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The one that came before: The Detroit Lakes Ice Castle of 27 years ago

Multicolored neon lights lit up the castle from the inside at night. Photo courtesy Becker County Museum1 / 5
The Detroit Lakes Ice Castle, seen here while under construction in the winter of 1989, was located in a parking lot just off Highway 10. Photo courtesy Becker County Museum2 / 5
The city's first ice castle, erected 27 years ago, featured two towers and two courtyards. The foundation was made entirely of 125-pound ice blocks, while the inner structure was supported by timber beams. Photo courtesy Becker County Museum3 / 5
Randy Wyman, top, and crew members Mark Schmit, left, and Rex Vaughn work to erect a 20-foot beam inside the inner structure of the Detroit Lakes Ice Castle. Photo from a January 1990 Lake Area Press 4 / 5
Rex Vaughn cuts blocks of ice out of Detroit Lake for the 1990 Detroit Lakes Ice Castle. Photo from a January 1990 Detroit Lakes Tribune 5 / 5

With all the excitement over the opening of King Isbit's Ice Palace, it might interest some people to know that this isn't the first time Detroit Lakes has had an ice castle in its midst.

Longtime Lakers might remember it—a two-towered, 20-foot-tall structure that was lit up at night with pink and yellow neon. Constructed over the winter of 1989 and '90, it was located on the east end of what was the County Market parking lot, visible from Highway 10.

Like the ice palace of today, the Detroit Lakes Ice Castle of 27 years ago was built out of ice blocks harvested from Detroit Lake. It was a smaller harvest than the one of this winter, with considerably smaller blocks (about 135 pounds compared to the 600-pounders of today), but the same kind of olden-days harvesting equipment was used. Then, as now, organizers wanted to keep the spirit of the community's ice harvesting history alive.

Old newspaper articles reveal that the ice castle was dreamed up and created by Randy Wyman, who was a landscaper and developer in Detroit Lakes at the time. Wyman consulted with project leaders from the St. Paul Ice Palace on the local castle's design and construction, and then worked with a crew of about 12 men, along with community volunteers, to erect the structure. It was fashioned after the 1886 St. Paul Ice Palace, but on a much smaller scale.

"Looking at the St. Paul palace is truly an incentive to build this project," Wyman stated in the Dec. 23, 1989 Lake Area Press. "I'm doing something no one's done before in Detroit Lakes. I project that 20,000 people will see the ice castle as they drive through town and say, 'Hey, Detroit Lakes is doing something nice.'"

Wyman was a Detroit Lakes resident for years but now lives and works on the Oregon coast. He regularly travels back to Detroit Lakes to visit his kids, who still live here. He remembers the ice castle project well.

"It was a promotional thing on my side, for my business, and at the same time I wanted to do something fun and exciting for Detroit Lakes," he recalled in a phone interview last week. "It was an extremely fun project. I enjoyed the heck out of it. We researched it, and we did a lot of work to make it happen, to bring it to fruition. The local community pitched in; they thought it was a fun deal, and we got lots of national recognition, and that helped Detroit Lakes."

Wyman said he was inspired to build the castle after reading an article about the ice harvests that used to take place on Detroit Lake. He respected the process and tried to stay true to it while harvesting ice for the castle.

"We hauled ice from the lake after cutting it out with steel chainsaws," he said. "We put the cakes on a sled and pulled that... We did everything by the era."

Local businesses and the Detroit Lakes Jaycees donated funds for the project. Wyman said Swanson's Repair was especially instrumental, helping the crew secure a 36-inch-bar chainsaw to cut through the ice on the lake. That chainsaw was the one modern piece of equipment they used in their harvest.

In all, it took about three months to get the castle up, from start to finish. There were a couple months of planning, and then the actual construction took about two weeks. It was 20 feet tall, 25 feet long and 15 feet wide, with two towers and two courtyards. Solid ice blocks formed the foundation, while a 20-foot timber beam supported the inner structure, a cupola. A snow and water slush was used like mortar between the blocks.

The castle stood for two weeks, with a warming house just outside of it. It wasn't a "touring facility," Wyman said, as people couldn't go inside it, for safety reasons, but "people loved it"—especially at night, when it was all lit up.

The weather was unusually warm that winter, and two weeks of sunshine took its toll on the castle. Wyman said the sun heated up seaweed trapped inside the ice blocks, creating bubbles that would expand and freeze, expand and freeze, weakening the ice. The castle had to be demolished before it became unsafe.

Looking back on the project now, Wyman said he's proud of what he and the community accomplished.

"It was nothing huge, it was just a small one," he said of the castle. "But it did happen. And it was a lot of fun."

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune as a reporter and magazine editor in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in Detroit Lakes with her husband, Dan, their 3-year-old son and baby daughter, and their yellow Lab.

(218) 844-1452
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