DL's Leonard Thielen--Adam Thielen's grandpa--recounts his days as an ice harvester
Since early January, there have been two big storylines dominating local headlines and dinner table conversations in Detroit Lakes: One is the first ice harvest in nearly 50 years from Detroit Lake to be used for an ice palace on the city beach; the other, of course, is the fact that Detroit Lakes native Adam Thielen and his Minnesota Vikings are vying to be the first football team in NFL history to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.
But did you know that there's a link between the two? Leonard Thielen, Adam's grandfather, was one of the hundreds of local men who used to spend their winters slinging ice cakes harvested from local lakes into railroad boxcars for shipment out west.
Thielen, who is now 90 years old, was a native of Callaway. He spent eight years in his teens and 20s working for the Addison-Miller Company, one of two local companies that made bank harvesting ice from Big Detroit Lake, near where the Holiday Inn now sits.
"I started in the fall of 1948," he said. "I was looking for a job, and jobs were pretty scarce back then, so when I saw a job open working at the ice works, I applied.
"It was cold, and it was hard work, but I wasn't afraid of that," he added. "I was used to it. Growing up on my parents' farm, we all had to work hard. It didn't bother me a bit."
Thielen and his fellow workers would use large tongs to grab the ice cakes as they came off the tramway from the lake, then sling them toward the back of the boxcar.
"When they (the ice cakes) came down the chute from the tramway, I would grab them with the tongs and move them so they wouldn't hit the door, then we could slide them all the way to the back of the car," Thielen said, noting that each cake weighed around 400 pounds. "Early in the season, we could stack them two rows high, but later they would get so thick we could only put them in one row high because they'd get too heavy. The boxcars back then could only hold about 40,000 pounds, max.
"We'd do that every day for about two months," he said. "Then I'd take the train out to Helena, Montana, and spend another couple of weeks working on the ice harvest out there."
Thielen added that there were four men working in each boxcar, and they often ended up being the same men from year to year.
"We visited with each other all the time, about anything and everything," he said, "and in between loads we would visit with some of the other guys. I knew the whole crew up there. We got to be pretty good friends. We didn't see much of the lake crews (the men who would cut and push the ice cakes up onto the tramway) though."
Thielen said his company, Addison-Miller, was the bigger of the two ice companies operating out of Detroit Lakes at the time; the other, the Fargo-Detroit Ice Works, mainly served residential and commercial clients between Detroit Lakes and Fargo, while Addison-Miller would "put up ice" for shipment "from here to Minneapolis and all the way out to Spokane (Washington)."
Though Detroit Lake was known for its crystal clear ice, many of the cakes would get broken or damaged as they were pulled from the water or during transit along the tramway, and would end up in a "cripple pile" of rejects.
"There were a lot of different reasons they'd end up in the cripple pile," Thielen said. "It would get so high sometimes that the ice hadn't all melted by the Fourth of July."
He added that the ice cakes coming off the lake would also get about two inches shaved off the top, to remove imperfections.
"It was just nice, clear ice that would end up in the cars," he said, because it would have to be pure enough to be used for drinking water.
In the early years, the company would provide housing and three meals a day for its workers, free of charge, Thielen added. "They had bunkhouses there, and I stayed right at the camp for the first year," he said. "After that I decided I would go back to Callaway each day, to help out my parents on the farm."
He remembers how he would park his car in front of the bunkhouse each night, and sometimes when he came back out in the morning, "it was completely covered in snow."
When Thielen started, the job only paid an average of $1 per day; when the men went on strike and demanded a dollar an hour for their work, the company agreed — but that was the end of the free room and board, he added.
"After we started earning some good money, they (the company) decided they wanted some of it back again," he joked — so they started charging the workers for their meals and use of the bunkhouses.
Eventually, Thielen decided to go back to his parents' farm full-time, and stopped working for Addison-Miller — but he left with a lot of good memories, "so many I just can't think of them all right now," he says.
"I was one of the few guys who had a camera, so I took a lot of pictures," Thielen added. "About three or four years ago I took a bunch of them over to the museum."
Some of those photos grace the pages of the new book, "Winter Harvest: A History of the Becker County Ice Industry," which was published in December. Thielen was also one of about a dozen former ice harvesters interviewed by author Pippi Mayfield for the book, which was commissioned by the Becker County Museum last spring to commemorate this January's ice harvest — the first to take place in Detroit Lakes since 1971.
Though Thielen was unable to get down and watch the harvest himself, he was happy to see all the interest in it from local residents, about 2,000 of whom came down to Little Detroit Lake to watch the proceedings last weekend.
"It was great for all the people who've never seen an ice harvest," he said.
Construction of the ice palace also began this week, with work slated for completion in time for the Grand Lighting Ceremony on Feb. 8 — which also marks the start of the community's Polar Fest celebration. For more information, please visit the website at polarfestdl.com/iceharvest.