Melting Point: Chronicling Ice-Out on White Bear Lake

The tradition of chronicling ice-out dates on White Bear Lake.
Earl Poyerd and Jan Holtz Kraemer.

In a community where life often seems to revolve around “the lake,” one of the most anticipated and talked about annual events is the spring ice-out. So it’s not surprising that chronicling the annual demise of the wintertime ice sheet has been one of White Bear Lake’s longest shared traditions.

People have been keeping track of the ice-out date since the 19th century, according to current chronicler Jan Holtz Kraemer, a lifelong White Bear Lake resident. The first to start keeping an ice-out ledger was the late John E. Johnson, owner of the Johnson Boatworks. In 1928, 14-year-old Benny Schmalzbauer took over the task (he bought a barbershop in 1936) and continued until 1999.

Holtz Kraemer was Schmalzbauer’s neighbor on Lake Avenue. In 1994, with Schmalzbauer nearing the end of his life, she became concerned about keeping this tradition going. “I went to Benny and asked him, ‘Who’s going to do it when you don’t want to?’ ” Holtz Kraemer recalls. “He asked me if I wanted to do it, and I said, ‘Heavens, no, I’ll do it with you.’ So we did it together for eight years and had a lot of fun.”

By definition, the ice is officially “out” when a boat can travel across the lake, shore to shore, without encountering any ice (not counting the piles of ice the wind pushes and stacks up along the shore).

The deepest parts of the lake, near Mahtomedi and Dellwood, are “always where the last ice is,” Holtz Kraemer notes. Temperature and sunshine aren’t the only variables in the process; wind and rain can also dramatically accelerate the melt rate.

Each year, once the ice goes out, Holtz Kraemer has a list of people to notify. One of them is Kenton Stewart, a professor in the department of biological sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo, who has made a career of studying lake ice, including the Great Lakes. Another is Minnesota’s state climatologist, Greg Spoden. She also has a standing request to call KSTP talk-radio host Joe Soucheray, who grew up on the lake. “They always put me on the air right away,” says Holtz Kraemer, who lives on the north side of the lake.

Two years ago, the record for earliest ice-out was set on March 19, 2012, at the end of one of the warmest winters in Minnesota history. The record for latest ice-out was set on May 4, 1950. That mark was endangered by the unusually chilly spring of 2013, when the ice finally acquiesced on Wednesday, May 1.

Earl Poyerd, who bought Benny’s Barber Shop in 1996, has taken over the job of keeping a public “ledger,” a list of dates that hangs on a wall in the shop.

Every year, as spring approaches, the ice-out date becomes one of the prime topics of barbershop banter, “with everybody trying to guess when it will go out,” Poyerd says. Betting on the date is also a longstanding, community-wide tradition—not on a large, public scale akin to a lottery, since that would be illegal—but in informal groups. “People have their own [wagering] deal going; a lot of it is within families,” Poyerd says.

For example, Holtz Kraemer’s family has had a 27-person annual pool since her father, Edward Holtz, started it several decades ago. Everybody pays in $1 and the winner takes the pot. Jan doesn’t participate, to avoid any appearance of conflict of interest.

As executive director of the White Bear Lake Area Historical Society, Sara Markoe Hanson also has a special interest in the annual chronicling of ice-out, noting the area’s historic propensity for chronicling activities. “Whether it be a cyclical occurrence like ice-out or a singular event like getting a world record for making the world’s longest ice cream sundae, we tend to do it in a big way.”