Cast Iron and Memories

Pottawatomi Lighthouse, the oldest light station in Wisconsin, sits on top of a bluff on Rock Island, in lake Michigan. Rock Island is now a state park, and it provides the setting for my latest Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy.

In the mystery, Chloe is hired to write a furnishings plan for the lighthouse.

The lighthouse was occupied until 1946, when the light was automated. Decades passed before an energetic volunteer support group formed to restore the lighthouse. When the Friends of Rock Island (FORI) returned the lighthouse to its 1910 appearance, they had to find period artifacts to furnish the rooms.

My husband and I have had the good fortune to serve as docents, helping visitors imagine life at Pottawatomie.  Here’s Scott talking with guests in the ground floor kitchen.

Although most pieces in the lighthouse came from elsewhere, one major exception can be found in the second floor kitchen. The original cast iron stove had been placed in storage. When the restoration was complete, FORI and park staff hauled the stove out, cleaned it up, and managed to get it back upstairs.

I’d have fond feelings for the stove simply because it is original to the building. But it also helps tell a great story.

And here I am at the old stove in the second story kitchen.

When I give tours, I often ask guests to guess what fuel was used to keep the lamp burning. The two most common answers are whale oil (which was used by the earliest keepers) and kerosene (used in later years). But there was an intermediate fuel, designated by the lighthouse service when whale oil became too expensive. What was combustible, cheap, and readily available in the upper Midwest?

Lard.

The lighthouse was designed to accommodate two families, with a kitchen on each floor. Since the second story kitchen was (obviously) closest to the tower, I imagine that during the lard era keepers constantly kept a kettle of fat simmering on the back of this stove.

Emily Betts, a real woman who lived at Pottawatomie Lighthouse with her family, served as assistant keeper during this time. Decades later, when she was 93, a reporter wrote of asking Emily about her most vivid memories from that era.

“… In cold weather, the oil would thicken and turn white and the light refuse to burn.  Emily and her husband would warm lard oil on the stove, wrap the bowl in hot towels, rush it up the tower stairs, and by keeping up this process the light was persuaded to burn through the long cold nights.”  (Door County Advocate, 12/5/1947)

I simply can’t imagine how she managed. The stairs are very steep. Emily had a large family, and would have been pregnant some of the time. (Her first two children were born at the lighthouse.)

I’ve climbed those stairs in a long skirt. I need one hand to hold the hem high enough that I don’t trip, and the other to clutch the railing.

In time lard gave way to kerosene. When the light was automated, kerosene gave way to electricity. Today a single solar panel on a metal tower powers the light at Pottawatomie station.

But the old iron stove, and Emily Betts’ description in an faded newspaper clipping, remain. They are tangible reminders of the long, cold, dark nights when keepers hurried up the stairs time and again to replenish light and clean congealed grease from the lens…while merchant captains steamed safely through Rock Island passage.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse is open for tours Memorial Day through Columbus Day weekend (October 7 in 2012) . Two ferry trips are required, so advance planning is important. A car ferry runs from the peninsula to Washington Island, and a passengers-only ferry runs from Washington Island to Rock Island.  The lighthouse is about a mile from the dock.

For more information:

Rock Island State Park:  http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/parks/name/rockisland/

For Ferry information:  http://washingtonisland-wi.com/ferry-schedules/

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5 Responses to “Cast Iron and Memories”

  1. Labyrinth-Living Says:

    That is such a fascinating piece of information. What an experience for you and Scott, too.

  2. Kathleen Greffin Popp Says:

    Thanks for the info Kathleen. What days are the tours, cost, & times?? Do you have any signing dates for “The Light Keepers Legacy”? This is a great series, plus the fact I familar with some of the places you mention. Congrats on this book!

    • Kathleen Ernst Says:

      Hi Kathleen! I do have three events planned to celebrate the release of The Light Keeper’s Legacy. “Launch Party East” will be at Old World Wisconsin from 1-5 PM on Sunday, October 21; and “Launch Party West” will be at Booked For Murder in Madison on Tuesday October 23. I’ll also be on Washington Island on October 16–details to follow. I’ll keep you posted, but you can also check my website calendar any time: http://www.kathleenernst.com/calendar.php

  3. Kathleen Ernst Says:

    I just updated the post to include information to help plan a visit to Rock Island. The ferry runs through Columbus Day weekend. Check the links in the post to make sure you’ve got all the info needed before taking a trip!

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