Vicky is described as the “unofficial historian” of Coupeville’s snowmen.

“We couldn’t have the holiday season in Coupeville without the snowmen,” Sandee said. “It’s such a simple thing but it has such an effect on locals and visitors alike.” She said it also has a similar effect on those who create, refurbish and install the snowmen. “You do it once and you want to do it every year.”

There are more than 90 snowmen, she said, but an exact count is difficult because several individuals have at least a half dozen besides the 91 the Lions have. There are beautiful snow-women, handsome snow-men, cute snow-dogs and all sorts of other cuddly things. There are no duplicates; each one is unique.

Whats’s amazing is that nobody in town would consider dressing up the snowmen, inflating them, putting lights on them or making them out of anything put plywood with a coat of paint. “It’s the spirit of our historic town, trying to keep traditions dating back to the 19th century,” Sandee said. “Our wooden snowmen could have been put up in 1893 as much as they were put up in 2023.”

This year, the Leos Club at Coupeville High School, an affiliate of the Lions, worked to refurbish and repaint several snowmen and the students then installed them on South Main Street near the school. A team of Lions volunteers installed them north of Highway 20. Putting them up involves screwing them into the poles; each snowman has three previously drilled holes for that purpose. “Hopefully no new ones are being added,” Sandee added with a laugh.

The only time in recent memory that the snowmen didn’t go up on the utility poles was in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic. That year, in an effort led by long-time Coupeville resident Gwen Samelson, the snowmen were instead all placed in rows on the historic Coupeville wharf. And each one had a mask attached to their face “to remind everyone to wear one during the pandemic,” Gwen said.

So when and how did this beloved tradition start? That’s a tale that could only have happened in Coupeville. Nancy Conard became mayor of Coupeville in 1996 and she held that position for the next 20 years, retiring in 2016.

One of the first things she decided after taking office was to create a Christmas parade with a tree lighting in town — a tradition that continues. She led the very first parade in 1996, dressed in a snowman costume. “I have always loved snowmen,” Nancy said. “They’re just fun.”

Not long after the parade, she met with town parks commissioners, who remarked on how they liked her snowman outfit. She told them she’d love to have snowmen all over town. And from that a tradition was born. Lyla Snover was one of the parks commissioners and an artist in her spare time. She and her husband Phil Snover decided to make Nancy Conard’s dream come true. Phil cut plywood snowmen in the shop in his garage and Lyla painted them.

There were only a few in the first few years. But over time people gathered in Lyla and Phil’s garage to paint new snowmen and refurbish the older ones. Vicky Reyes recalled that Lyla installed a microwave, a coffee pot and a wood-burning stove in the shop, and the number snowmen workers grew. “It was like a club,” she said. Others volunteered to install them and then take them down.

Phil Snover died in 2019 and Lyla in 2021. For a time, the snowmen remained in their shop until their estate was settled. Then the snowmen were stored and worked on in barns and garages that were offered temporarily.

Sandee Allen said the Lions desperately need a permanent home to store the snowmen, refurbish the old ones and create new ones. Some of the current snowmen were actually created years ago by Phil and Lyla Snover. “We really hope somebody will step forward and offer us a space,” Sandee said. “We need about an eight-by-ten room. There will be some traffic when people come to do painting and refurbishing but it’s not frequent. The snowmen need to be inside so we can protect them.”

So there’s your big chance to help keep a wonderful holiday tradition going for at least another three decades. If interested, contact the Coupeville Lions at (360) 678-4105.

Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times. He lives on Central Whidbey.

Sandee Allen, left, and Vicky Reyes greet a Coupeville snowman.

Sandee Allen, left, and Vicky Reyes greet a Coupeville snowman.

Nancy Conard dresses as Frosty the Snowman in the 1997 Coupeville Christmas parade. (Photo by Renae Mulhollland)

Nancy Conard dresses as Frosty the Snowman in the 1997 Coupeville Christmas parade. (Photo by Renae Mulhollland)