Detroit Lakes is not the kind of place to take being left out in the cold lightly.
For more than a year, the northwestern Minnesota town 45 miles east of Fargo had planned to provide 24,000 blocks of ice to St. Paul for an ice castle as part of its Super Bowl-centric Winter Carnival.
The plan was scuttled when festival organizers balked at the price tag. A scaled-back St. Paul ice castle is back on board, but the plans no longer include the crystal clear frozen offerings from Detroit Lakes.
Disappointed but undaunted, Detroit Lakers now plan to build their own modest palace on the banks of Little Detroit Lake. It will be an homage to a town that once took pride in being an ice harvesting capital.
“Detroit Lakes being Detroit Lakes, we took the gut punch, we were a little disappointed but we said, ‘You know that’s not how we roll,’ ” said Ice Harvest Committee Co-Chair Scott Walz. “When we started talking to people about harvesting ice for this palace it became abundantly clear how deep and rich the history still was in this community for harvesting. We knew we had to do something.”
Builders plan to make a structure 24 feet tall, 30 feet wide and 60 feet deep. The ice measured 18 inches thick more than a week ago, well above the 12 inches needed to operate safely.
The harvesting, the first since 1971, will begin Jan. 11 and construction will take two weeks. About 1,500 blocks will be needed.
Local artist and sculptor Hans Gilsdorf has designed the palace, which will feature changing lighting schemes, windows and a carving of the fictional “owner” of the palace. A Palatial Polar Playground nearby will feature snow and ice sculptures and an ice slide. A grand lighting is planned for Feb. 8, and the palace will be lit every evening of the city’s Polar Fest, scheduled for Feb. 8-19.
The project’s cost is being picked up by local businesses, pledges to a GoFundMe page and a state tourism grant.
Detroit Lakes’ history with ice harvesting goes back to 1897, fueled by the purity of its spring-fed waters and its proximity to a major mode of transportation. The biggest customer was the Northern Pacific Railroad, which used the ice for shipments of perishable commodities like vegetables to the West and fish to the East. In the years before refrigeration, as much as 200,000 tons of ice was harvested and 4,000 boxcars were used for shipping.
By 1930 it was the second largest industry in Becker County, behind only timber and logging. At its peak, as many as 180 men were employed, many of them farmers glad for the extra winter income. Leonard Thielen, grandfather of Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen, was an ice harvester.
“If you fell in, there was a group ready to grab you and haul you out,” said Becky Mitchell, executive director of the Becker County Historical Society.
Some old-timers are still around and a dozen were interviewed for a book the Historical Society has produced. There will be ice harvesting displays, artifacts and interactive exhibits at the city’s Pavilion.
After St. Paul organizers salvaged their palace plans for this year, they again approached Detroit Lakes about providing the ice. By then, the logistics of shipping 240 truckloads of ice in time had become untenable. St. Paul’s ice is being harvested on Green Lake in Spicer, Minn.
But Detroit Lakes does plan to ship one truckload of its ice to be included in construction of the St. Paul palace. Organizers say it will be both a symbol of the state’s embrace of winter and a gesture just to show, you know, that there are no hard feelings.
“They still want to say they got ice from Detroit Lakes, so we told them we would fill a trailer,” organizer Walz said.