Icy Fun in South Haven: Ice Breaker Festival

Chainsaws buzz, are you listenin’
In downtown, ice is glistenin’
A beautiful sight,
We’re happy tonight,
Living in a Winter Wonderland.

The buzz of chainsaws first thing in the morning was the greeting visitors had on the streets of South Haven this past weekend. No it’s not our state’s version of that slice ‘n’ dice classic, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and my apologies to composer Felix Bernard, and recording artists the Andrew Sisters and Perry Como for slaughtering “Winter Wonderland.” But it’s another small town festival!

It was Ice Breaker Weekend here – our town’s winter festival. Ice Breaker started, I was once told, as a way for the people in town to venture out from their winter hibernation; it was neighbors reconnecting with neighbors after being shut in their houses during the long winter months. It was a way for the community to give back to its year ’round residents for having the gall to stick it through the West Michigan winters.

It began with a Euchre tournament (a card game which I’ve found no one west of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line has heard of), and a few crock pots of chili. Stores offered discounts seemingly as deep as the snow; in a summer tourist town where the population plummets with the temperatures, it was a way for the merchants to say to the residents, “Thanks for your support throughout the year.” Where the chainsaws came in, I’m not exactly sure … but I suppose being cooped up for so long during the dark and dreary months, one might feel the urge to run through the streets with a chainsaw. (Actually, the saws are used for ice sculpting.)

As word spread, Ice Breaker Weekend grew in popularity, and is now one of South Haven’s biggest events. Town was packed this weekend; I saw cars with license plates from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Quite a turn out by those willing to brave the 30 mph winds we had off the lake on Saturday. The weekend was sunny, but the wind made it seem much colder than the temperature read on the bank’s digital thermometer.

Keith’s working on the taxes (shhhh … best to leave him alone now), and Shelby was already primping seven hours early for one of the festival events – a concert by a few middle school and high school rock bands, most of which include her classmates. So it was just Shannon and I this year; both of us had Christmas gift certificates waiting to be used – hers was for the toy store; mine was for my favorite boutique – and with the half-price sales we had a great time shopping.

We watched as ice sculptors carved giant blocks of ice along the sidewalks. More than 30 blocks of ice were sculpted by both amateurs and professionals. They start off with chainsaws, then do the final detail work with chisels, electric grinders, and even clothing irons. The detail is amazing, and the finished sculptures are judged and awarded ribbons.

Then on to the chili tasting! What better way to beat the cold than with some heat? Served up, of course, as bowls of piping hot, in more ways than one, chili.

Again, both amateurs and professionals complete in separate Chili Cook-offs. I enjoyed it more than Shannon – she likes Keith’s chili which is a Cincinnati-style chili and more sweet than spicy.

The festival activities still include a Euchre Tournament (although a Texas Hold ‘Em Night was added this year too). Pancake breakfasts, ice rink dance shows and lessons, children’s programs at the library and art center, movies about winter on the Great Lakes at the Maritime Museum, and a Mardi Gras dinner round out the weekend.

So many times winter drives people indoors, not to emerge until the weather breaks. Yet Winter Festivals take place nearly everywhere across the country. Ice Breaker Weekend has long evolved from its early days offering some winter comfort food and a card game. It has brought the tourists back to town, and it’s still a great opportunity to get out and connect with the community. What ways do you stay connected until spring arrives?

Published on Feb 4, 2009

Grit Magazine

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