Eagle River's Cool Castle

On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions, Travel Destinations
on January 6, 2002

Each winter, when Silver Lake freezes over in Eagle River, Wis., (pop. 1,443) local firefighters and other volunteers go to work, building a beautiful ice castle—a community tradition for nearly 70 years.

Over four or five days, about 35 volunteers cut 2,200 60-pound ice blocks from the frozen lake and haul them to a vacant downtown parking lot where they are fashioned into a cool structure next to the former Railroad Depot.

The castle is illuminated with colored floodlights at night and is a popular attraction for locals and visitors, motorists, and snowmobile riders until late February when warmer temperatures begin to melt the work of art.

“It’s big and pretty,” says Brea Kaczorowski, 9, of Shawano, Wis., who looks forward to a stop at the ice castle when she’s in town to visit with her grandmother.

The tradition of a community ice castle in Eagle River dates back to the 1930s. At the time, ice was purchased from the C. H. Hanke Ice Co. for the elaborate structures with multilevel parapets and obelisk shapes.

“From 1936 until 1942, a Chicago architect, F.W. Janusch, who had a summer home in Eagle River designed the ice castles,” says Jim Bonson, an Eagle River Historical Society member and longtime fire department volunteer.

World War II temporarily interrupted the tradition, which returned in 1948 when an ice castle appeared on the lawn of Charles Hanke.

The local Lions Club spearheaded the project until it became too demanding for a small group. In 1988, the Eagle River Fire Department took over the responsibility of building the ice castles.

John “Jack” Thomas, a volunteer firefighter for four decades, has designed the castle for the last 14 years. “Without Jack Thomas, the ice castle might be in question as to whether it would be built or not,” says another volunteer, Yukon Jack.

“I try to do something different each year,” explains Thomas, who uses Lego blocks to try to visualize what the full-size castle will look like. “The location has a lot to do with the design. In the past we had it backed up against trees, but now it’s got to be visible from all sides.”

“I probably work on it for a month to six weeks, trying to figure out how many blocks we have to have because that is the first thing they ask me when they start cutting ice,” Thomas adds, mentioning that some designs were built with up to 2,800 blocks.

Volunteers begin by marking a field on the frozen lake and scoring the ice blocks deeply with an oversized circular saw. The next day rectangular blocks that don’t break free are sawed free, removed from the lake, and shaved to an equal thickness of 10 inches.

“Once we start to take the ice out, we have to get it all out in that day or it could change shape, depending on the weather,” says Fire Chief Pat Weber.

Volunteers still use some of the equipment used in the 1930s, including an ice saw that C. H. Hanke, Thomas’ grandfather, used when he had an ice route in the area. In the past, volunteers jacked up a Model A Ford, using the rear wheel to turn the conveyor to get ice blocks from the lake into pickup trucks. Nowadays, they connect hoses from a wood splitter to power a hydraulic motor that runs the conveyor. Six or seven trucks haul the ice blocks downtown. Local businesses donate pickup trucks for the day.

Construction of the ice castle takes two to three days. “The big thing is the base. You have to get the walls square and straight. It takes a lot of patience,” Yukon Jack explains. Ice blocks freeze to each other, providing “glue” for the structure.

“Many local businesses can’t come down and help so they provide meals, cocoa, and snacks for the volunteers,” Weber says. “It’s a total community involvement.”