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Building An Ice Palace In Minnesota


For the first time, an ice palace is being built block by icy block on the banks of Detroit Lake in Detroit Lakes, Minn. In total, 1,500 ice blocks will be harvested from the lake, each weighing around 900 pounds. It's the first time ice has been harvested there in 47 years. Amy Stearns works for the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center, which is organizing the harvest. She joined us late last week from Detroit Lake, where the palace is being built, to tell us why they're doing this.

AMY STEARNS: Oh, yes. We are building a beautiful palace here in Detroit Lakes. And it's a gorgeous day here, actually. It's, like, 28 degrees.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Only someone from Minnesota could say it was beautiful at 20-some degrees, I have to say.


STEARNS: Well, it's sunny. The sun is reflecting off the lake. It is just glistening and gorgeous out. We're harvesting the ice because we have a long history here in Detroit Lakes of ice harvesting. It happened over the span of about 70, 80 years from the late 1800s up to 1971, '72 - that winter. And we decided to bring it back for the - there's some old ice harvesters who still live in town who just - you know, to celebrate that history that we have in our community and to make the palace.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did ice used to be harvested there? You say that there's some old ice harvesters in town. As someone who lives on the East Coast, fill me in (laughter).

STEARNS: Sure. So we have the - the Northern Pacific Railroad comes through Detroit Lakes. And back in the day, they harvested ice to go onto the railroad cars to use for refrigeration to transport food. Ice that was on these railroad cars went to Texas, Washington, all throughout the United States. There used to be a whole group of farmers and construction workers who had more seasonal-type jobs in the area. And then in the wintertime, to keep food on the table, they would harvest ice.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what does the ice palace look like now? Tell us what's in front of you.

STEARNS: Well, what I'm looking at right now is only about 4 and a half feet tall at the moment. But it is going to rise on up and be very, very tall. It's going to hit about 40 feet tall. And we're going to have spires on it, flags on it. It's going to be about 30 feet wide. And it is going to be gorgeous. The ice thickness this year has been exceptional because we've had some terribly cold weather, as you might have heard. So, in fact, you have to have 12 inches of ice to harvest ice. And this year, it was actually 25 inches on average.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I would like to talk to someone building that palace. Can you pass us over to someone there just to get a sense of what it takes?

STEARNS: Yes. I'll have you talk to Hans Gilsdorf. He's the artist who designed the palace. And he's been up in the air, scraping ice cubes just moments ago.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Great.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Hi. You must have cold hands (laughter).

GILSDORF: No, not really. Well, compared to when we were harvesting at minus 27 with winds at 45 miles an hour, this is comparatively quite balmy.


GILSDORF: And, you know, it's actually quite a workout.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Tell me a little bit about how you harvest ice.

GILSDORF: Well, we hired a company out of Spicer, Minn., to come up, and that's what they do professionally. And none of us have really worked with the ice before, especially myself. So we've been asking a lot of questions - and a lot of the old-timers that have harvested ice - to learn the process and how to work with ice. And we've mimicked a lot of their old ice-scraping tools by - myself - recreating them in my shop to recreate the ice-scraping tools. But now we're bringing in big cranes starting tomorrow - the 100-foot crane to start building this palace just block by block.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, it sounds like a lot of hard work - harder than you might have imagined.

GILSDORF: Not really. I mean, it's - yeah, it is. It's physical, but it's a lot of fun. We've got a great group of people out here - and just basically playing on the beach. It's like a big sandbox.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter) Can you pass me back to Amy, please?


STEARNS: Hey there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amy, thanks for coming back. So, obviously, the big day is coming up. Are you excited?

STEARNS: We are excited. We have our grand lighting on Thursday, Feb. 8, when the palace will be lit, and it will be beautiful. So we invite everyone to come. It's going to be wonderful.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amy Stearns of the Detroit Lakes Community and Cultural Center. And we also spoke to Hans Gilsdorf, who is helping to harvest the ice and has designed the palace. Thank you both very much.

STEARNS: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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