updated 1/4/2006 4:32:54 PM ET 2006-01-04T21:32:54

What follows is a n'ice story ... an ice story ...

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Each winter, volunteers, headed by the area firefighters, put in more than 700 hours to cut nearly 3,000, one-foot ice blocks from a local lake, haul them to downtown Eagle River, Wisconsin, and build a huge ice castle.

Eagle River's ice castle has become a popular attraction for motorists, snowmobilers, locals and visitors. Dozens of people stop each day to photograph the 20-foot high structure along Highway 45 North, in the middle of town.

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 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. It is now constructed annually, weather permitting, on the weekend closest to New Years, according to Pat Weber, Chief of the Eagle River area's Volunteer Fire Department.

The Eagle River Ice Castle 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, who plays 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, Thomas speculated, "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 left over, he began building the early structures."

Hanke may have begun modestly, but the ice castle has grown, developed and evolved ever since.

According to Thomas, the local Lions Club took over construction of the ice palace when the project became too big for a small group of individuals. Then, about ten years ago, the Eagle River Volunteer Fire Department took the mission 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 we're volunteer firemen -- to serve the community and the people of the area," he said with a smile.

With a different design each year, the ice palace gets "a little bigger and taller each time," Weber said. Thomas studies pictures of previous ice palaces and plans the general designs, Weber said.

"One design we won't repeat is the ice castle we built that had round towers," Weber said. 'It took a tremendous amount of time and effort to round off each ice block; and the volunteers told me in no uncertain terms that would be the last Ice Palace we'd build with anything round," he recalled.

The volunteers still use some of the original equipment, including an ice saw and the conveyor Hanke used to get the ice blocks from Silver Lake to the pickup truck.

According to Thomas, originally the volunteers jacked up a model A Ford and used the rear wheels to turn the conveyor. Today, that same conveyor is turned by the hydraulics from a wood splitter.

First, the ice is scored and cut on Eagle River's Silver Lake. Then, about 3000 blocks, 10 inches by 10 inches by 20 inches, are removed from the lake. Each weighs between 60 to 70 pounds. The ice blocks are trucked to the site, and the construction begins. Other than the conveyor, the work is all done by hand.

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.

A more recent photo shows a group of snowmobilers posed in front of the widespread walls of an ice castle, garnished by wreaths and a couple of fir trees.

In recent years, colored floodlights were added to illuminate the palace at night, and there are some spectacular color photos silhouetting people in front of the castle.

"I spent all of my growing up years on a resort ten miles or so out of town," a former Eagle River resident recently wrote to the Chamber of Commerce. "After I grew up and moved away, I enjoyed so much seeing the ice castle on the rare visits I could make. ...Last year's [ice palace was] ... stunning... it's such a special part of Eagle River's winters."

The ice palace is "one of the most photographed attractions in our area," says a Chamber of Commerce spokesperson.

"I'll bet there've been a million pictures taken of people in front of and around the ice palace," echoed Weber. "I wish I had stock in a film company."

There have been weddings, or post-wedding pictures, taken at the ice palace, too. Recently, a travel journalist, known for his first-person reports, asked to stay overnight at the castle to get the flavor for his story. But it is, after all, only a structure, with no inner chambers.

"It sure brings a lot of wonderful notoriety to the area," said Weber. "People just love it, and so do we."

In addition to all the volunteer time, costs involved erecting the ice castle including the need to upgrade and maintain the equipment, replace bulbs, pay for the gasoline, etc.," Weber said.

Many local businesses donate money, and support, providing breakfasts, lunches, cocoa, soups, sandwiches, and candy for the volunteers. There's also a donation box and descriptive information at the back of the structure for locals and visitors who want to show appreciation and support.

Depending on the weather, the Ice Castle normally stands until late February, when the remains are taken down.

"We want folks to visit our wonderful community, but it's a lot more than that," said Chamber of Commerce head, Conrad "Connie" Heeg on the castle's impact on Eagle River. "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's the community working as one -- and untold thousands of visitors can enjoy it,' Heeg said. "There are some things that money can't buy. And the Eagle River Ice Palace is one of them."

And Eagle River's Annual Ice Castle is only one special thing about Eagle River, which is also the official Snowmobile Capital of the world.

Special winter events in Eagle River include the annual World Championship Snowmobile Derby, the Annual Ride with the Champs, the annual Trig's Klondike Days Winter Family Festival and much more.

"And, if you believe it possible, there's still more to do in Eagle River in the winter," said Heeg of the Northwood's Children's Museum; the new International Snowmobile Hall of Fame and Museum; and the Fruit of the Woods Winery in nearby Three Lakes.

If that doesn't suit visitors then try some Cross Country Skiing, Snowshoe Making, or Outdoor Lore at the Trees For Tomorrow Nature Center, located right along the River in Eagle River.

"Of course," added Heeg, "after, or instead of winter activities, those who wish, can curl up in front of a cozy fire, bask in a whirlpool or sauna, enjoy a wondrous north woods Wisconsin meal, or sleep in a wonderful bed at one of Eagle River's fine resorts, bed and breakfasts, or motels. Or shop for candy, gifts, furniture or souvenirs. Or, just kick back and do nothing. After all, that's what a vacation getaway is for," he said.

For more information:
Eagle River Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center,
Telephone: 800-359-6315 or 715-479-6400


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