Born March 24, 1864, in Hamar, Norway, Hagbert “Bert” J. Enger came to America in 1877 along with his maternal grandparents (his mother stayed in Norway; his father is thought to have abandoned the family). The thirteen-year-old immigrant found work on a farm in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Later jobs took him to Wisconsin sawmills, Dakota wheat fields, and the iron mines of northeastern Minnesota and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
He later settled in Pine City, Minnesota, where he purchased half interest in a general store. According to Enger family historian Jim Insbell, the store “was a bad experience for several years due to old and shopworn merchandise. He eventually was able to pay off all debts, and he and his partner split the store, with Hagbert taking the hardware and furniture part of the business.” Enger then hired Emil Olson, a native of Minnesota’s Chippewa County, to work in the store while Enger made sales calls to farmers. Recognizing that the market was too small for the business to survive, Enger and Olson—now partners—decided to try their luck in Duluth.
In 1903, with less than $500 worth of inventory, they set up shop in Duluth’s West End at 1722 West Superior Street as Enger & Olson. Within a year the business moved to a larger space at 2012 West Superior Street. In May 1909 they relocated again, leasing a portion of the 1893 U.S. Block at 1826–1832 West Superior Street, directly adjacent to the Haugsrud & Markkanen warehouse. Enger & Olson continued to grow, and by 1922 the business occupied the entire building. The furniture firm purchased the U.S. Block in late 1919, the same time it bought the 1909 Haugsrud & Markkanen mercantile building at 1832 West Michigan Street. Enger & Olson began using the Michigan Street building as its warehouse in 1922. The building, now the tap room and offices of Duluth’s Bent Paddle Brewing Company, still bears the name “Enger & Olson Inc.”
Insbell writes that the business prospered because “they were complementary to one another. [Enger] was cautious and conservative, and Olson was enthusiastic and impulsive. Enger was slow of speech, deliberate, and retiring. Olson was quick in speech and action, and enjoyed being in the public eye. In essence, the two men formed a perfect partnership, and they used an intermediary (a friend) very effectively when unable to agree on something. Both were extremely honest, intelligent and loyal.” Olson died in 1926.
Enger never married. He lived with his Uncle Bernt and Aunt Pauline Enger and their daughter Cornelia in an apartment on the store’s third floor. In 1928 he was installed as the fifth member of the Duluth Hall of Fame. On April 5, 1931, Enger suffered a stroke while in Hawaii and died three days later. Insbell claims Enger’s remains are interred within Enger Memorial Tower, but that has never been verified. A plaque located inside the tower reads:
Enger Observation Tower
To the memory of Bert J. Enger, 1864–1931, Native of Norway, Citizen of Duluth.
From Common Laborer to Merchant Prince, he demonstrated in his own life that America is a land of opportunity for the immigrant, and that her civilization is enriched by his citizenship.
In his life time, by a very generous gift, he enabled the City of Duluth to acquire and develop the land adjacent to this tower as a park and golf course for the enjoyment of future generations, and at his death bequeathed two-thirds of his estate to the people of Duluth.
Hereabout, in his life time, he spent leisure hours in admiration of the panorama of Duluth and its environs which you now may see from this tower.
In recognition of his devotion and generosity, the people of Duluth elected him to their Hall of Fame and will always cherish his memory.
Dedicated June 15, 1939, by Olav, Crown Prince of Norway.