Seventy-one years ago, a birthday to remember
Louise Egger can thank Lake Superior for many things: saving her ancestors from a fire, giving her grandpa an easy route when courting her grandma and providing a living for her father. Above all, Egger can thank the lake for her own safe birth.
It was 1943, and Elta Croft was pregnant and nearing her due date. She lived with her husband, Clifford, on Fisherman’s Point in Two Harbors, a chunk of land across the lake from Burlington Bay now the site of Superior Shores Resort.
“There were quite a few fishing families that lived along the point,” Egger recalled.
The winter of 1943 was similar in severity to this year. The cold days stretched far into spring, keeping Lake Superior frozen and dumping many inches of snow on the area in late March. Clifford Croft and his father Tom fished year round, in the winter using heavy duty saws to cut through a foot and a half of ice and long poles with anchors and buoys to hold the nets under the frozen cover of the lake.
March 25 was a particularly treacherous day. A storm brought inches of heavy, wet snow to the region, rendering the small road from their house to the highway impassable. Still, Clifford Croft bundled up and pulled his skiff out onto the ice to set his nets in the early morning hours.
“That day, he and his father had been out on the ice. They had pulled the nets and got the fish,” said Arlee Wilkes, Egger’s younger sister. The story is well-known within the family.
When Clifford and Tom returned to the little house on Fisherman’s Point with a load of fresh fish, Elta told them she was ready to have the baby. But Clifford couldn’t get his Ford Model T out of the driveway.
“There was just so much snow. They just couldn’t get anywhere,” Egger said. She heard the story recounted many times while growing up.
But Clifford had boxes full of perishable herring and, more importantly, a pregnant wife that he needed to take to the hospital. So he stacked the boxes of fish on his Model T, loaded Elta into the backseat and drove toward the ice covered lake.
“They just decided to drive down to the lake and drive across the bay,” Wilkes remembers from her father’s story.
They crossed frozen Burlington Bay and got onto a road, eventually making it to the old hospital in downtown Two Harbors. Elta got out there and Clifford andTom drove on to deliver their fresh fish to a buyer.
Elta, a North Dakota native who had never learned how to swim, got to the hospital by riding in a car across the largest freshwater lake in the world. Wilkes said she would tell the story matter-of-factly, never letting on that she had been nervous.
“She had no idea about swimming, but she trusted my dad to do the right thing,” Wilkes said.
Two days later, their first child Louise was born.
“I have always joked about how I was glad I wasn’t a mermaid,” Egger said.
It wasn’t the first story Clifford told about the lake playing a big part in the Croft family history.
“My dad was a good storyteller,” Wilkes said.
There was the time the family lived at Palmer’s, along Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors. A fire started in the cluster of houses, and the fishermen kept their families safe by loading them in their skiffs and paddling into the lake.
A frozen lake and a pair of skates paid a big part in the story of the girls’ grandfather’s marriage, too. Tom Croft fell in love with Esther Bergman when he lived in Croftville, just north of Grand Marais. So he spent winter days skating miles along the frozen lake shore to see the girl in Cascade. The two eventually got married.
The Croft family is an institution of Lake Superior history, with generations of its men fishing the big lake. Egger has plenty of stories to tell, but the March 27, 1943 tale of her birth is a favorite.
“That’s our story and we’re sticking to it,” Egger said.