Friends have been cutting ice, building castles since ‘87

One by one, the mammoth blocks of crystal-clear ice slide off the conveyor of an antiquated ice harvesting machine and are pushed to the side of Green Lake in Spicer using Bobcats.

Volunteers constructing the castle in Spicer in January. Photo by Scott Thoma

As if by magic, each block begins to take on a blueish-colored tint as the sun penetrates the ice. From there, a crane operator grabs a block and maneuvers it into position with the help of others.

Methodically, the blocks begin to take shape, and within hours, a large ice castle creatively emerges on Saulsbury Beach for Spicer’s Winter Fest celebration in mid-January. The entire operation from start to finish takes only three days.

Gideon Doty, Bruce Nelson and Mike Lint have combined their longtime friendship into an ice cutting company in New London that cuts and harvests the blocks for festivities and castles.

“The first year we cut the blocks and built the castle in Spicer, cars were lined up and down the street to see it,” said Doty.

“We were told that there were 100 cars an hour going through here that first year,” noted Lint.

Because of the enthusiastic response to the castle, the three men had 20 volunteers to assist them the first day, then 30 on the second day and 40 for the third day.

The three men also recalled television stations coming to town to broadcast segments pertaining to the castle.

“There were helicopters flying overhead, too,” said Doty. “It was kind of a big deal.”

The ice castle in Spicer takes shape in early January. Photo by Scott Thoma

The Spicer Ice Castle still draws many visitors each year, especially for the lighting ceremony on the weekend of Spicer’s Winter Fest.

The design of the castle changes from year to year to give viewers a different perspective. The front of the castle this year has large 2019 numbers carved in the front.

This year, there was also a skating rink built directly in front of the castle and an ice bar behind it, where drinks were served. Other years have seen a hot tub behind the castle and an ice slide.

The castle returned last year after a two-year hiatus due to mild winters that didn’t create thick enough ice.

Doty, 59; Nelson, 58; and Lint, 54; are all from the New London and Spicer areas.

They started cutting ice in 1987 after a trip to the St. Paul Winter Carnival, where they viewed the large ice castle that had been built there in 1986.

“We told each other, ‘Hey, we can do that,’” Doty said. “So we all sat down and figured things out. We even drew a design of the castle on a napkin. And now here we are.”

Mike Lint, Bruce Nelson and Gideon Doty, take a break while the castle is being constructed behind them on Green Lake. The three have been cutting ice together since 1987. Photo by Scott Thoma

The three have been cutting and harvesting ice blocks ever since. Visitors flock in to watch the work unfold on Green Lake, while also taking a step back into yesteryear when ice was cut from frozen lakes to be used for refrigeration.

There was little investment to the beginning of the operation.

Doty was in possession of the ice-harvesting conveyor that was previously used from 1931-71 by his uncle, Carl Engwall, to cut ice to sell commercially for refrigeration.

Lint previously owned and operated West Central Bait and Fisheries and already had the ice saw that he used for cutting into the frozen lakes to harvest minnows for his business.

 “We built the machine with the ice saw we now use for cutting the blocks from scratch,” Doty said.

The machine looks like a miniature Zamboni with an oversized, 100-year-old circular blade cutting through the ice like butter.

“The dirtier the ice, the harder it is on the blade,” said Nelson. “So we have to keep it sharpened.”

Blocks of ice are run down an 88-year-old conveyor formerly used when ice was harvested for refrigeration purposes. Photo by Scott Thoma

The ice on Green Lake is much clearer than most lakes. And for that reason, their business (called Wee Cut Ice Co.) was chosen last year to harvest 21,000 blocks of ice from Green Lake for the St. Paul Winter Carnival in Rice Park, in conjunction with the Super Bowl that U.S. Bank Stadium hosted.

“They wanted the clear ice from Green Lake because it would look so much better with all the people coming in for the Super Bowl,” said Nelson.

“The ice is so clear because of the density of the water in Green Lake,” noted Doty.

Providing the ice for such a big event as the Super Bowl would be good publicity for the communities of New London and Spicer, as well as their own operation, the men figured. So they decided to take on the job.

Unfortunately, there was little or no mention of the towns or the company during Twin Cities broadcasts throughout the Winter Carnival.

The blocks, which took 60 semi-trailer loads to haul to St. Paul, were used for the 70-foot lighted castle, as well for the magnificent ice sculptures that were showcased in St. Paul and around U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Prior to cutting ice on Green Lake, the trio recently cut ice near Detroit Lakes. The difference in the blocks was like night and day.

“They were much dirtier and darker than in Green Lake,” Nelson said. “And some of them had seaweed in them.”

Chainsaws are also used in the cutting process. Photo by Scott Thoma

And last year, while cutting in the same Detroit Lakes area, the men endured 27 below temperatures to complete the job.

Although they have cut and harvested blocks of ice for smaller castles over the years, they mainly operate now for the enjoyment of the Spicer Ice Castle.

A crew of 20 volunteers assisted the men this year in harvesting the ice. Although they originally constructed the first few castles, Doty, Nelson and Lint have relinquished that duty to other volunteers now.

The three owners volunteer their time for cutting the ice blocks for the Spicer castle but are reimbursed for expenses.

“We get a pleasure out of seeing others enjoy the castle,” Doty said. “That’s why we do this.”

“Yeah, it’s for the people,” Lint echoed.

“It’s for the satisfaction,” said Nelson. “No one else cuts ice like this anymore.”

Cutting ice is more like a hobby for these three personable gentlemen; each periodically stopping what they are doing to talk and explain the operation to the many visitors on hand.

The art of cutting

The origin of cutting ice blocks is a thing of the past. Before there was electricity, the blocks of ice were used for residential and commercial refrigeration. Trains would load the blocks of ice in refrigerator cars to haul to various towns.

The way the guys harvest the ice now is similar to years gone by; only now for a different reason.

The old equipment smoothly transfers the large (and heavy) pieces of ice. Photo by Scott Thoma

After clearing snow away from a 50 x 100 -foot area of Green Lake that the men felt would produce quality blocks of ice, they began measuring for the blocks, which are 22 x 44 inches and weigh between 500-600 pounds each.

“We need at least 12 inches to make the blocks,” said Doty. “But ideally, we like about 15 inches.”

Once the blocks are cut, they are pushed to the conveyor by volunteers using long-handled pokers. 

Aside from cutting blocks for castles and festivities over the years, they also cut openings in lakes for five Polar Plunges each winter.

To cut and harvest the 600-plus blocks (several get damaged in transition) for the Spicer Ice Castle, the 20-man crew works from sunup to sunrise over the course of three days. The castle is built in one day.

The ice-cutting business wasn’t started for the three men to get rich. They each have regular jobs. Doty works road construction, Lint owns Crow River Woodworking, and Nelson is the facility manager at Green Lake Bible Camp.

“Besides, summers are a little slow for us,” Nelson wisecracked about their ice-cutting business.