Living at a Lighthouse

By Helen Carlson

Copyright © 1995 - 2003 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc.

Reprinted By Permission

 

 

I must begin with a day in the Spring of 1937. Dad, Herman Erickson, had taken the Civil Service exam for the Lighthouse Dept. and was waiting daily for word from them. 

One day in June he came home for lunch and Mom was watching him from the window; he was reading a letter. All at once he threw it in the air, flopped on the grass, kicked his feet in the air and yelled "Whoopee". He had received his appointment to the Lighthouse Dept. and was to report for duty at South Fox Island, MI. July 1st. The family could not join him there. 

Dad must have been lonely, having left his wife and five children and a busy life in Sister Bay, WI. I know he enjoyed walking on the beautiful sand beaches and I'm sure he spent many evening hours reading and playing Solitaire. In the book "Living at a Lighthouse" James Goudreau referred to a man who knit socks while on watch and I'm sure he was speaking of our Dad.

The commercial fishermen would stop at the island and give Dad trout, which he always enjoyed, and canned some to share with us at home. The fishermen also taught him to make a "fish booyah," perhaps the forerunner to the famous Door County Fish Boil. They made it aboard their fish tug and invited him to eat with them. It was made with the trout, potatoes, onions, spices with a tomato base and served in bowls like soup. Dad made it on special occasions for the family for years after. A real treat.

After one season on South Fox, Dad transferred to Plum Island, just off the tip of Door County Peninsula. My first visit to the Lighthouse was a weekend in April 1938. Dad arranged for me to ride to Northport with a Coast Guardsman whose family was living in Sister Bay and after a long wait the Coast Guard arrived and we rode over to the Island on the "Bull", a Coast Guard work boat that is now on display at the Fishermens Museum at Jackson Harbor, Washington Island, WI. Dad met me at the dock and together we walked through the woods across the island to the lighthouse. The dwelling had quarters for three families. Clayton Kinkaide was keeper, Otto Lovig, first assistant and Dad second assistant. Dad had upstairs quarters, sparsely furnished. There was a kitchen with a wood burning stove for cooking and a kerosene stove for summer. He carried water from the hand pump outside for drinking and cooking. There was no refrigeration. I remember a pantry, a bedroom and living room that served as a second bedroom, with a coal burning space heater. In one corner was a round oak dining table where Dad always had a bouquet of wild flowers in season and in the fall a few thick red stalks with clusters of white berries and a black eye, the fruit of the baneberry. We called them "doll's eyes" and they dried and lasted all winter. From the living room window we had a view of the flag waving in the breeze, the dock and the boathouse, and the mainland across Death's Door Channel. There was a sturdy leather covered rocker and perhaps a chair or two. That was all. The wainscoting on the walls was varnished, the plastered walls above were painted with government regulation clay colored paint. The hardwood floors were varnished to a high gloss. The lights were powered with a Kohler generator and the light was not constant but switched between dim and bright, very hard to read by. Dad had supper ready but all I can recall was the strawberry gelatin he had prepared with sliced bananas. To this day when I make Jello with bananas I think about that time and how special it tasted to me then. I climbed the tower with Dad to light the light, we picked wildflowers, and we hiked around the island. When we left the house Dad said, "Better put a little lipstick on, we might meet someone." We didn't. We seldom did. Monday must have been a beautiful spring day because Dad took me across Death's Door Channel, about two miles in a rowboat. 

We usually rode with the Coast Guards and experienced many a rough ride, always feeling safe in the life boat. The Lighthouse Dept. furnished a small boat for their crew to use in the summer. In the winter there could be open water one day and ice the next day between Plum Island and the mainland. I can remember going over on the boat one day and walking across the next with two Coast Guards pulling a skiff with runners. They had creepers on their boots and could walk faster so when I got behind they suggested I get in the boat and they pulled me across the ice to Northport. When the school term was finished that year Mom, my two sisters and I moved over to the island and the Lovig children came to spend the summer with their Dad. 

We hiked the trails, usually we carried a stick to break the cobwebs as we walked. We played games, picked the wildberries, and hopped the Coast Guard boat whenever we could. They went over to Washington Island everyday for the mail. One day I remember going fishing with the Keeper and Dad but the fish were not biting so we stopped at Pilot Island and had afternoon coffee with the crew there. 

We kept our car at Northport and once a week my sister and I went ashore for high school band practice. When we returned to Northport we signaled Dad with the car lights and he came to get us with the Lighthouse boat. 

The Lighthouse Tender came with the winter's supply of hard coal in July and the inspectors made their annual visit. The keepers had a grapevine system going and warned each other when the inspectors were making their rounds so when they arrived everything was in tip-top shape and the men in uniform. 

Later there was a metal box with a telephone on a pole at Northport for the Coast Guards to contact the Plum Island Station for a boat to pick them up. Whenever we wanted to talk to Dad we would ring one ring to get the man on watch at the Coast Guard Station and he could switch our call to the Lighthouse. 

Those Plum Island days were fun carefree days. I have been surprised as I re-read the diary I wrote back then to see how often we traveled back and forth from the island and how often the island people would stop at our home on Bay Shore Drive in Sister Bay and Mom would serve them coffee or dinner and many times because of weather conditions they stayed over to catch the boat the next day.

March of 1942, Dad was transferred to Wind Point Lighthouse, Racine. Two Coast Guard trucks came and moved all the furniture from our home in Sister Bay. The dwelling there consisted of three apartments also. Our quarters were on the opposite end of the building from the tower. Now the folks had only one household to maintain and they were there for about ten years. These quarters too had wainscoting and government regulation clay colored paint which Dad would lighten up as much as he dared and finally Mom persuaded him to paint the kitchen white. In the entry to the kitchen hung the polished brass dust pan and the foxtail brush with the varnished handle and usually Dad's Lighthouse cap. 

There was only one telephone in the building and that was in the passageway to the tower. The man on watch would answer it and there were buzzers in each apartment. One buzz for Dad and two or three for the kids at home. \

The tower light was a revolving light and made beautiful patterns on the lawn in summer and was especially beautiful when it was snowing. The fog signal was so penetrating one had to wait in the car in the garage for a blast and then dash for the house before the next one. If the fog lingered for a day or two we just had to get away for awhile. 

Every three months or so there was a delivery of books from the Wisconsin Free Library for the enjoyment of the families, and they were kept on the table in the passageway to the tower along with the Keeper's logbook. 

After lunch when the chores were done Dad would change to his uniform pants, a white shirt, black tie and often his cap and uniform jacket when he went to town. The station was kept immaculate, the tower whitewashed every year, the fog signal always smelled of oil and fresh paint and the huge lawn was mowed to perfection. It was a beautiful place, and I was proud to call it home. Here Mom was always reminding us to keep our things in an orderly fashion because the inspectors might come at any moment. 

The laundry soap was furnished by the Lighthouse Dept. It was bars of soap the color and smell of Fels Naptha but came unwrapped and in odd shapes and sizes. The toilet tissue was also furnished and that was something to be desired! Enough said! These were World War II years, and gas was rationed so when the Keeper, Henry Bevry drove to Racine four miles South, he would stick his head inside the entry door and call, "Anything from town?" Early one morning that summer of 1942 he opened the door to announce, "the Germans are here!" I remember being frightened for a moment and looking out to see those huge landing barges on the shore by the dock. The men from Great Lakes Naval Station were on maneuvers.

Before retiring in 1958 Dad served a few years at Manitowoc Breakwater Light. The red brick dwelling was one of the newest on the Lakes. It had beautiful parquet flooring and was all furnished by the Coast Guard Dept. My husband and our two boys visited there often and one Christmas Eve we walked out on the catwalk at midnight to meet Dad just coming off watch.

There were hardships I'm sure. If Mom or Dad were to write about those years, especially the years on Plum Island I referred to as fun, carefree days, they would have a different story to tell.

I cherish my Lighthouse heritage. It was a way of life that today is a part of American History.

 

This story appeared in the November 1995 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine

 

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