Archive for the ‘The Light Keeper’s Legacy’ Category

Cast Iron and Memories

September 6, 2012

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/

Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop To Drink

June 29, 2012

So said Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his famous ballad, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  I suspect that some of the former light keepers at Pottawatomie Lighthouse (Rock Island, WI) muttered the same phrase.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse, built in 1858.

My husband Scott and I have had the privilege of doing docent duty there four times. We are proud members of The Friends of Rock Island (FORI), the volunteer support group which (in collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) has done an extraordinary job of preserving, protecting, and interpreting the lighthouse.

The lighthouse has many tales to tell, but one of the stories that I find particularly compelling is the relationship between the people who once tended this lighthouse and water.

Pottawatomie sit on a cliff on Rock Island, in Lake Michigan. In the 1830s, a group of Detroit merchants and shipowners petitioned Congress to establish a light station on the island, in order to guide captains safely through the channel and on into the growing port of Green Bay. The petition was successful, and in 1836, David Corbin took up residence as first keeper.

View from cliff-top.  Beautiful, but a long way down.

It was rugged duty.  There was no easy way down the cliff, so Corbin hauled his water from a more sheltered landing over a mile away. As time permitted, he cleared trees and hacked a lane down to that small bay.  He kept a pony, and likely used it to haul water back to the isolated station.

His stone cottage was so poorly constructed that water condensed on the inner walls. But every gallon needed for cooking, cleaning, watering his garden, tending his pony, and maintaining the light had to be lugged in from the landing or captured from rainfall.

In 1858 a new lighthouse was constructed, designed to house two families. It included a gutter system to capture rainwater from the roof, and store it in cellar cisterns. Residents could pump water into their kitchen—pretty fancy!

Part of the original gutter system.

Rainwater stored in cellar cisterns could be pumped directly into the kitchen.

But by the 1880s, the cisterns failed and were pronounced unrepairable. That period was marked by several seasons of drought. Keepers begged the Lighthouse Service to dig a well. The Service seemed to be unconcerned. Stairs were constructed down the cliff to the beach below.

Some of the original stone steps leading to cliff’s edge.

For decades, families once again hauled every drop of water needed at the station either from the harbor over a mile away, or up 154 steps from the beach below the lighthouse.

And the staircase leading down to the water. (A modern replacement, but you get the idea.)

Old photos show that families kept big gardens. Some raised chickens and cows at the station, and grew hay. They were responsible for keeping the entire station spotless and ready for inspection at any moment. One keeper, William Betts, vented his frustration in the official log:  If the men who pretend to keep up repairs at the light station do not provide for a water supply before long, I shall quit this business. (July 31, 1884)

William’s wife Emily, who served as assistant keeper, appears as a character in my third Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy (coming in October).  I wove in mention of the Betts’ frustration with the water situation. My first obligation is to tell an entertaining mystery that keeps readers turning the pages…but I hope that the book also provides a glimpse into the challenges faced by the Betts family and other long-gone keepers.

Joining The Club

October 12, 2011

People who live on Washington Island, off the northern tip of Door County, WI, have been known to tell newcomers that they won’t be true islanders until they stop at Nelsen’s Hall for a shot of bitters. I’d somehow missed the iconic tradition during my visits. But when I decided to place a scene at Nelsen’s in the third Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery, The Lightkeeper’s Legacy, I had to remedy that omission.

A venerable landmark.

Danish immigrant Tom Nelsen built the tavern in 1899. He lived to be 90, and credited his long life to his habit of drinking nearly a pint of Angostura Bitters every day. When that pesky Prohibition law went into effect, Nelsen blithely applied for a pharmacist’s license and dispensed bitters as a stomach tonic—despite the fact that it’s about 90 proof. Today, Nelsen’s Hall has the honor of being the state’s oldest legally-operating bar.

The hall was much more then a tavern, though. Over the years it has served as a social center for the island community. Memorabilia that decorates the main room provides lots of reminders.

Photographs and old tools, mounted near the waitstaff station.

Some of the walls are of stovewood construction, as seen in the open section here.

Once, island residents came to Nelson’s to watch movies.  This equipment dates to 1910.

The original bar, dating back to 1850, now showcases old ads.

When my husband Scott and I  visited recently, we told the waitress that we wanted to try the bitters.  She served up two shot glasses filled with a dark reddish liquid, and we tossed ’em back.  Not too bad, I thought.  A second later I realized that my nostrils felt hot.

Nelson’s serves more Bitters than any other location in the world.

We were invited to sign the Bitters Club membership book. The waitress pulled out two membership cards, dipped her thumb in the dregs of my glass, and provided the official seal. Each year more then 10,000 people visit Nelsen’s and join the Bitter’s Club.

Scott and I followed our initiation with dinner, which was quite good—definitely not your basic munchies. I won’t order bitters again, but it was a fun evening. Do you think the IRS will question our bar tab?

Anyway, I like businesses that celebrate tradition.   If you have a favorite, do let me know!  I’m always game for a new adventure.

Beyond Death’s Door

June 16, 2011

Chloe’s off to the lighthouse!

Pottawatomie Lighthouse, Rock Island State Park, WI

Well, she will be at some point, anyway.  It’s always been my plan to get Chloe Ellefson, curator and protagonist in my adult mystery series, out and about. Yes, she’ll stay rooted at Old World Wisconsin. What fun, though, to have her travel to different places!  It will let me showcase some of my favorite historic sites.

For the past three years, my husband Scott and I have been lucky enough to serve as volunteer live-in docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, on Rock Island, in Lake Michigan.

Ready for guests.

Pottawatomie is the oldest light station in Wisconsin.  The original 1836 stone cottage and tower were replaced in 1858 by a magnificent lighthouse. Rock Island is a state park. A support group, Friends of Rock Island State Park, worked with the DNR to fund and manage the structure’s restoration.  FORI also coordinates the docent program.

It takes two ferries to reach Rock Island, which is off the tip of Door County—the first from the mainland to Washington Island, and a second from Washington to Rock. It’s well worth the trip.

Swans in Jackson Harbor, Washington Island; taken from the second ferry.

The restoration is magnificent, the setting is spectacular, and I love sharing lighthouse stories with visitors. Scott and I give tours from 10-4 each day. After that, things get pretty quiet.

After hours.

History, beautiful scenery, and long evenings…lets just say that for someone with an over-active imagination, like me, it didn’t take long for plot ideas to start swirling in my brain.

A month or so ago I submitted a proposal to my adult series publisher, Midnight Ink, suggesting that the third book in the series be set on Rock Island. I hadn’t heard anything by the time Scott and I left for our week-long stay. Just before getting on the first ferry—and going out of cell phone range—I checked email. A message from my agent was in my Inbox. Midnight Ink had given the lighthouse book a green light.

The book’s working title is Beyond Death’s Door. Death’s Door is the passage separating mainland Door County from Washington Island. As the name suggests, it’s treacherous.  While the ferry made it’s crossing that morning, I sent thank-you emails to my agent and editor from the middle of Death’s Door. It seemed appropriate.

So at some future date, in book 3, Chloe will be off to Rock Island. She’ll stay at the lighthouse, with no phone, in the off-season when few if any people are on the island. And while of course she’ll encounter murder and mayhem, I suspect she’ll love being there as much as I do.

Fresnel lens and view from the lantern room.

Update:  Book 3, now titled The Lightkeeper’s Legacy, will be out in autumn, 2012.