From England to Minnesota

One big boat and lots of smaller ones

I hadn’t planned on writing more about about this part of my family so soon, but it just feels like the right thing to do. I really had hoped I’d be writing about my late brother, as it’s his 51st birthday today, but I’m just not ready to talk about him. He’ll have to wait for another day.

What I didn’t say yesterday is that Grandma wasn’t *as bad* at sharing stories about her family with her daughters. I wouldn’t say she shared a lot, though. I’m fortunate that my mother is still alive, and I’ve been able to tap into some of her memories. I have to catch her at the right time of the day so that her mind is receptive to a blast to the past. It’s been somewhat enlightening. If I had known how fun it is, I’d have done it a long, long time ago. In this case, I’ll share what I know right now about the Crofts. I say right now because I have a cousin I met through who is part of this big family. Glen was recently in Two Harbors and he promised to send me some stuff. It’s like the grab bag at the bazaar, and I can’t wait.

Smith Sowden Croft was born in 1841 to Thomas Croft and Anne Sowden in Scamblesby, Lincolnshire. He married Hannah Mary Cass on 27 June 1868 in Pickering, Yorkshire. They had the first two of twelve children while in England. In 1872, for reasons unknown to me, Smith, Hannah, Mary Ann and Charles left their families in Yorkshire, headed to Liverpool and boarded the ship Palmyra; they landed in Boston on 24 July 1872. What made them migrate to Minnesota specifically? I don’t really know. The passenger manifest lists Smith’s occupation as a laborer. That surprised me a little, because what I’ve discovered about my 2nd great grandfather is that he and his sons were fishermen. (Wasn’t Boston a good place to do that? I totally LOVE Boston!) They headed to Duluth and started their commercial fishing business and procreated on the side as recreation.

Some of the Croft children remained in the Duluth/Two Harbors area, but many headed north on the shores of Lake Superior to a place called Croftville, which is north of Grand Marais, where Hannah Jane and Thomas Carter ultimately settled. My grandmother’s cousins, EJ and Mike Croft, built boats and owned the Croft-Craft company. It turns out that Grandma knew all of her cousins. I think she liked most of them? It also turns out that Mom has met a few of these characters. Before I tell you about them, I’m going back to Smith.

While researching this one branch of my family, I discovered that they weren’t so easy to track. Minnesota has pretty good records, but in the time period we’re discussing, they’re spotty, if they exist at all. I easily found the death record for Hannah Cass Croft in 1918; Smith survived her, but there is no death record for him. Furthermore, without a death certificate, I didn’t know where any of them were buried. I suspected they were buried at Lakeview in Two Harbors, but there were no Find-a-Grave entries for them. Adding to the mystery, my parents have paid for the tombstones of known relations to be pulled up from the earth–several times–and didn’t remember seeing one for Smith or Hannah. Lakeview Cemetery sits on the shore of Lake Superior, the ground is soggy and tombstones tend to sink. Eventually, I wrote to the cemetery commission to get a list of Croft people buried at Lakeview. Many of them were there, so I created memorials for them in Find-a-Grave. Even though I knew Smith Croft had died in 1920 and was buried there, I didn’t know anything more. I’d lament to Mom that he literally dropped off the face of the earth and we would sigh and say in unison, “those damn Crofts”.

Then one day, I went on and found what I had missed previously: three separate articles about Smith’s death. Smith struck out 3 times at the plate; in reality, he had been hit by a train for the third time in his life and finally succumbed to the injuries sustained from the final collision. Okay, I’ll say it…

I was reading the story aloud to my parents when I exclaimed, “My God, I descend from dumb people!”

Smith was hit by a freight train while walking to make a passenger train. What.the.hell. As the wheels were turning in Mom’s head, she said, “I think I remember Mama telling me he had lost his hearing in his old age and was deaf.” I also remember thinking if I were deaf, I wouldn’t walk on a train track–especially if I had been hit twice before. The karma just isn’t good.

Mom vaguely remembers meeting some of her great aunts and uncles. The only known she can share with me today is that Mary Ann, known as Aunt Polly, was blind. That answered one of my many silent questions, because I had noticed in all the census records that Mary Ann was the only one who was unable to read or write her entire life. That finally made sense. She lived with Smith until he died, and then moved in with her sister until she died in 1950.

Moving along to Smith’s grandchildren and my Grandma’s cousins. If you consider there were twelve children, you’d have to figure that more than one of the grandchildren would share a name. The English did have naming customs, after all. But was it necessary to have two boys named Elmer who were born a month apart in 1910? Who encouraged that? Fortunately, they had different middle names. Mom doesn’t remember Elmer Raymond, but she remembers Elmer Joseph, otherwise known as EJ. EJ died in 1984, so he lived a good long life and Mom was well into her adulthood when he passed. Well, Elmer Raymond died in 1985, so that might have been a mess had EJ not been known as EJ. For the record, I had to straighten out the mess on Find-a-Grave for both memorials. The memorial managers were confused too.

I should probably note that the Crofts were musically inclined. My own mother inherited that inclination from them; she was a very gifted pianist who also played a slew of other instruments in her life. Music comes naturally to her. EJ also possessed the same abilities.

EJ, as mentioned before, was a partner with his brother in their boat building business. He may have been better known for his affection for beer as well. Maybe more than is socially acceptable. But it was acceptable for him because he was a friendly guy who was always willing to offer a hand to anyone who needed him. People tend to overlook that kind of thing if you’re nice about it. EJ was that guy.

Mom has two distinct memories of EJ: 1) when she was young, she’d go over to their house for a visit and recalled that the house was really cold (it IS the north shore of Minnesota, after all). The house was so cold that EJ learned how to play the piano with choppers on his hands. She was fascinated by that. No, Mom didn’t learn how to pull that off. Anyone who plays the piano well gets a star in my book. But anyone who plays the piano well wearing choppers? They’re in a whole different league. I’m really sorry I never met him on one of our trips to Grand Marais. (Side note: Again. Why did I not meet him? We had been to Grand Marais plenty of times before 1984.)

2) EJ’s musical talents also brought him front and center to the town of Grand Marais. Every summer they have the Fishermens picnic, which coincides with the high school reunions and is marked by a parade. The townspeople would load a piano in the bed of a pickup truck, and EJ would ride in the back and play the piano in the parade. I used to be in a fife and drum corp and I don’t ever recall a drunk guy in a pickup bed playing the piano. Is this a thing?

Ironically, the only other cousin of my Grandma I know anything about is EJ’s sister, Florence. Grandma would drag my aunt and mom to the other side of the street when she spotted Florence heading in her direction. Grandma was a tolerant person–sometimes too forgiving–but she barely tolerated Florence. Florence was a religious fanatic and Grandma just didn’t have the patience or time for that. I can appreciate that.

Before I close, I’ll say that this post WAS inspired by Grandma. First of all, my soul is inherently connected to Grand Marais, Minnesota. For some reason, whenever I go there, I feel like I’m home in my heart. I practically felt her urging me to get this out. These were her wacky people, after all. Our wacky people.

There is still information about the Crofts that is missing. I’ll probably never uncover their truths either. Mom and I will undoubtedly go to our graves muttering, “those damn Crofts”.

Photo of Grand Marais via Good Free Photos

Happy 122nd birthday, Ethel May!

One hundred and twenty two years ago, a baby girl was born near Two Harbors, Minnesota, to Thomas Ira Carter and Hannah Jane Croft. Ethel May was their second child and second daughter, and she was my dear grandmother. The mother of my mother.

She would absolutely hate this post. She was never one to allow people to make a fuss about her. She didn’t like being the center of attention. She despised her name, and chose for the world to call her May. In fact, most people didn’t know her first name wasn’t May.

Grandma is actually not the inspiration for this blog. Quite the opposite. My grandmother was not the kind of grandmother who had her grandchildren gather around while she reminisced about the good old days. The truth? Grandma never told us any stories whatsoever.

I was her oldest granddaughter and second grandchild. My mother and aunt were the best of friends. Aunt Mary Jane and Mom weren’t as hesitant to share stories of their pasts. My cousins were as close to my heart as my siblings, and any stories I tell of my childhood will undoubtedly include them. I promise to make sure I tell my daughters all about our childhood escapades. Just maybe the rest of the world too.

I was also the oldest grandchild on my father’s side. My paternal grandparents were natural born storytellers. I loved hearing stories and never tired of them, even if I had heard them a time or two before. I never made any comparisons between my grandparents, because I loved them all. About 2 years ago, the genealogy bug bit me. At the age of 55 and 25 years after her death, I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about Ethel May Carter Creech.

When I had that light bulb moment, I called Mom to ask her why Grandma didn’t tell us anything about her childhood. Mom had no idea, but did propose her theory, based on a personality trait: Grandma lived in the present and didn’t think anyone was interested in her past. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

I decided to shelve everything I knew about the grandmother I loved, and used my researching skills to find out more about the girl and woman I didn’t know. I found newspaper articles about her in her home town. I found out that she had appendicitis and had to go to Duluth to have her appendix removed. I read about her graduation day from teaching college. I learned of the day when she landed a teaching position in her hometown. I also discovered through the 1900 Federal census that she lived with her maternal grandparents as a small child. Heck, until I started researching her past, I didn’t even know her grandfather’s name! She never spoke one word about Smith Croft. Not one.

She hardly ever mentioned the one person I never met and wanted most in the world to know, and that was my grandfather and her husband, Elisha Leroy Creech. My grandfather is a man I know only in spirit; he died in 1948 when my mother was 10 years old. Friends and family called him Lish. As of today, only two people are left on this planet who remember him. My mother possesses early memories of her papa, and her cousin, Gladys, at least has several. Gladys Creech Marx has been the one person who has been able tell me anything about her Uncle Lish. I hang on to her every word. And this just isn’t right.

If I had one more day with her–preferably today–I’d wish her a happy birthday, I’d hug her and give her a smooch on her cheek, hand her a cup of coffee and demand she tell me all the stuff I really want to know. She’d mumble and eventually acquiesce. I’d let her know I wish I could have a do-over to ask more personal questions. I’d let her know her family was important to me. And when our time was up, I’d say “I wish you were here now”.

Photo credit: Duluth, MN. Ginger Juel.