By Kyra Price, UW Stout Harvey Hall News Service
The klunker is an old car out on Lake Menomin that sits there patiently until the thaw. It’s the shell of an old, bright yellow race car that stands out against the frozen icescape. While the long-time locals have come to accept it, to some, it’s a source of mysterious origin. Lion’s Club member Jon Hove recalls the history of the klunker from when he joined in 2012. Hove says, “There have been several 'klunker' cars over the years, and last year we got an upgrade from Jimmy Mars Racing Team. It started about 1960.” It’s been over 60 years since the tradition has started. The process requires some heavy lifting. “A crew puts the car out on the ice on January 1st, weather permitting,” said Hove. UW-Stout archivist and Area Research Center Director Heather Stecklein recalls a history even farther back. “I’m on my third klunker,” Stecklein said. She said her first year spent in Menomonie the klunker on the lake was a yellow and green minivan. Stecklein talks more about the process of retrieving the klunker after it falls through the ice. “It’s attached to a cable so it’s salvageable,” says Stecklein. UW-Stout’s campus newspaper the Stoutonia has referenced the ‘klunker’ as far back as 1993 and as recently as 2011. They described the contest surrounding the klunker. Locals would place their bets on what date they thought the klunker would fall through the ice for spring. Hove said, “It is a membership event to sell tickets, now $5 per single ticket guess. It was $.50 in 1960 for one guess. It is a competition... and also the anticipation of spring weather.” A small amount of prize money is offered too, and “It does raise funds for the Menomonie Lions Game Park and the animals there,” said Hove. Hove said, historically, the Jimmy Mars Racing Team has donated cars to the Lion’s Club. “It has gone down as early as February 26th, and as late as April 23rd. There have been eight in March and six in April over the last 15 years of klunker sinkings,” said Hove. "The klunker has had many identities,” Stecklein said. The tradition of the klunker has gained notoriety through Neil Gaiman’s popularized novel American Gods where an ‘old beater car’ is placed on the frozen lake. This detail is seen as a loosely based reference to Menomonie’s contest. The klunker is a community symbol. Stecklein describes the tradition as a representation of civic pride. “It isn’t spring until the klunker sinks,” said Stecklein. Hove agrees, “It is a positive sign of spring, like the Groundhog Day routine,” he said.
Beyond its technical functionality—gauging the weather changes—it has become a traditional icon for those living in the community, and perhaps an amusing question to those passing through. “Keeping these things going is really special,” said Stecklein.