Sarah Stultz: Who have been Albert Lea’s watchers of the lake?

Published 8:45 pm Tuesday, March 5, 2024

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Nose for News by Sarah Stultz

Every year I’ve worked at the Tribune, I’ve looked forward to receiving the phone call letting us know that the ice is out on Fountain Lake.

At first I didn’t understand why it was such a big deal, but as the years have gone by, it has become a significant day each year.

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When I first started, it was my co-worker Ed Shannon who received the call every year from the resident lake watcher, and I’ve written the story about it most years since Ed retired.

It’s almost like Groundhog Day in a sense, in that when the ice melts is usually reflective — though not always — of what kind of spring we’re going to have.

Sometimes, one could argue that it might even be more accurate than the groundhog — especially for this part of the country.

Back when I first arrived in Albert Lea, Bill Malepsy was still the “watcher of the lake.” He had kept track of ice-out dates since the 1960s after the responsibility was passed on to him from John E. “Pop” Murtaugh.

Murtaugh started recording the ice-out date in the spring of 1912. He was then the owner and operator of the Casino, a lakeside dance hall and canoe and rowboat rental service at the north end of Newton Avenue. The melting of the ice cover on Fountain Lake was a prime business concern for Murtaugh. He would reportedly paddle a canoe all the way around the lake’s shoreline, including the bays, to check on the status of the hopefully ice-free surface.

Malepsy had worked for Murtaugh, cleaning out boats and restrooms at the Casino, and at that time, they used to race across the lake.

In 2018, Malepsy passed on the official duties to his son, Mark, who worked with him for many years at Bill & Mark’s Barbershop and who still leads the efforts today with a little help from a few others.

The longer I live in Albert Lea, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how neat this job really is.

It’s not the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources or some other agency that is determining the date each year. Instead, over the past 112 years, it has been a group of three dedicated residents who have become the community’s watchers of the lake.

Another ice-out has come and gone, and this year we set a new record for earliest ice-out recorded since the monitoring began in 1912.

That sure is something to think about.

We’ll see what this year’s early ice-out will teach us the rest of this month and in April. It seems like spring is on its way. Now we just have to see if we can get some rain to supplement the lack of snow we received this winter.

If the wildfires this week are any indication of what’s to come this summer, it’s going to be a rough one.

Sarah Stultz is the managing editor of the Tribune. Her column appears every Wednesday.