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Spicer's icy festival
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Gideon Doty is one of the ice cutters on Green Lake in Spicer. In the old days, ice-cutting was needed to make blocks for refrigeration. Today they use the same cold, wet process, but it's for artistic purposes. (MPR Photo/Tim Post)
The west central Minnesota town of Spicer kicks off its annual Winterfest this weekend. Every year, volunteers cut 100 tons of ice blocks from nearby Green Lake and stack them to build a structure.

Spicer, Minn. — Spicer is a small town snuggled next to Green Lake, about 10 miles north of Willmar. The lake is just a few blocks from Spicer's main street, a flat frozen lakescape for most of the winter. But with the town's annual Winterfest celebration comes an icy form of development.

In years past, volunteers have built up blocks of ice from the lake into castles. Last year they built an ice memorial to Sept. 11 victims. This year, volunteers will stack hundreds of heavy blocks of ice to make a maze in the shape of a snowflake. The festival's organizer, Jean Spaulding, says the maze will be a massive ice sculpture.

"It's going to be about 75 to 80 feet in length, and probably five, six feet in height. The walls are going to be lit on eight corners. The spokes of the snowflake will be lighted with colored lights," Spaulding says.

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Image A conveyor belt for ice blocks

A local high school student came up with the ice maze idea, and a local bricklayer planned out the the technical aspects of the construction. All that's left is to pull the blocks of ice out of Green Lake.

A group of local ice cutters use a huge circular saw to score a pattern in the ice. Then they use chainsaws and iron bars to break the ice into blocks. The crew needs ice at least a foot thick to make good blocks.

A few weeks ago, in the midst of above average temperatures, they wondered how sturdy their building materials would be. But the recent cold snap has built up almost two feet of ice. One of the ice-cutting crew, Gideon Doty, says they have plenty of ice to work with this year.

"Each block is going to be 22 inches by 44 inches, so basically like a cement block only it's bigger. Each block will weigh 500 to 600 pounds," Doty says.

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Image Chainsaws are essential equipment

That's more than even a few hearty Minnesota ice-cutters can lift. So once the blocks are cut, they're pulled out of the water by an antique ice conveyor. It's a piece of equipment that Doty's uncle built in the 1930s, and it still works perfectly today.

Cutting ice is Doty's blood. Relatives on both sides of his family did this for years. His grandfather and great uncles cut ice on Green Lake for local resorts, meat packing plants and the Great Northern Railroad. That was in the days before refrigeration, when ice-cutting was a business. The old timers would never have spent time building a maze with their work. Doty says the job is the same as it's always been, cold and wet. But building the maze is pretty simple.

"It's just like stacking bricks. Split your joints, and just stack them up. We don't use mortar, we'll take a torch and melt it a little bit and then they'll stick together," Doty says.

Once the festival is over, the massive ice maze won't just gracefully melt away. To make sure no one gets hurt by a 500-pound block of falling ice, crews will knock it down before warmer weather does the job.

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