Timeless Treasure

St. Paul Pioneer Press - 01-18-2004

The Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt a Winter Carnival fixture since 1952 doesn't change much. And isn't that the way it should be?


There really isn't much new from year to year with the annual Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt, and that's the way it should be, according to the newspaper's publisher, Harold Higgins.

"The Treasure Hunt is a tradition. We don't plan on making changes,'' Higgins said, in releasing the information basics about the popular, yet secretive, contest that the newspaper began in 1952.

"This time of year, people start talking about the hunt, start looking forward to it," he said. "It's a memorable family event that reappears every winter.''

One small change this year is the actual Treasure Hunt schedule, which has been realigned to coincide with the extended dates of the St. Paul Winter Carnival. This year's hunt begins Jan. 25 with the publication of the first clue in the Sunday Pioneer Press. Daily clues will be published until Feb. 5, unless the medallion is found before that date.

The Pioneer Press began the hunt as a way for the newspaper to support the carnival and be involved in the community event, Higgins said.

Over the years, the hunt also helped sell papers, he said, but today, with the clues' availability on the Internet and on many TV and radio broadcasts, the extra sales are much smaller.

The interest, however, remains just as high. In the Treasure Hunt's closing days, for example, with medallion fever building as clues narrow the search, the most avid hunters still camp out in front of the newspaper's downtown headquarters at night. By midevening, scores of hunters line up to get the early edition of the next day's paper that contains the latest clue.

In case you're a newcomer to the area, here are the basics on how the hunt works:

The mystery surrounding the hunt is part of its mystique.

Higgins denies knowing where the medallion is hidden, who hides it or even who writes the clues. "They don't trust me with the knowledge," he said. "Maybe they're afraid I'll blab.''

Patricia Effenberger, communications manager for the paper, said the identities of who hides the medallion and who writes the clues are "one of the best-kept secrets of St. Paul.'' She declined to elaborate.

Adding to the mystery are the cryptic clues riddles written in verse and often open to widely ranging interpretations. Some years, clues considered overly oblique have angered some hunters. Other years, the clues proved so easy the medallion was found by the time only half the clues were printed.

Just about everyone has a theory about potential medallion hiding places, but here's a look at several Treasure Hunt statistics that searchers may or may not find helpful:

Because anyone can search just about anywhere at any time, no one knows how many people actively look for the medallion. In addition to the hordes of bundled-up hunters armed with bright lights, cell phones and laptop computers, there also are legions of armchair detectives who studiously try to decipher the clues but seldom venture out to trudge through the parks in the cold in actual search.

Winter Carnival officials estimate about 15,000 of the 40,000 carnival buttons they typically sell are registered. (You do not need a button to find the treasure, but registration by Jan. 24 this year increases the basic $2,500 prize to $7,500. If the winners also bring along all the clues clipped from the paper, they get another $2,500. Cub Foods, another sponsor, gives the finder a $100 gift certificate each month for a year.)

The medallion also a source of mystery is almost always attached to some other item, such as a disposable diaper or a pop can. To discourage counterfeit versions (which pranksters have tried occasionally), images of the actual medallion are not published or released. "The medallion goes back into hiding once it's found and verified,'' Effenberger said.

Some have described it as a blue plastic disc smaller than a hockey puck. At one time it was metal, but people started using metal detectors to look for it, so in 1988, its composition was changed.

Effenberger did note that both to avoid wasting time and to protect vulnerable public property, medallion hunters should read the rules carefully for excluded locations. The rules note that the medallion is hidden on public property in Ramsey County but not on any golf course, the state Capitol grounds, Como Zoo and added this year not on Harriet Island.

She emphasized that no property needs to be destroyed to find the medallion, adding that "it is not buried underground.'' If property is being destroyed, the newspaper has the right to stop the hunt, she said.

There is plenty of lore about the medallion. For instance, the belief that Maplewood formally banned the medallion after overeager hunters allegedly damaged Wakefield Park in 1971. However, records show only that the village council at that time wrote a letter to the Pioneer Press and the Winter Carnival deploring the situation.

Maplewood reiterated its displeasure in 1982, when the medallion was again planted in that suburb, but there is no ban in the records, city officials said.

Effenberger said the newspaper is aware of Maplewood's concerns, and "we care about our good relations with our communities.''

Her advice to hunters is "to read the newspaper and hunt with respect for the community.''

Over the years, the hunt has attracted lots of attention, and not just locally. Effenberger said the newspaper has drawn requests for media interviews from as far away as the British Broadcasting Corp. in London.

Also, the February 2004 issue of "Archie Comics'' features a Riverdale treasure hunt patterned after the St. Paul event. In the comic version, Archie and his friends look for a "green donut" for a $5,000 prize from the Riverdale Gazette.

"That's flattery,'' Higgins said of the comic book, which acknowledged the Pioneer Press in a tribute box.

In 1992, the hunt was the setting for a locally published mystery novel, "The Treasure Hunt,'' and filmmakers Trent Tooley and Jackie Garry (a native of Rochester, Minn.) have made a documentary, "No Time for Cold Feet,'' about the hunt. They've taped the hunt over several years and plan to do more taping this year.

Tooley said they may premiere the film this year and release a DVD with extended scenes. (Their Web site is www.notanotherhollywoodfilm.com.)

"We have a good two-hour movie now 10,000 people looking in the woods for the medallion but we are hoping to get a lot of snow this time. It's the first thing I do every day is check your weather,'' Tooley said in a telephone interview from their offices in Connecticut.

Jesse Anibas of White Bear Lake hosts a popular Web page (www.wintercarnival.8m.com) full of history and facts about the hunt. He's been looking for the elusive medallion since 1989 and says his ardor for the hunt has not waned.

"I'm not wavering. The whole thing just keeps getting better,'' he said.

Anibas is part of a group known as the Cooler Crew of about 100 to 120 hunt enthusiasts that has grown up around the hunt and the Internet. They hold their own treasure hunts during the year and gather the evening before the Pioneer Press Treasure Hunt's first clue is published to party and launch another year of looking.

"Last year, I took six new people from work out looking, showed them the fun and what it was all about,'' Anibas said, proudly.

The Treasure Hunt also can be a stressful time for many Pioneer Press employees, who often get peppered with questions from friends and relatives seeking inside information about where the medallion might be hidden. Employees, however, have no such information.

Workers also face occasional grousing from family members unhappy that, as in most contests, immediate family members are ineligible to win.

Also, in the closing days of the hunt, it's not unusual for the newspaper's nightside workers at the end of their shifts to encounter a crowded lobby filled with hunters eagerly awaiting the next clue.

This year, copies of the paper will be on sale at the newspaper offices at 345 Cedar St. about 11:30 p.m. each day of the hunt. The clue then will be posted on the Internet shortly after midnight at www.twincities.com, the Web home of the Pioneer Press.

On three of the hunt nights, special programs will be held in the newspaper's lobby from 11 p.m. until midnight. The events will feature prizes and appearances by the likes of the Winter Carnival Royal Family, the Vulcans and the Klondike Kates. Events will be held Jan 29 and Feb. 1 and 2, unless the medallion is found.

At one time, the newspaper fired a cannon or large rocket from the newspaper office roof to announce when the medallion was found, but nowadays, Effenberger said, the news is given to the media, featured on the paper's Web site and announced on the paper's special Treasure Hunt Hot Line (651-228-5547).