Trades volunteers build Royal Courtyard for Winter Carnival

Cutting, pushing, lifting and setting heavy blocks for eight to ten hours a day in the cold - and having fun doing it - over 50 Minnesota building trades volunteers harvested ice and built the Royal Courtyard for the 2015 St. Paul Winter Carnival.

The work began on Saturday, Jan. 17, when the workers harvested 1,000 blocks from Lake Phalen in St. Paul.  They used power rotary and chain saws to cut the blocks, as well as trucks to haul the ice. 

The workers also used long hooked poles, pry bars and an 80-year-old conveyor lift to get the ice out of the lake, the same basic techniques used for more than a century, according to Brandon Nelson of Wee Kut Ice Company, the family-owned business that specializes in extracting lake ice and building structures with the blocks.

Workers said they had fun with the unique challenges of handling and building with ice.  "This is an unusual project, cutting ice, and I thought it would be a good challenge, a good experience," said Russell Beaver, Carpenters Local 322.  

The blocks varied in thickness and structural strength, depending on where and how they froze in the lake, so fitting them together required "having your head in the game," observed Troy Sevion, Ironworkers Local 512, and he joked that the welding torch he uses on his regular job was not an option.  

Flame was used in the construction. Veteran ice castle builder Dick Kentzelman, retired member of Bricklayers Local 1 explained,  "As we're putting the blocks together, we have a torch to melt them together as much as we can.  And then, over a period of time with warmer weather, like today in the upper 30s, they're melting together to make the walls strong." 

One bonus to the project was the camaraderie of working together. "This is fun because you meet so many people from the different trades. You find out a little bit about what they do, but you also find out about the people," reflected IBEW 110 electrician Rick Bieniek. He perfected the art of sliding blocks across the ice to passing Bobcats that loaded them onto trucks.

Jim Brown, retired Local 322 Carpenter, who coordinated the ice harvest, is a Winter Carnival construction veteran, working on every structure since 1986. He appreciated the skills of the union volunteers. 

"They know what they're doing, they've all been safety trained, they know what each other is capable of. They know all the steps to make, so it always helps it to go really quick, really good.  The flow is really nice." 

Trucks from Xcel Energy hauled the blocks to Rice Park in downtown St. Paul, where building the walls began at noon Saturday and continued through Thursday, Jan. 22. All of the equipment and materials were donated by local contractors.

Union workers came from throughout the metro area and were coordinated by the St. Paul Building and Construction Trades Council. Tom McCarthy. business manager, Plumbers Local 34, estimated that the volunteers would put in around 2,500 hours by the time the courtyard and fixtures were completed. 

"We've never had a shortage of volunteers," declared Kentzelman, who coordinated the construction work with McCarthy.

Trades workers like Troy Sevion were excited to work on an attraction so many visitors would see. Sion hoped it would encourage young people to consider joining the trades. 

"It'd be nice if the kids get down here and actually see that the building trades are a great place to end up. They can earn a very good living and benefits for their family and it's a great career."

Kristine Szczech hung cords and lights around the courtyard. She is embarking on a second career, finishing her electrical technology courses at St. Paul Technical College and planning to apply for the IBEW 110 apprenticeship program,   

"I was super impressed by the professionalism of all of the trades people, how they took a lot of pride in their craftsmanship and wanted everything to be perfect. They were aware that many families take a lot of time to come and visit the courtyard and they wanted them to have the best possible experience and see the best possible building."

"You feel you're being part of something that's good for the community," concluded Brown.

A large ice palace is being planned in connection with the 2018 Twin Cities Super Bowl festivities. This year's Royal Courtyard, as well as ice castles during the next few years, are being built to hone skills for the 2018 structure. The practice will come in handy. Tom McCarthy remembers that the 2004 ice castle took 9,000 blocks and six weeks to build.

Judging by the ice structures of 2015 and the many years before, the trades will be willing and able to pull off an impressive large-scale castle in 2018.

Reprinted from

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