Union volunteers step ‘outside their element’ on ice palace job site

Dick Kentzelman, a retired Bricklayer, shaves down ice in Rice Park. Building Trades volunteers step out of their areas of expertise to construct the ice palace. “It’s out of the ordinary for anyone in the trades to be using a chainsaw on the job site,” longtime volunteer Terry Wong said.

The ice palace towering above Rice Park during the St. Paul Winter Carnival this year will be three times the size of any palace festivalgoers have seen in a decade. But for longtime volunteers building the super-sized palace, the challenges are familiar.

“The palaces I’ve worked on before were 25 feet high at most,” Bricklayers Local 1 business agent Terry Wong said during a break from work on the bustling job site last week. “They’ve been practice runs to get ready for this one. Everyone’s gotten used to the work.”

Wong and other volunteers from St. Paul Building Trades unions pitch in annually to build ice palaces during Winter Carnival. This year organizers hope a 4,000-block, 70-foot tall ice palace will lure visitors in town for the Super Bowl to downtown St. Paul.

Most of the work involves unloading, stacking and securing 500-pound blocks of ice, harvested earlier this month from a lake near Spicer, Minn.

Nearly all of the St. Paul Building Trades’ affiliate unions have pitched in on the project. Volunteers range from a first-year apprentice to a 72-year-old retiree.

Dick Kentzelman, a retired member of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1 from Osseo, said the project inspires a “sense of camaraderie” among tradespeople who volunteer.

“I get to meet people I’ve worked with over the years, and I’m meeting new people too,” said Kentzelman, who has volunteered in each of the last six years.

Wong, a Minneapolis resident, said working on the ice palace offers tradespeople a chance to “step outside their element.” The 500-pound bricks of ice aren’t always uniform. Their corners aren’t square. And they melt.

Terry Wong (R) watches an ice block take flight with other volunteers.

“We’ve made up different tools over the years to scratch the bricks down and take off layers, either a sawmill or by hand to adjust that inch or half inch when you need it,” Wong said. “As a bricklayer, we’d just pour cement or mud in between them, but we don’t have that luxury here.”

Safety is a priority on the job site, where Skid loaders scoot by carrying pallets of ice and cranes hoist massive blocks overhead.

Volunteers are reminded in a daily briefing to be cautious and aware of their surroundings. That message changes with the weather conditions.

“As it gets warmer, those blocks slide more as it gets wet,” Wong said. “You’re not going to get them to freeze together as quickly, and once the block gets moving it wants to keep moving. So you’ve got to be very careful you don’t set it right off the wall.”

Work on the ice palace continued through a stretch of sub-zero temperatures in the Twin Cities. Volunteers were reminded to dress in layers and warm up in trailers as often as possible.

“I will say that we’ve got some pretty tough cookies out here,” Wong said. “Everybody’s been just great.”

The challenges – and the long days outside in bitterly cold weather – aren’t without a payoff, though.

“It’s just been a good thing to see something go up – something you accomplished and something a lot of people will see,” Kentzelman said. “It brings a lot of enjoyment to people, and it’s a big deal not just to St. Paul, but to the state of Minnesota.”

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