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Flyin’ Fruitcakes! It’s the Manitou Springs Great Fruitcake Toss

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Fruitcake fanatics from near and far gathered at Memorial Park for the 29th annual Manitou Springs Great Fruitcake Toss. Only wrapped, regulation fruitcakes could be tossed in competition.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

MANITOU SPRINGS, Colo. — Standing in the fresh snow on that crisp, sunny Manitou Springs day, visitors might’ve looked to the sky, noticed a rectangular flying object, and exclaimed, “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!”

No, it’s a fruitcake.

Colorado Voices

Flyin' Fruitcakes! It's the Great Fruitcake Toss

The fruity (and considered by many as “food-adjacent”) flying objects were soaring in celebration of the 29th Manitou Springs Great Fruitcake Toss, an annual fruitcake-flinging festival that includes everything from skills competitions to baking competitions to an appearance by the famed Mr. Fruitcake himself, all for a good cause.

Yet the much-anticipated event, which now draws hundreds of attendees from across the country, was once on the verge of being tossed out for good.

A competitor winds up for the “Distance” event.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

That is until a few passionate “Manitoids” (Manitou residents) stepped in. 

“The [Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce] was going to be canceling the Fruitcake Toss forever in 2015,” said Annie Schmitt, a proud Maintoid who helped lead the Fruitcake Toss’s revival. 

“It just made me really realize how if we were to be losing these quirky little events, it wouldn’t make Manitou special anymore,” she said.

According to local legend, the origins of the Fruitcake Toss dates back to the mid-1990s when a group of Manitou residents gathered at the Ancient Mariner, a local Manitou Springs bar, and began complaining about having received fruitcakes for Christmas. 

“And so after a few libations, they decided to go out into the park and fling their fruitcakes,” said Schmitt. 

The Fruitcake Toss gradually evolved into a city-sponsored event intended to drive tourism to the downtown shopping district. As the event grew in popularity and in attendance, so did the competition in scope and in stakes. 

When Schmitt first moved to Manitou Springs in 2007, the festival had grown well-beyond a just fruitcake “toss.” 

“There were trebuchets and pneumatic air cannons,” said Schmitt, “and when I got back to my car, there was a fruitcake on the roof.” It was then that Schmitt developed a love for the celebration.

Mike Maio, a Board Member of the Manitou Springs Heritage Center and the long-time Fruitcake Toss emcee, moved to Manitou Springs in time to witness the early trebuchet days as well.

“Fruitcakes were tossed at a distance of up to 1,500 feet,” said Maio. “Those days are gone. Now we’re back to a manual event.”

After a pneumatic fruitcake cannon launched a loaf into a residential window, the Fruitcake Toss was moved from Memorial Park to the Manitou Springs High School football field.

While the new location provided ample room for long-distance tossing, the city gradually realized that the celebration was no longer fulfilling its intended purpose. 

“It wasn’t bringing people into downtown to shop and to eat and enjoy our beautiful art scene,” said Schmitt. “After one event was canceled due to snow… the [Chamber of Commerce] decided to cancel the event."

That’s when Schmitt, along with an impassioned group of local fruitcake advocates, stepped up. They appealed to the mayor and the City Council, both of which gave the citizens permission to take over the toss.

Maio, who was hosting exhibits and presentations with the Manitou Springs Heritage Center museum at the time, received a call from Schmitt and the team.

“They invited me to join their little group at re-establishing the Manitou Springs Great Fruitcake Toss in January of 2016,” he said.

Maio has been stage announcing ever since. His duties include calling the opening fruitcake toss, directing attendees between the various competitions, and crowning the Fruitcake King and Queen (the overall winners of the events).

The names of each year’s Fruitcake King and Queen are etched into the Fruitcake Throne, a ski-chair made by a local craftsman that’s been central to the Great Fruitcake Toss since 2016.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

Maio always makes time for a few — admittedly stale — fruitcake jokes as well.

“When fruitcakes were baked for the first time in 1490 or so in Saxony, Germany, they were referred to as ‘stollen’ sweets,” said Maio. “So my joke is, ‘Why was the fruitcake in jail? He was in possession of stollen sweets.’”

This year’s festival included four events:

  • Distance (how far one can throw a regulation fruitcake);
  • Accuracy (how consistently one can toss a regulation fruitcake through three hula-hoops, one large, one medium sized, and one small);
  • Balance (how quickly one can complete an obstacle course while balancing a regulation fruitcake on a spatula);
  • and Basket Toss (contestants toss wooden replica-fruitcakes into a board with multi-sized holes, each of which had a point value based on the diameter of the hole).

A younger fruitcake toss athlete steps up to the “Accuracy” event.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

A “regulation fruitcake” must be about one-pound, edible, and include the basic components of a standard fruitcake (fruit, nuts, flour or yeast, etc.).

The legitimacy of eligible cakes are monitored by the Fruitcake Tech Team, created after particularly competitive distance tossers began substituting their cakes with duct-taped softballs.

The Fruitcake Toss also features the “Too Good to Toss” baking competition where talented chefs enter their finest fruitcakes for judging. 

Apart from the Basket Toss, these events have been a part of the festivities since the Fruitcake Toss was re-established in 2016. 

“[At first] we had to build everything ourselves,” said Schmitt. “When we first did the Accuracy competition, we got our hula-hoops from a local Manitou Springs hula-hoop maker.”

Along with the Fruitcake Tech Team, Schmitt and her community organizers also introduced “Fruitcake Medics,” volunteers who re-tape cakes damaged from excessive tossing. 

Charity is central to the Great Fruitcake Toss as well. Participants interested in tossing a fruitcake pay admission by either donating one non-perishable can of food or pay $1 to rent a cake. All proceeds go to the Manitou Springs Food Pantry at St. Andrew’s Church. 

Lyn Ettinger-Harwell is the man responsible for baking these rentable fruitcakes.

Harwell, a co-founder of the Pikes Peak Bulletin, is also unofficially known as the “town chef.” With the help of a small army of volunteers, Harwell bakes and wraps around 175 regulation size fruitcakes for tossing. 

He relies on a recipe developed over his nearly eight years acting as the lead fruitcake baker. “These things will fly,” said Harwell.

Spectators marvel at the flying fruitcakes.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

Festival-goers regularly wear various forms of fruitcake paraphernalia, ranging from sweaters to socks to earrings.

“There really is this strange subculture of fruitcakes out there,” said Schmitt.

One resident’s impressive contribution has remained a mainstay at the event.

“I got a random call one day from a woman who said, ‘I have a fruitcake outfit. Would you like it?’” said Schmitt.

The costume, a large, brown rectangle painted with multi-colored fruits and nuts, graces the shoulders of the Fruitcake Toss’s popular mascot, Mr. Fruitcake. He welcomes attendees with a smile and free samples of the festival’s sponsor Collin Street Bakery, one of the oldest and largest fruitcake bakers in the world.

Mr. Fruitcake poses with fans.
Photo: Chase McCleary, Rocky Mountain PBS

Beyond the field of competition, collectors have donated hundreds of vintage fruitcake tins to the city, many of which are displayed in the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce and the soon-to-be renovated and reopened Manitou Springs Heritage Center. 

“[The Fruitcake Toss] represents the very essence of Manitou Springs,” said Maio. “‘Keep Manitou Weird’ is the mantra out here at Manitou Springs, and one way we do that is through events like the Fruitcake Toss.”

Schmitt, who some have labeled, “the fruitcake queen forever!” passed the Great Fruitcake Toss back to the Manitou Springs Chamber of Commerce a few years ago. 

This year, it was recognized by as the official destination of “National Fruitcake Toss Day,” which will forever be celebrated on the last Saturday of January. 

Schmitt currently serves as a community organizer within the Chamber of Commerce and is actively involved in ensuring “quirky” events like the Great Fruitcake Toss continue to flavor Manitou Springs.

“It just really feels like a great small town event, and people really, really enjoy it,” said Schmitt.

Chase McCleary is a multimedia journalist at Rocky Mountain PBS.

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