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Ice castle makes Stillwater a 'beautiful snow globe'

Crews on Wednesday, Dec. 7 begin spraying ice and installing icicles to create a large ice castle in downtown Stillwater. Ice Castles LLC, which previously built in Eden Prairie and at the Mall of America, is building on an acre of city-owned land in Lowell Park. The lighted ice castle is expected to be open from late December to March 2017, weather permitting. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

STILLWATER — Turns out it takes 16 hours to transform downtown Stillwater into a winter wonderland.

Crews building a gigantic ice castle in Lowell Park switched on sprayers about 3 p.m. Tuesday to begin the freezing process. By the time Ice Castles LLC site manager Blake Hawbaker reported to work at 7 a.m. Wednesday, a solid ice foundation was underway.

"I'm OK with this," Hawbaker said as he surveyed the site near the St. Croix River. "There are some things that are going to require some pretty heavy attention, but for the most part we did pretty good. It's our first day running water, so we let the sprayers run for most of the day to build as big of an ice space as possible."

Water lines, posts and lights were installed last week, but crews had to wait until Tuesday afternoon to begin making ice, because they need seven days of freezing temperatures.

It will take crews about 3 1/2 weeks to build the structure. Hawbaker expects it will open for tours around New Year's Day and remain open until March.

The site, on an acre of land just north of the Stillwater Lift Bridge, comes with challenges. It's surrounded by the river, the Lowell Park gazebo, a city parking lot, pine trees and a road. Last year's site in Eden Prairie was much larger and had more open space, he said.

"Here, we need to protect the (Lowell Park) gazebo," Hawbaker said. "We need to keep this parking lot clear, which we did a pretty good job of the first night, and we need to manage the wind. The wind was challenging in Eden Prairie, but we had a lot more space."

Hawbaker, 27, of Minneapolis is a specialist in ice architecture. This is his fifth year building ice castles in Minnesota, and his fourth as site manager.

He said he got his first ice castle job in 2012 by answering an ad he found on the Craigslist website. "It said, 'Help build the ice castle at the Mall of America, $12/hr,'" he said.

Hawbaker, who grew up in North St. Paul, had previously worked a series of odd jobs, including fisherman in Alaska, sugar-beet factory worker, Jimmy John's deliveryman.

He now works for Ice Castles LLC for half the year and spends his summers putting on fireworks displays in Wisconsin. "It may be six or seven months out of the year, but it's definitely enough work for a full-time job," he said.

As soon as his crew of 13 people began reporting for work Wednesday morning, Hawbaker began making assignments.

"We need some guys spreading salt out in the parking lot, and we need that sand pile moved, like, ASAP, before it freezes," he said to his bundled-up crew members, who wore ice-gripping treads attached to the soles of their boots to navigate the treacherous terrain.

Eventually, his crew will grow to 20 to 25 employees. It will take about 20,000 man-hours to construct the ice castle, he said.

Many of the crew will be put to work making icicles — more than 500,000 of them are used to create the massive lighted ice structure that will feature walls about 15 feet thick.

"The first three days is a lot of trouble-shooting and planning and setup and letting the ice form so we can grow a good, solid, deep, hard base," he said. "Every time we turn on the water, we just know we're going to learn a lot the next morning — about where water is going, where the overspray is going, the things we're going to need to watch out for the rest of the season."

Hawbaker helped perfect a new icicle-making process last year: Water is frozen in dozens of 3-foot-long blue PVC pipes that hang vertically in rows. Crews then hoist the pipes and drop them into vats of hot water. When the icicles pop out of the pipes and float to the surface, crews harvest them to use for construction.

"The icicles are kind of our brick, and spray and slush is our mortar," Hawbaker said. "What we do is freeze them in place, and those form a structure to catch the water that we are spraying. Those icicles grow bigger and eventually we connect them together and they just grow layer by layer by layer."

Once construction is complete, crews will continue doing daily maintenance — about six hours a day of grooming and upkeep, Hawbaker said.

Ice Castles is paying the city of Stillwater about $10,000 for use of Lowell Park, parking lot usage and power, said City Administrator Tom McCarty. A portion of the fee structure is dependent on overall attendance at the ice castle and demand for city services, he said.

Moving to Stillwater this winter is serendipitous because it will coincide with Hockey Day Minnesota, which will be held in Stillwater on Jan. 21, said Robin Anthony, executive director of the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce. Hockey Day Minnesota is the annual celebration co-sponsored by the Minnesota Wild and Fox Sports North that includes high school, college and professional games. The Stillwater games will be played on an outdoor rink just north of the Ice Castle site.

Both events promise "a magical experience" for visitors to downtown Stillwater this winter, Anthony said.

"We are excited and proud to host the ice castles in our historic downtown Stillwater and hope to have it here for many years to come," she said.

Ice castles also will offer free field trips to schoolchildren in the Stillwater Area School District, Anthony said. "We just learned that more than 1,200 kids have already scheduled their educational Ice Castle tour," she said.

The site includes ice slides and tunnels to climb around on, so visitors are encouraged to wear snow pants, boots, warm coats, scarves, mittens and hats, said Amanda Roseth, director of event operations and a Woodbury resident.

"This is an ice castle; it's not indoors," she said. "To get the full experience, you're going to want to dress for a Minnesota winter."

The entrance fee is $6.95-$8.95 for children under 12, and $9.95-$12.95 for adults, depending on day and time. Tickets must be purchased in advance at icecastles.com.

Mayor Ted Kozlowski surveyed the scene Wednesday morning and was suitably impressed.

"It's incredible how much ice they can grow in a night," he said. "Last night I came down and there was no ice, nothing. You saw green grass.

"I've always wanted residents to feel like they're living in a beautiful snow globe."

Now, they are.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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