History of the Ice Castle
Each winter, volunteers headed by the area firefighters, put in more than 700 “man hours” to cut nearly 3000 12-inch-thick ice blocks from a local lake, haul them to downtown Eagle River, Wisconsin, and build a huge ice palace. Eagle River’s Ice Palace has become a popular attraction for motorists, snowmobilers, locals and visitors, as dozens of people stop each day to photograph the 20-foot high structure along Highway 45 North.
The ice palace is a cool facade that is at once transparent and opaque, depending on the light, and it comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, different each year.
The ice castle has been “happening” in Eagle River on and off since the late 1920s, with a few years missed in the ’40s, probably due to World War II, and is now constructed annually, weather permitting, on the weekend closest to New Years, according to Pat Weber, chief of Eagle River area’s Volunteer Fire Department.
The Eagle River Ice Palace was originated by C.H. Hanke, who owned the Eagle River ice route way back when. Hanke’s grandson, Jack Thomas, a current fire department volunteer playing a large part in the ice castle’s construction, was two years old in a photo of the 1938 ice palace.
When asked how the ice palace got its start to, Thomas speculates, “there probably weren’t a lot of things to do in the winter back then; and, since my grandfather was cutting the ice anyway, and probably had some ice leftover, he began building the early structures.”
Hanke may have begun modestly, but the ice palace has grown, developed and evolved ever since.
According to Thomas, the local Lion’s Club took over construction of the ice palace when it became too big of a project for a small group of individuals. Then, about 10 years ago, the Eagle River volunteer Fire Department took over the project for the same reasons.
“It’s a wonderful project,” comments Fire Chief Weber. “We take pride in our community – and we do the ice castle for the same reasons were volunteer firemen – to serve the community and the people of the area,” he says.
With a different design each year, the ice palace gets “a little bigger and taller each time,” Weber notes. Weber says Thomas studies pictures of previous ice palaces and plans the general designs.
“One design we won’t repeat is the ice palace we build that had round towers,” says Weber with a smile. “It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to round off each ice block and the volunteers told me in the no uncertain terms that would be the last Ice Palace we’d build with anything round,” he remembers.
The volunteers still use some of the original equipment that Hanke used, including an ice saw and a conveyor system used to get the ice blocks from Silver Lake to the pickup truck.
According to Thomas, the volunteers used to jack up a model A Ford and use the rear wheel to turn the conveyor. Today, the same conveyor is turned by the hydraulics from a wooden splitter.
First, the ice is scored and cost on Eagle River’s Silver Lake. Then, over 2500 blocks of ice 10 x 10 x 20 inches are removed from the lake. The ice blocks are trucked to the site, and the construction work begins. And it is WORK! All done by hand! And although the number of blocks of varies with the structure, up to 3,000 of the 60-70 pound blocks are used each year.
A photo of the 1940 Ice Palace shows multi-level parapets, with American flags flying from one of the towers; a 1942 photo shows an obelisk-shaped ice castle sporting a ”V” and a red cross. Another photo, date unknown, shows a rounded structure, about 20-feet high, with windows and a door dummied in.
A more recent photo shows a group of snowmobilers posed in front of the wide spread walls of the ice palace that is garnished by wreaths and a couple of fir trees.
In recent years, colored floodlights have been added to illuminate the palace at night – 93 floodlights were used in 1997 – and photos silhouetting people in front of the ice castle are spectacular.
“I spent all of my growing up years on a resort ten miles or so out of town (Eagle River),” a former Eagle River resident wrote the Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center. “After I grew up and moved away, I enjoyed it so much seeing it on the rare visits I could make. Last year’s ice palace… was stunning… it’s such a special part of an Eagle River winter!”
The ice palace is “one of the most photographed attractions in our area,” says an Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center spokesperson. “I’ll bet there have been a million pictures taken of people in front of an around the ice palace,” echoes Weber. “I wish I had stock in Kodak,” he adds, smiling.
There have been weddings, or post wedding pictures, taken at the ice palace, too. Recently, a travel journalist, known for his first-hand reports, asked to stay overnight at the ice castle to get the “flavor” for his story.
“It sure brings a lot of wonderful notoriety to the area, adds Weber. “People just love it, and so do we.”
In addition to all of the volunteer time, costs involved with erecting the ice castle include the needed to upgrade and maintain the equipment, replace bulbs, pay for the gasoline, etc.” notes Weber.
Many local businesses donate money, as well as in-kind support, providing breakfasts, lunches, cocoa, soups, sandwiches, and candy for the volunteers. There is also a donation box and descriptive information at the back of the structure for locals and visitors who want to show their appreciation in support.
Depending on weather, the Ice Castle normally stands until late February, when the remains are taken down.
Eagle River Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Center Executive Director, Kim Emerson, mused about the Ice Palace’s impact on Eagle River.
“We want folks to visit our wonderful community, but it is a lot more than that: How can you measure the joy of wide-eyed kids and adults watching the ice being cut and hauled using the old equipment, and volunteers building this ice castle, by hand and then stepping back to see this huge, utterly beautiful, and artistic ice structure?
“The “feel” of the whole thing is special. It is the community working as one – and untold thousands of visitors can enjoy it,” notes Emerson.
“That credit card company is right when it states: “there are some things that money can’t buy”, says Emerson. “The Eagle River Ice Palace is one of them,” she concludes.