Exploring the winters of Wayzata’s past

Historical society program investigates ice boating, ice harvesting and the city’s ice carnivals

Bob Gasch, a member of the Wayzata Historical Society, shows off some of the ice-harvesting tools once used on Lake Minnetonka. Guests were invited to city hall April 6 for a program exploring the winters of Wayzata’s past. (Sun Sailor photo by Jason Jenkins)
Bob Gasch, a member of the Wayzata Historical Society, shows off some of the ice-harvesting tools once used on Lake Minnetonka. Guests were invited to city hall April 6 for a program exploring the winters of Wayzata’s past. (Sun Sailor photo by Jason Jenkins)

It may be springtime, but for an hour inside Wayzata City Hall April 6, winter was the season that was on everyone’s mind.

The Wayzata Historical Society invited residents to take a look back in time with its latest program, “100 years of Winter Celebrations.”

Bob Gasch, historical society member, led off the evening with a look back on the once-popular Lake Minnetonka activity of ice boating.

The sport, which became popular in Minnesota in the 1890s, was brought from New York, where ice boating regattas had been a pastime on the Hudson River for decades.

On Lake Minnetonka, it wasn’t long before local residents like Ward Burton of Deephaven were pushing the limits of the sport. Burton and his boat, which he named the Zero, once cruised the five miles from Gideon Bay to Wayzata Bay in under four minutes at an average speed of 80 miles per hour.

“It is said that his top speed as she shot past Big Island was 105 miles per hour,” Gasch said. “Now, this was done before the Wright Brothers were flying airplanes.”

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The sport was grew in popularity on the lake thanks to the Minnetonka Ice Yacht Club, which was built in 1899, but burned a few years later in 1904. The club, which grew to 167 members, regularly hosted regattas and included many notable names from around the lake.

While the sport of ice boating can still be found on the lake today – with much lighter and smaller boats – it’s not nearly as popular as it once was a century ago, due partly to the type in winter weather experienced back then.

“In those days, the snow came in late February and March. So, from Thanksgiving through January, you had pretty much clear lake and the light bits of snow would blow to the shoreline,” Gasch said.

Ice harvesting

Turning the conversation toward ice harvesting, a necessity of life 100 years ago, was Historical Society President Joanie Holst.

In Wayzata, residents harvested ice to stock the village’s ice house and surrounding ice houses on the lake. The Peoples Ice Company of St. Paul also contracted workers from around Lake Minnetonka to harvest ice at a rate of around $1.75 for 10 hours of work.

“It was hard, hard work,” Holst said.

The harvest season would last around 30-60 days and began when the ice was at least 14 inches thick to support the horses, wagons and many workers.

Once the ice was cleared of any snow, the ice was scored in a checkerboard pattern using a plow pulled by a horse, Holst said. The ice would then be cut with a large saw and floated to where it could be pulled from the water. The blocks, some of which weighed 400 pounds, were then put on horse-drawn wagons to be taken to Wayzata’s ice house or loaded onto a train and shipped to Minneapolis and St. Paul.

An ice harvester maneuvers an ice block off a motor-powered conveyor belt. Ice harvesting was a major winter industry on Lake Minnetonka from 1906 until around 1922, when electric refrigerators became widely available and more affordable. (Submitted photo)
An ice harvester maneuvers an ice block off a motor-powered conveyor belt. Ice harvesting was a major winter industry on Lake Minnetonka from 1906 until around 1922, when electric refrigerators became widely available and more affordable. (Submitted photo)

“Ice harvesting is documented to be the leading winter industry from 1906 to 1922. Today, if the ice industry was still happening, it would be a $600 million enterprise,” Holst said.

Around town, ice was delivered to homes via wagon and horse, and icemen muscled blocks of ice into homes using large iron tongs.

“There was a lot of manpower involved in each step of this operation,” Holst said.

Wayzata’s ice house was among several buildings destroyed in a large fire in 1926, which was around the time electric refrigerators were becoming more affordable.

Wintertime fun

As is the case today with Wayzata’s annual Chilly Open, community festivals on Lake Minnetonka weren’t exclusively summertime events.

In 1915, an ice carnival attracted around 400 people to huddle up by bonfires and watch ice skating races.

“The prizes were pocketknives, hair ribbons and homemade candy,” said Sue Sorrentino, historical society board member.

In 1917, a much larger winter carnival was organized. The event, called “Wayzata, A Sizzler,” included the construction of a 73-foot-tall, 392-foot-long toboggan slide. The large wooden structure, built just west of the Boatworks building, sent kids down and out onto the lake one after the other.

The carnival was on a Saturday in late January and featured a full day of activities for all ages, including a relay skating race, ski race, snowshoe race, toboggan contest, the crowning of an ice king and queen and a hockey game between Wayzata and Deephaven, which Deephaven won 6-1. One of the main events for the carnival was a show from champion figure skater Minnie Cummings of Excelsior.

The Batson siblings prepare for a toboggan ride down a hill in the 1910s at their farm in Wayzata. From left, Philip, Cynthia and Tom. (Submitted photo)
The Batson siblings prepare for a toboggan ride down a hill in the 1910s at their farm in Wayzata. From left, Philip, Cynthia and Tom. (Submitted photo)

When the village of Wayzata wasn’t hosting ice carnivals, residents took sleigh rides, first as a means of transportation and then for socializing when cars become common in the 1920s.

Children could often be found riding their toboggans down Broadway Avenue, which was then a gravel road left unplowed in the winter, and out onto the lake. Hats, mittens and scarves marked who had slid the farthest.

According to local lore, the most fearless of tobogganers would slide under parked train cars.

“And yeah, there were accidents,” Sorrentino said, citing a story from Deanne Straka who, when she was 9 years old, veered off a sidewalk and into a house while tobogganing in the 1950s. The crash knocked Straka unconscious and left her with a gash.

“She has no scar from it, but she said ‘Yeah, my mom didn’t let me forget that for like 10 winters afterward,’” Sorrentino said.

These days, sledding is kept off the streets and ice skaters can be found at Klapprich Park, taking full advantage of the cold weather until spring rolls around.

Contact Jason Jenkins at [email protected]