Times Past, Pausing to Remember

Lake Erie and the Weaker Sex

Lake Erie in Winter

She was known as Mother Becker, and she was a tall, strong woman. She and her husband had the only home for miles around, near the shore of Lake Erie in a wild and forlorn place. Mr. Becker was away for the day, so his wife had no help when she faced the greatest trial of her life

It was late November, 1854, a time of year when shipping traffic on the Great Lakes is winding down, and every day the weather becomes worse and more unpredictable. That year, on that day, Mother Becker saw the aftermath of a shipwreck off shore, a demolished schooner hung up on a sandbar a half mile from shore and men clinging to the rigging as the masts whipped savagely in the gale. They were all going to drown or freeze; they had very few hours to live.

The wind carried snow, and lots of it, a blizzard by anyone's definition. Mother Becker ran back to her house to let her children know she would be busy for a while, and to tell them not to worry. She ran back to shore, wading through snow in bare feet. This was a poor family, and shoes were a luxury beyond their means.

She made a bonfire of driftwood. She didn't need it for herself, but she thought it would give hope to the sailors. Then she stood at water's edge, cupped her hands to her mouth and called: "Swim! You've got to jump overboard and swim. I'll help you get to land. Swim!"

One man finally made the attempt. He struggled through the water and a few strokes from safety lost strength and started to go down. Out she went in her flimsy dress through the icy water and hauled him in to shore. She put warm blankets around him beside the fire and gave him hot tea from a big tin pot. Slightly restored, he said he was the schooner's captain and had instructed his mate to come next if he made it, but he had told all six men to stay where they were if he failed. Back to the water she went and shouted again, "Swim! I'll fetch you to shore. But swim!"

With each attempt, Mother Becker had to go into the water to get the men the last few yards to shore. Finally, all seven huddled around the fire. She had made them a promise and she kept it.

Mother Becker never went without shoes again. The owner of the shipwrecked schooner paid her a visit, noticed the total absence of footgear, measured the feet of the lifesaver and her children, and within a few weeks sent a huge chest containing shoes in all varieties for the family of the lone woman who had stood on the gale-swept Erie shore, barefooted in the snow, to call across heavy seas: "Swim! I'll fetch you to shore. But swim!"