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Couple fighting to save historic fish house in Beaver Bay

Bonnie and Bruce Anderson of Duluth stand in the doorway of the old fish house that they own on the shore of Lake Superior in Beaver Bay. The Beaver Bay Club, which owns the property, has filed an eviction complaint to have the 1890's-vintage building removed. Behind the Andersons are boats that were used by commercial fishermen until about eight years ago. (Clint Austin / / 2
This wooden fish house in Beaver Bay was built by Norwegian fishermen. It has been in Bonnie Anderson's family since 1974. (Clint Austin / / 2

A wooden fish house that has withstood countless Lake Superior storms since hardy Norwegian fishermen built it 115 years ago may soon come down.

The nonprofit Beaver Bay Club -- which owns the lakefront property on which the fish house stands in Beaver Bay -- recently began the legal process to evict Bruce and Bonnie Anderson, the Duluth couple who own the building.

The eviction complaint filed July 15 seeks the immediate removal of the fish house and reimbursement for costs and attorney fees.

"The reason they are evicting us is that we have not paid any money to them to lease the land," Bonnie Anderson said Tuesday before a court appearance in State District Court in Two Harbors. "But there never has been a lease agreement enacted that we could pay. There has never been an arrangement for the fish house in these 100 years. Permission has been implied. No one has ever complained, including the Beaver Bay Club, which is taking us to court, and no one has ever contested the fish house being there until now."

The club's Duluth attorney, Charles Andresen, did not comment on the case following Tuesday's initial hearing before Judge Michael Cuzzo.

But the Andersons "have no right to possession of the Beaver Bay Club land due to the Defendants' failure to pay rent in exchange for use of the Beaver Bay Club," the club claims in its civil complaint.

Cuzzo scheduled an Aug. 22 trial in the case and gave Andresen and the Andersons -- who are representing themselves -- until the end of business on Aug. 6 to file witness lists with the court.

The club held out hope today that an agreement saving the fish house could still be reached.

"The Club is and has been respectful of the boathouse for all these years," a statement Andresen released today reads. "The Club is not seeking removal or destruction of the boathouse. The Club understands and respects the historic significance of the boathouse. The Beaver Bay Club has been working with the Andersons since 2010 to work out a satisfactory lease agreement for the boathouse.

"We have submitted to Andersons lease terms which we believe are favorable to both parties but unfortunately the Andersons have not accepted the proposed lease terms, therefore, the Beaver Bay Club was forced to bring the eviction action. While this matter is set for Trial on August 22, 2013 we are still hopeful that we can work out a lease agreement which would be satisfactory and protect the rights of the Beaver Bay Club and the Andersons."

Bruce Anderson said the couple first was approached by the club in 2010 about the ownership. They simply asked, "Why now?" he said.

The fish house isn't in the way of any other property, and the closest residence is a cabin that is not part of the club property.

Beaver Bay City Council member Linda Malzac said the issue is that the club wants to "take over as much as they can" when it comes to the shoreline.

"They already control 90 percent of the shoreline in Beaver Bay," she said. "That's part of our heritage and we get fussy about that."

Bruce Anderson seconded that sentiment.

"They want to get people off their property and have it to themselves," he said. "That is clear to us."

Karen Rautio of Silver Bay grew up just outside of club property and visited the fish house often as a child. She would like to see the building preserved and is upset that "wealthy people from the Twin Cities" want to tear it down.

"It's a Beaver Bay landmark," she said.

The Beaver Bay Club, according to its nonprofit Form 990 filed with the Internal Revenue Service, was founded in 1926. The club was part of a Minnesota trend at the time for wealthy people from the Twin Cities banding together to form cabin communities, much like the Encampment property north of Two Harbors. The 15 people who originally pitched in $1,000 each for the abandoned logging camp in Beaver Bay included prominent names such as Pillsbury and Loring.

The property includes cabins and a lodge adjacent to Lake Superior.

The Andersons' wooden fish house was built in 1898 by Martin Lorntson, an immigrant from Trondheim, Norway, who came from commercial fishing stock.

He drowned in 1911. His son, Conrad, used the house until he retired from fishing in 1968. The house has been in Bonnie Anderson's family since 1974.

"Prior to that, the Lorntson family was the only other family to own it," she said.

The house, boat launch, two boats and miscellaneous boat motors, nets and other equipment came to the Andersons three years ago after the death of Bonnie Anderson's brother-in-law.

"Steven used it and fished out of it," Bruce Anderson said, referring to his wife's brother-in-law. "We would like to keep it and restore it. It is a historic building. We would like to keep it for posterity, to keep it there where it sits and to keep it standing."

Moving the structure to a different location would be a difficult process.

"It can't be moved as it is; it would just fall apart," Bonnie Anderson said. "It would have to be taken apart, and there is no place to put it. ... I have been in touch with the Tofte (North Shore Commercial Fishing) museum. They don't have a place to put it. We have tried to find out if there is some place we could put it if we could take it down without totally destroying it."

Fish houses used to dot the North Shore but are slowly disappearing.

"In its heyday, there were about 400 (commercial) fishermen up and down the North Shore," said Don Hammer, manager of the fishing museum in Tofte, although that doesn't mean there were that many boat houses. He estimates that 50 or 60 still exist, "most of them in disrepair."

"They were working buildings," Hammer said. "While the guys weren't poor craftsmen, they weren't building a house that was going to last forever."

And most were neglected once they were no longer used for commercial fishing. Hammer is not familiar with any group dedicated to restoring the remaining buildings.

"The preservation of them is not easily pursued because they are in private hands," he said. "I do know of a couple that were nicely restored and used for a place to sit and watch the waters."

"I certainly would like to see them stabilized and preserved the best they can," Hammer said. "They're part of the North Shore experience."

"We want to preserve it," Bruce Anderson said. "For Beaver Bay, it's their history, too."

News Tribune staff writer Mike Creger contributed to this report.