Archive for the ‘Pottawatomie Lighthouse’ Category

The Empty Meadow

September 3, 2013

I had intended to write a novel “just” about Pottawatomie Lighthouse in Rock Island State Park. Why look any farther? Pottawatomie has it all:  a fascinating human history, a stunning location, an impressive and beautifully restored structure. My husband Scott and I have done stints as live-in docents for the past five years, so we know it well.

pottawatomie lighthouse

I write the Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites mystery series. Chloe is a curator at Old World Wisconsin, the large outdoor ethnic museum in Waukesha County where I once served as curator. A series about historic places, the magnificent lighthouse…it was inevitable. Clearly Chloe needed to spend time at Pottawatomie.

So I began planning the mystery novel that would become The Light Keeper’s Legacy. The basic premise:  Chloe travels to Rock Island as a guest curator, charged with developing a furnishings plan during the restoration process. Her peaceful island idyll gets off to a rough start when she discovers a body on the beach.

I wrote the first few chapters. Then something unexpected happened. During a non-docent visit to Rock Island, Scott and I explored the southern end of the island—something we’d never done.

While doing so we visited the site of a former fishing village.

meadow

At one time, perhaps three hundred people lived there.  This interpretive sign suggests what some of the buildings might have looked like.

Fishing village sign

Illustration Rock Island State Park, Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources; artwork by Benjamin Tollefson.

The village didn’t last for long. As men had to go farther from shore to fish, they needed bigger boats and deeper harbors.

Chester Thordarson, the wealthy inventor who purchased most of Rock Island in 1910, restored a couple of the small cottages and cabins still standing at the village site, intending to use them as guest accommodations.

Thordarson-oldest log home in Wis

Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

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Note the same cabin, barely visible on the north side of the cove. Photo from Thordarson collection, courtesy Washington Island Historical Archives.

The same spot today.

The same spot today.

Now, nothing physical remains.  A few shallow depressions—suggesting long-gone foundations—are all that can be seen of the fishing village.

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Yet something does remain, something intangible but compelling. As I walked through the peaceful meadow, I imagined the bustling activity it once held.

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I could almost see the little cabins, almost hear the thuds of a cooper’s mallet and the sweet tones of a Danish lullaby. I could almost smell the smoke of wood fires, the tang of new-caught fish, the wet green scent of drying nets.

Danish wife

As I wandered around the shallow harbor it was easy to imagine English and Irish and Icelandic and Norwegian fishermen hauling their boats onto the cobbled beach.

Danish fishermen

And, as sometimes happens when I’m writing, my vision for the book changed. I created an historical plotline featuring a family of Danish immigrants who settled on the fishing village in 1869. Ragna Anderson, a fictional woman from the Hedebo region of Denmark, became a major character.

Danish women

Ragna’s story is woven with Chloe’s more modern experiences. The two are linked by the lighthouse, and by one of the real families who lived and worked at Pottawatomie Lighthouse. Emily Betts appears in Chloe’s research, and as a character in the historical plotline. My novel is much richer because of the inspiration I found in that “empty” meadow.

On Rock Island, it is very easy to focus only on the magnificent lighthouse, and the equally magnificent Viking Hall and Boathouse built by Chester Thordarson.

boathouse, Rock Island

But those structures present an incomplete picture. Many people came and went from Rock Island without leaving any still-lingering physical evidence behind—European and Yankee fishermen, Pottawatomie and Menomonee and Huron travelers, French traders and explorers.

The same thing is true, of course, throughout Door County—and elsewhere. Next time you travel your favorite back roads, use your imagination and a guidebook or two to explore the landscape. Imagine who might have once peopled the peaceful forest; the tranquil field.  You never know what—or who—you might discover.

Making Jam For Mollie

June 17, 2013

My husband Scott and I have served as docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse, setting for The Light Keeper’s Legacy (the third Chloe Ellefson Historic Sites Mystery), for five years now. There are lots of stories to tell. I wove some of my favorites into the book—especially those concerning the Betts family, occupants in the late 1800s.

Visitors touring the lighthouse, however, see the structure as it appeared in about 1910. Charles Boshka was head keeper then.

Charlie Boshka

Charlie Boshka at an earlier posting.

I knew the basic facts of his time there, but until recently, all I knew about his wife Mollie was how lovely she was.

Charles and Mollie Boshka

This was Charlie and Mollie’s wedding photo.

That changed when I had the wonderful pleasure of meeting two of the Boshkas’ descendants. Thanks to the generosity of Connie Sena and Kari Gordon, the handsome couple in the portrait displayed at the lighthouse are a little more real to me now.

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Some sheet music was among the family treasures. Charlie played the violin, and even composed at least a few tunes.

The couple had two children.

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Charlie and Mollie with their son, Lucien Nels, and daughter, Ella Josephine.

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I adore this photograph! It gives a hint of life beyond the daily requirements for lighthouse families.

I was particularly pleased to get glimpses of Mollie. She grew roses.

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Some of Mollie’s roses still bloom at the couple’s home on Washington Island.

And she was a knitter.

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Mollie’s needles…

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…and a closer view of her handiwork.

I hoped to find a lace pattern similar to these, practice over the winter, and knit during my stay at Pottawatomie this year. Time got away from me, so—maybe next year.

However, Connie shared another treasure with me:  Mollie’s recipe for rhubarb jam.

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The week Scott and I traditionally stay as docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse comes right at the peak of rhubarb season. Perfect.

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That’s me, harvesting from the lighthouse garden.

Other than rhubarb, I brought the fixings for Mollie’s jam. I made a batch the day we arrived at Pottawatomie, and wrote the recipe out on brown paper.

rhubarb jam

Scott said the simmering jam made the whole house smell wonderful!

An added bonus?  The jam was delicious. I kept one jar for display, and we enjoyed the rest on our morning toast all week.

Mollie Boshka’s Rhubarb Jam
1 qt. rhubarb cut up fine
1 qt. sugar
2 oranges – grind rind and all
Let sit on back of stove until juices form.  Then let it boil good for 20 minutes.

Just before you take it off stove put in 1/4 lb. of walnuts, cut up fine
Also grind half a cup of raisins and put in the mixture.

*Note:  I omitted the sugar and added a splash of maple syrup instead. Also, I didn’t have a grinder, so I minced the oranges, walnuts, and raisins with a sharp knife.  Mollie’s reference to letting the rhubarb sit on the back of the stove harkens back to the days when the back burners of a wood-fired cookstove stayed warm; I stirred the rhubarb, oranges, and sweetener over low heat until it began to simmer.  I did not actually can the jam, but I plan to make another batch and freeze it in small containers.

It made me happy to bring a little something of Mollie back to the lighthouse.  And on chilly evenings, I could almost hear Charlie playing violin in the parlor—just as he did a century ago.

Pottawatomie lighthouse parlor

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.

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.

Should It Stay, Or Go?

July 1, 2010

Scott and I recently spent nine wonderful days as live-in docents at Pottawatomie Lighthouse. It sits on a cliff within Rock Island State Park, off the tip of Door County, Wisconsin. It was our second stint, and we hope to go back. We love the whole experience.

Me and Scott at Pottawatomie, 2009

Pottawatomie is the oldest light station in Wisconsin. It was established in 1836, twelve years before Wisconsin became a state. The first keeper lived in a tiny stone cottage, and tended a separate light tower. In Pottawatomie’s earliest days the light was fueled with whale oil.

In 1858, the lighthouse service built a new tower and attached duplex, designed to house a keeper and assistant keeper and their families. When whale oil became too expensive, the keepers used lard to light the lamp. Pig fat was cheaply available from the Chicago stockyards. It was also a difficult fuel to use. Pots were likely kept simmering on the stove, and several times during cold nights keepers would haul hot lard up to the lantern room. Every morning a sheen of fat had to be cleaned from the glass Fresnel lens.

The 1858 lighthouse (the back addition, a summer kitchen, was added later).

The lighthouse has been beautifully restored to represent it’s 1910 appearance by the Friends of Rock Island, a support group which works with the Department of Natural Resources to preserve, maintain, and interpret the site.

By 1910, the light was fueled by kerosene. For a time huge quantities were kept in the lighthouse cellar. The keepers finally were successful in their request for a separate oil house, but all that oil still had to be hauled up steps from the beach below, or up from a landing over a mile away.

Keepers lived in the lighthouse until it was automated in 1946. Forty years later, the Coast Guard planted a metal tower beside the lighthouse, with a solar-powered light on top.

Last year, a visiting Guard member told us that maintaining the light took about four hours a year. He also told us that when these automated lights die, they won’t be replaced; ship captains will rely solely on GPS and computerized navigation. During our 9-day visit this year, in fact, the modern light was not functioning. Perhaps we’ve already seen the end of the era of warning lights on Rock Island.

View from the parlor window. The modern tower sits in close proximity to the 1858 lighthouse.

By almost any standard, the metal tower is an eyesore. It certainly detracts from the lovely restoration work done on the 1858 building with such great care and expense.  The Friends of Rock Island have worked hard to create an impression of 1910 both inside and outside of the lighthouse.  Most people who love Pottawatomie Lighthouse can’t wait for the day the tower is formally decommissioned and removed.

But while on Rock Island this year, I heard an alternative perspective proposed.

Now, visitors to the station can stand in one spot and see the foundation lines of the 1836 stone cottage, the 1858 lighthouse, and the 1986 tower. The entire history of Rock Island’s guiding lights can be taken in at a glance.

Here's the 1836 foundation line, with modern tower in background. The lighthouse is just out of view on right.

All that remains of that first station is the tiny stone privy. Today it is celebrated as the oldest building in Door County.

The first keeper's stone cottage was so poorly made that it soon needed to be replaced. This outhouse is all that remains.

So…should that metal tower and solar-powered light be part of the interpretive story? A century from now, will interpreters wish it had been saved?

When any restoration project is undertaken, philosophical choices have to be made. There is no right or wrong answer.

Me, I want to see the tower removed. I want to be able to stand in that peaceful clearing, and contemplate the families who lived in the lighthouse, without any modern intrusion.  Docents can use photographs of the tower to discuss change over time.

But I also acknowledge that the tower is part of the continuum, and part of Pottawatomie’s story.

The end of an era.

What do you think? Should the metal tower stay, or should it go?