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A frozen crop: Detroit Lake hosts first ice harvest in nearly 50 years

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The ice harvest out front of the Detroit Lakes Pavilion started on a cold one. A sundog could be seen hovering over the Wee Cut workers all afternoon as they extracted 500 pound ice cubes from Big Detroit Lakes one by one. Kaysey Price / Tribune2 / 2

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - It’s official: Detroit Lakes’ first ice harvest since the early 1970s is in the books.

A crew of nine men from Wee Kut Ice in Spicer, Minn., arrived late Thursday morning to begin the process of harvesting approximately 1,500 blocks of ice, to be used in the construction of a 30-foot-tall ice palace on the city beach. The Polar Fest Ice Palace is set to make its debut at a Grand Lighting Ceremony on Thursday Feb. 8 at 7 p.m. (which is also the first day of Polar Fest 2018).

A ribbon cutting ceremony for the ice harvest was held inside the Detroit Lakes Pavilion — a concession to the inhospitably windy, cold and snowy conditions outside — at 11 a.m. Thursday.

Despite the less-than-optimum weather, a large crowd gathered for the event — including a group of about 50 Frazee Elementary students, who at the time the ceremony was held, were touring the Becker County Museum’s Pavilion exhibit on the history of ice harvesting.

“We are so excited to bring this ice harvest to Detroit Lakes,” said Carrie Johnston, president of the Detroit Lakes Regional Chamber of Commerce, at the start of the ceremony.

“Some people have asked us, ‘Why (do this)?’” said Scott Walz, a member of the Detroit Lakes Ice Harvest Committee. “Well, why not? We have the history, we have the ice, and we certainly have the cold.”

Becky Mitchell, director of the Becker County Museum, talked a little about the history of ice harvesting in this region, and the men who harvested that ice — about a half-dozen or so of whom were present for Thursday’s ceremony.

“Some people have been grumbling about how cold it is (or this harvest). These guys did it every day, for months at a time,” she said. “No matter the weather, they had to get the job done.”.

Some of the guys who were part of the ice harvesting industry in Detroit Lakes during the 1940s-1960s shared their stories with those who came for Thursday’s festivities.

“That’s just how we did it,” said Audubon resident Charlie Strom as he watched the first blocks of ice being pulled out of LIttle Detroit Lake and onto the conveyor that would push them toward the beach, where a skid loader would move them toward the area where the ice palace will be built in the coming weeks. “Only the blocks would come down a little faster.”

Strom was employed by Addison-Miller, one of two ice companies that operated on Big and Little Detroit Lake during the first half of the 20th century — until the other company, Fargo-Detroit Ice Works, bought them out in 1958.

Detroit Lakes resident Arville Thompson, who first started working for Fargo-Detroit while he was still in high school, recalled one time when he and a couple other men were working on the “cripple pile” — which is where all of the ice blocks that were broken or damaged beyond the point of usability would end up.

“It was the last day of the harvest, and the temperature was 21 below,” Thompson recalled. “Up on the top of the cripple pile, the winds made it more like 30-35 below windchill. We had seven cars to fill, and my dad (who was the crew foreman at the time) said we’d be done in half an hour. It took us more than two (hours).

“When we stopped that day, we just dropped the tools and left them there, where they stayed until spring. It was really cold.”

“We would usually put out about 100 (railroad) cars of ice per day,” said Strom. “Watching this today is bringing back a lot of memories.”

Mike Lint, who along with partners Gideon Doty and Bruce Nelson formed Wee Kut Ice back in 1986, said there really is such a thing as it being too cold to harvest ice.

“We can harvest it, but on days like today, we can’t work too far ahead on cutting the ice, or the field will freeze by the time we start up again tomorrow,” Lint said on Thursday. “We only cut about 150 blocks today. We’ll probably start doing the rest right after dawn tomorrow (Friday).”

In all, about 1,500 blocks of ice will be cut, with each giant cube measuring about 22x42 inches and weighing 500-600 pounds apiece. A total of approximately 1,000 blocks will be used for the construction of “King Isbit’s Ice Palace,” according to lead artist Hans Gilsdorf, with the remainder to be used to make some ice sculptures, benches and tables around the structure, which will measure about 24 feet tall, 60 feet long, and 30 feet wide when finished.

“I have never worked with ice before,” Gilsdorf said during Thursday’s ceremonies, “except in a cooler, or to put ice cubes in my drink. These cubes are a lot bigger, and we’ll be using them to build a palace.

“This community is beyond awesome. The support we’ve had for this project has been phenomenal,” he added.

Lint said that the Wee Cut Ice crew, which besides himself and partners Nelson and Doty, also includes Tanner Nelson, Chase Johanson, Dan Caskey, Adam Braegelman and Luke Gilbertson, would most likely be finishing up the harvest on Saturday morning, Jan. 13. After that, construction of the ice palace will begin in earnest. For those who are interested in following the process, but can’t come down to the city beach to watch in person, a camera has been set up to provide a live web feed at www.polarfestdl.com/iceharvest. People can also view pictures and video clips on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (links are provided on the website as well).

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454
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