Debate over 'Icebox Days' heats up International Falls

INTERNATIONAL FALLS -- Tough folks up there in International Falls. Hardy souls, too. So much so that for the past quarter-century, they've gone out of their way to promote and celebrate their frosty reputation as "Icebox of the Nation" with an a...

INTERNATIONAL FALLS -- Tough folks up there in International Falls. Hardy souls, too.

So much so that for the past quarter-century, they've gone out of their way to promote and celebrate their frosty reputation as "Icebox of the Nation" with an annual January festival called Icebox Days.

But now, the Falls is going soft.

Much to the chagrin of many of the 6,700 locals who boast of their ability to persevere in the worst arctic chill, the festival has been renamed and moved to February, in part because business leaders hope to thaw the icebox image a bit.

This year's festival, called Blast on the Border, will be held Feb. 15-18.


The old way of thinking: "We're the rugged people who withstand the cold," said Dean Cowman, a chiropractor and a Chamber of Commerce director. "And if you come up here and dare yourself to participate in our winter festival, then you have proven yourself worthy."

The new way: "Selling ourselves as the 'Icebox of the Nation' served us for a period of time and we got some notoriety," said Paul Nevanen, director of the Koochiching Economic Development Authority. "But really, in people's minds now, it's this frozen place. A lot of people call during Icebox Days more to make fun of us than actually trying to understand why people live and work here."

Kallie Briggs, president of the International Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, said community leaders hope the changes attract more people.

"Attendance was down," Briggs said. "When it gets monotonous and you do the same thing for 25 years, there's not a lot of excitement that generates around it."

For years, she said, Icebox Days were held in January to help merchants pull in customers in what typically was a slow time of year. But more and more, Briggs said, merchants felt the event was too close to the holidays to appeal to travelers. What's more, many felt the unpredictable January weather was a deterrent.

A few years ago, it was so cold -- with a wind chill of minus 45 -- that some events were postponed. In other years, the climate was so mild that event organizers worried that lake ice might not be thick enough to safely host events.

The anchor event this year, as in the past, is the Freeze Yer Gizzard Blizzard Run. New events will include outdoor croquet, broomball and boot hockey tournaments, a children's toboggan race and a nighttime snowshoe hike in Voyageurs National Park.

"We're trying to break away from the cold factor and focus more on the fun factor," Cowman said.


But residents fond of the Icebox name haven't been swayed. Some wrote to the newspaper or posted their displeasure on the paper's Web site. When a local radio station asked listeners to call in and voice their preference on the festival's title -- Icebox Days or Blast on the Border -- Icebox Days won 56-1.

"These people have grown up with this," said Jerry Franzen, a radio broadcaster. "And I think they're saying, 'Don't tamper with that. That's part of who we are. Leave the thing alone.' "

The pride runs deep and goes back, in part, to the mid-1950s, when the national magazine Collier's featured the city and dubbed it the nation's coldest.

"It kind of became what local folks see as a badge of courage to be able to survive here," said Bob Anderson, 64, a lifelong resident and former mayor.

The town became so identified with the "icebox" image that it eventually bought the rights to the "Icebox of the Nation" trademark.

But some business leaders say that status has been good and bad.

Nevanen said he was soaking in a hot tub in Florida about 10 years ago when a man from Germany asked where he was from.

"International Falls, Minnesota," he replied.


"Oh, the cold place," the man said.

"We've done such a good job that people see this as a frozen wasteland nine months a year," Nevanen said.

Said Franzen, the broadcaster, "What we're looking at here is one event in the wintertime. We're not looking at using that one event as an economic development tool to get business to locate here. What we're trying to do is have some fun with the climate we're stuck with ... Why not have fun with it?"

Mayor Shawn Mason sees it differently.

"I think what it really boils down to: Is how do we manage people's perceptions about our area as a vacation destination and as a place to start a business?" she said. "I know there are many folks in our community who are very fond of the 'Icebox of the Nation' title. Frankly, I am fond that we are so well-known.

"But I also like that we have four seasons. We just have to get that message out."

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