Indianapolis Wonder: Veal’s Ice Tree

Indianapolis Wonder: Veal’s Ice Tree

There’s a poetry about the way freezing winter temperatures transform lingering pools of water into icy mirrors, those slow drips into crystalline stalactites. It was such wonders, that inspired Coleridge to write in his poem “Frost at midnight,” “the frost performs its secret ministry unhelped by any wind.” But if you find yourself in Indianapolis in January you might find an icy wonder that both embraces and contradicts Coleridge’s description.

The Veal Ice Tree has been a tradition in its namesake family since 1961 when patriarch Vierl G. Veal decided to make an ice slide onto the pond on his property by spraying a fine mist of water onto an adjacent hillside. During the night, unlike the Coleridge poem, the wind helped significantly by blowing the spray onto nearby honeysuckle bushes. The result the next morning was a gorgeous sculptural wonder performed by the ministry of frost.

Ironically, Veal had never been fond of winter, but he did have a lifelong perspective, due to his faith, that led him to look for the beautiful in adversity and this accident of ice somehow spoke to this vein of his beliefs. From then on, he, and later other members of his family, created the yearly Veal Ice Tree.

The tree begins when temperatures drop below 30 degrees for five or more days in a row. At this point the family can begin to build the structure which is made of scrap lumber tied together with twine. Garden hoses with spray nozzles are then tied to the frame and tree limbs and fresh cut brush are added to the structure. Once the hoses are on, ice begins to work its magic, forming glacier-like flows and dangling daggerish icicles. The family shapes the structure by adding more brush to ice as the tree “grows.” They also spray powdered food color on the tree to create a beautiful winter palette. 

Veal Ice Trees have been a local tradition in Indianapolis for over six decades and usually appear in January when the weather reaches ideal stretches of cold. By the end of the season, which is usually in the first few weeks of April, the tree reaches an average height of 35-40 feet. In its best year, in 2014, the tree was a whopping 79 feet tall!

You can visit the tree at 6445 Mimosa Lane, and the Veal family has recently begun lighting the tree at night so you can visit under the stars until 10 p.m. Before you write it off as a holiday gimmick designed to make a buck, you should know that your visit is free and the family does not accept donations. As they put it, “This is not a business, it is a hobby we love to share.” All they hope is that you find in its wonder a little piece of the divine the way Vierl did. And standing beneath that behemoth blend of sculpture and nature, the ice sparkling in multicolored magnificence, it’s hard not to wonder about the secret ministries that operate in the night, performing their frosty magic, even with a little help from the wind. 

Written by Ivan Young in partnership with steel water piping distributors Fed Steel. 

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