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A Minnesota city and a Colorado town both want to be called the 'Icebox of the Nation.' Discussions are heated.

March 04, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

FRASER, COLO. — This mountain hamlet's civic identity revolves around something unusual -- its lousy weather.

Fraser's as proud of its 50-below-zero nights as it is of the soaring Continental Divide peaks that cradle this town of 900-odd souls. Residents build snowmen with beer kegs. They place an icebox on a frozen pond each winter and place bets on when it'll crack the ice.

"It's not for wimps here," said Vesta Shapiro, a gift shop owner who's lived in Fraser since the 1970s. "It takes something above average to survive up here."

For decades the town, 70 miles northwest of Denver, was known as the "Icebox of the Nation." Twenty years ago, though, it found that another community also had that reputation -- International Falls, Minn., right on the Canadian border. When both places sought the national trademark on the icebox name, Fraser agreed to abandon its effort -- deferring to the more northerly city's argument that much of its economy was based around its claim.

Recently, though, when Fraser realized International Falls had let the trademark lapse, it moved to snap it up. It slapped it on its new city logo, and Shapiro cranked out sweatshirts declaring the town "Still the Icebox of the Nation."

International Falls, where the average January low is 4.6 degrees below zero , is not pleased. It wants its logo back. As far as that city of 6,700 is concerned, it let the trademark lapse due to an oversight and still has the right to be notorious for its climate.

"We are just an icebox," insisted Joe Boyle, International Falls city attorney.

In Fraser, temperatures plunge at night, but winter days are relatively warm, argues Boyle. By contrast, the Minnesota city is below freezing all winter long. "Our meat would stay fine during the winter months and our ice cream would not melt" if left outdoors, he said -- a claim Fraser cannot make.

Fraser Mayor Fran Cook countered that her town, which enjoys an average January low of 1.4 degrees below zero, only has 28 frost-free days a year. Even August nights can drop below freezing. "You think of an icebox as cold all the time," she said. "They get worse cold when they're cold. But are they cold all but 28 days of the year? No."

Fraser residents snowmobile from their front doors on winter mornings to the plowed roads where they park their cars. In International Falls, 289 miles north of Minneapolis-St. Paul, residents plug their cars into electrical outlets when they park so the engine doesn't freeze. And each city's mayor uses the same word when she talks about the meaning of the icebox term: "heritage."

To Fraser residents, that means honoring the memory of the pioneers who settled the area in the 19th century, braving the nine-month winters without heating or indoor plumbing. The walls of the two-story yellow brick city hall are coated with sepia photos of Fraser's early residents, with special attention to Doc Susie, a pioneer doctor who was the inspiration for the TV show "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman."

"When you live in a place like this," said Town Manager Jeff Durbin, "you need a sense of humor." Hence, outside city hall, the nod to Antarctica: a two-foot-high plastic penguin. The town board's meeting room is lined with penguin thumb puppets.

Indeed, locals pride themselves on their eccentricities, holding themselves in contrast to the corporate ski resorts sprouting throughout the Rockies, including their neighboring town of Winter Park that houses a popular resort by the same name.

Dave Pratt, a town board member and co-owner of the Crooked Creek saloon, gestured at a grizzled man hunched over at his bar one afternoon. "This gentleman at the bar is called Moose," he said. "We've also got a Dog, we've got a Hawk, and we've got a Mouse. We've got some unique people in Fraser."

If the Coloradoans take their frigid temperatures with Western bravado, their rivals in Minnesota weather theirs with Midwestern cheerfulness.

"We enjoy our winters up here," said Mayor Shawn Mason on Friday, boasting that she was going to drive across one of the many local frozen lakes to a cabin on an island this weekend with her family, to ice fish and take the kids skating.

Founded in the late 19th century as a timber town, International Falls' biggest employer is Boise Cascade. But the city economy is also largely founded on tourism, from snowmobiling and ice fishing in the winter to canoeing and fishing in the lakes of Voyageurs National Park just outside city limits. Nearby Rainy Lake, officials are quick to note, is the 60th largest freshwater lake in the world.

While Fraser residents have only been able to trace their use of Icebox of the Nation back to 1953, International Falls says it has documented the phrase being applied to the city since the 1940s. City Attorney Boyle said the city has clippings of its youth ice hockey team playing in Boston in 1955 with "Icebox of the Nation" emblazoned on their jerseys.

International Falls is particularly keen to retain the phrase because it has invested $1 million in a cold-temperature testing facility where manufacturers can see how their goods perform in extreme winter conditions. It includes a "cold box" that can produce temperatures down to 46 degrees below zero anytime of the year.

Lawyers for the two communities are negotiating over who should get the national "icebox" trademark, and each is striving to say nice things about the other with an eye toward an amiable settlement.

Meanwhile, each has a state trademark that allows it to use the phrase locally -- and both sides expect that any resolution will allow that to continue.

Some have other ideas on how to settle the dispute over the national rights to the claim.

"We're not opposed to having a snowball fight with the other town," said Fraser's Pratt, "and we'll see who wins."

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