Clarence Krotz, son of a Chicago jewelry maker, joined the Army Air Corps during World War II and piloted a twin-engine Marauder on 73 bombing missions over Italy and North Africa.
After Clarence was discharged in the fall of 1945, he called his two brothers in Chicago “and told them to go to northern Minnesota and find some land on a lake for sale,” recalled his daughter, Kathy Krotz Finn, of Grand Marais.
Clarence’s postwar dream was lofty: opening a lodge with a seaplane base and airstrip in the North Woods. His brothers found property on Devil Track Lake, eight miles north of Grand Marais and Lake Superior’s North Shore. “My dad bought it sight unseen,” his daughter said.
By 1950, he had accomplished his 74th mission and then some: Clarence opened the Skyport Lodge with three cabins and a handful of motel rooms, and picked up a used J-3 Piper Cub airplane with floats to shuttle anglers and supplies around the Boundary Waters and give flying lessons.
His family took off as well. When he first moved to Grand Marais and opened his post office box, the box’s glass window fell out and shattered. “Bingo, I’ve hit the jackpot,” he wisecracked, drawing the attention of postal clerk Dorothy Rindahl. They married in 1946 and soon had three daughters: Ginger, Kathy and Clarice, all of whom learned to fly and worked at the resort over the years.
“The Piper was a two-seater, one behind the other,” said Kathy, 71. “At least once a week, he’d pile mom and the three girls in the back seat of the Piper and take us up. It was a thing we did all the time as a family.”
By 16, Kathy was flying solo, launching her 55-year career as a pilot and carrying on her father’s high-flying legacy. When Clarence died at age 62 in 1981, she inherited the vintage Piper. It’s restored and residing in a hangar in Grand Marais, where father-and-son pilots Russell and David Smith keep it well-maintained.
“They put the floats on and I’m excited and ecstatic about that because it brings me back to the best growing-up memories,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many planes I gassed up and tied down back in those days.”
Clarence’s seaplane base was licensed in 1947 and sat adjacent to the original Cook County Airport. It was listed as a municipal airfield until 1989.
The family sold the resort in 1980. None of the original buildings still exists, but the memories linger.
Kathy said the family spent winters in a house near a Grand Marais golf course because the school bus couldn’t get through the snow to Devil Track Lake.
Come summertime, she would operate the grass cutter behind a lodge truck, pump fuel into planes, maintain a massive garden with her mom and sisters — and soar over everything on regular Piper Cub flights.
No one raised an eyebrow that a girl was flying planes like her father.
“Up here, nobody noticed gender or thought a girl flying was odd,” Kathy said.
One summer, a German family checked into the lodge with three teenage boys about the same age as the Krotz girls. While the kids played Ping-Pong, their dads engaged in a friendly dogfight over which side in WWII had the better air force. The German man had been a Luftwaffe pilot before moving to Argentina and then becoming a U.S. citizen.
Kathy moved to Brooklyn Park in the 1970s, raising three children with her first husband. Her father paid for her to take formal flying lessons at the Crystal Airport, where she earned her license.
She returned to Grand Marais in the 1980s, remarrying 19 years ago. She and her husband, Doug Finn, share nine grandchildren. Kathy has “high hopes” that the oldest, 16-year-old Analise, might get bitten by the flying bug like her grandmother, but she scoffs at the notion that she herself was a trailblazer. “I’ve just stumbled along a bit,” she said.
Kathy spent 30 years as a teller at the Grand Marais State Bank. That’s where she got to talking with a bank patron and flying aficionado in his 80s named Richard Struck, who had retired in the area with his wife of 60 years.
“When I first met Kathy and found out she owned and still flies the Cub, I knew this might be a good story,” said Struck, who has interviewed her many times and hopes to write a book about her.
“As a woman pilot now in her 70s and owning a vintage [plane], she is a good role model for girls and others. ... She is still flying the only registered, flyable Piper J-3 Cub in the county and has no plans to stop flying anytime soon.”
Kathy recently hurt her arm while playing with her dog, Finn, so she hasn’t flown in a while. When she does go up in the air, she said, she usually flies around the area, maybe to “see who is fishing where, [and] can I spot any moose.” She said she spends a lot of time with her sister Ginger, who lives just a couple of miles away; their younger sister, Clarice, died last winter.
“At any rate,” Kathy said, “the plane holds a big spot in all of our hearts.”
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.