The snowman-making operation in action.
For the last four winters, a thirty-foot snowman has presided over the cornfields just west of Madison. Equipped with a traffic cone for a nose and a hat made out of stacked tires, the seasonal monument has become an icon to commuters and residents along Mineral Point Road, a temporary landmark and goofy totem greeting visitors from the suburbs.
Yet in a winter without much snow (at least yet), driving in from Pine Bluff along Mineral Point has become boring again. Where the frosted Goliath usually sits, a small wooden sign with the words "Wanted: Snow" in red paint greets drivers.
Conceived by Ken Massey who, along with his wife Sue, owns and operates Massey's Landscaping in Middleton, the snowman first showed up in January, 2007, as a tribute to Scott Bremser, an employee of the Masseys who died in a car accident in early December of the previous year. Ever since, with the help of company vehicles (including snow removal trucks and construction equipment), friends, family and co-workers gather each year in front of the Massey's Landscaping sign to celebrate a life, spending an entire day packing and watering snow gathered mostly from the nearby Blackhawk Church parking ramp until the snowman is complete.
"When you're working shoulder to shoulder outside, especially with the elements and the land, you develop a closeness with each other," says Sue Massey. ""Both Kenny and I grew up on small farms in southern Wisconsin, so we've always loved working outside with others. It's been a way for us all to come together out of love for Scott. You end up sharing mittens and just helping each other get through the project."
After the snowman's first incarnation survived the night, reporters and television crews flocked to the monolith. Hearing about the "biggest snowman you've ever seen" on television and the radio, curious onlookers followed, parking along the road and taking pictures. The Masseys soon began receiving "Thank You" emails and phone messages from the people who had driven by, detailing their own unique encounters with the giant Frosty.
"None of us realized the impact it would have," says Massey, who still shakes her head with an amused astonishment. "Out of the blue, we got these messages from people saying things like 'I commute back and forth from Madison every day, and when I come up over that hill and I see the smile on that snowman's face, it makes my day.'"
Hearing Sue Massey tell these stories, I was reminded of my own unique encounter with their very first creation. Then sharing a home with my Cuban grandparents on the west side, I was sitting in the kitchen one day when my grandfather burst through the door giggling like a child. I remember this scene vividly, as my grandfather was not a giggler and when he produced from his pocket a digital camera and showed me pictures of a giant snowman, I also began to giggle. It was our experience that after being shown proof of the existence of a three-story snowman, simply laughing wasn't enough. We hopped into his green station wagon and raced off to see it in person, my grandmother calling after us as if we were a couple of lunatics.
Driving past the now-empty site, I'm reminded of my grandfather, who passed away two years ago, and how he'd annually take photos of that year's version of the Massey snowman. I can't help but feel he'd be disappointed by its absence and the memory makes me sad. I imagine that the weather has been similarly bittersweet for anyone else who is fond of the snowman. That includes the Masseys themselves, as the lack of snow has made this one of the most challenging winters in recent memory for their snow removal business.
"We've been in business about 26 years now, and on top of not being able to commemorate Scott the way we have been, this winter has also honestly been one of the worst as far as business goes," says Sue Massey. "A big part of profits for landscaping companies during the winter comes from snow removal. And what a lot of people don't know is that even when it doesn't snow, the bills don't stop coming in."
Talking to their landscape architect recently in hopes of kick starting business for the spring season, they were informed that the ground is still too cold for new projects. In the meantime, Ken has spent time in Williston, North Dakota, pursuing extra work and creating metal sculptures out of recycled material in his spare time.
Selfishly, I'm excited by the possibility of one grand snow storm maybe Friday before spring officially starts. If only for a weekend, is it too much to ask for a reminder of what this city normally looks like in winter? Can't the west side have it's giant friend back, even for a short while?
"If we get 6-12 inches, then there's going to be a snowman," says Sue Massey with excitement, more for the chance to commemorate a friend than for any financial gain. "It might not be as big as it has been in the past, but we'll put it up. Wouldn't that be amazing?"
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.