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The House Under the Light
by Andrew L. McFarlane

[Photo of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse]From the middle 1800s to the middle 1900s, the lighthouses that lined the dangerous shorelines of the Great Lakes were more than sentinels to ships, they were places where the weary or imperiled mariner could seek refuge and hospitality. Today, that has changed. One by one, the lights of the Lakes have succumbed to the colder, if more reliable and inexpensive, glow of automation. There are, however, those who still remember the old days and the old ways.

Doug McCormick and Bette McCormick Olli were born along the lake in the lighthouses that their father, a lightkeeper for the U.S. Lighthouse Service, tended. Doug at Poverty Island and Bette at South Fox. The McCormick family lived in the Grand Traverse Lighthouse from 1923 until 1938, when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Administration from the U.S. Lighthouse Service. The Coast Guard stationed keepers at the lighthouse until the installation of an automated light on a steel tower in 1972.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse stood empty for 15 years, the regular mechanical swing of the automated light the only sign of activity. On Memorial Day of 1987, the hard work of the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Foundation paid off and the doors were reopened to the public. This summer, the Foundation celebrates ten years of volunteer efforts, highlighted by their Lighthouse Celebration last Sunday.

Doug and Bette have lived in the caretaker's apartment since 1990, once again in the lighthouse they called home for 15 years, a recognition of their tireless efforts on the behalf of the lighthouse and the Foundation. I spoke with them at their residence, which occupies the back rooms on the ground floor of the lighthouse. Though my arrival was unannounced, in true tradition they welcomed me into their home.

Doug is a veteran of the Coast Guard, and during his tenure he spent much time servicing the lights of the great lakes. He recalls, "If you went to a lighthouse, you ate well. We always fed anybody who came along. Every lighthouse had a barrel of salted herring. That, gravy, boiled potatoes and fresh baked bread was a common meal. At the Minneapolis Shoal Light, you ate fish. The men there would run out fishing lines with bells on them. They would haul them up and put them in a big live box. They'd be pulling the fish in, putting fish in the box, filleting them, and cooking, all at the same time--it was like an assembly line.

"Food was important to have on hand. When I was in the Guard, there was one keeper who knew we were coming and threw all his food out for the gulls. The wind shifted and blew like hell for four or five days--he had to go out to the beach and get what he could from the gulls. As a Group Commander, one of my rulings was to leave canned food in all the lights over the winter. People who got stuck in the ice could often make it to a lighthouse or crib and that food could save their lives."

The tradition of the hospitality of the lighthouse was codified by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Their 1904 manual, reprinted by the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, outlines in rigorous detail the duties of a keeper. "Keepers must be courteous and polite to all visitors, and, where it does not interfere with safe operation of the light, show them all points of interest."

In her book The Way It Was: Memories of My Childhood at Grand Traverse Lighthouse, which is available at the converted Fog Signal Building on the lighthouse grounds, Bette noted that although visitors were to be treated with courtesy and respect, they were not allowed in the tower between sunrise and sunset. At the Grand Traverse Light and all others, keepers were required to stand watch all night, to light the light promptly at sunset and extinguish it at the sunrise. In case of fog, the steam powered fog signal, first a 10" locomotive whistle and later a Type "F" air diaphone horn, would be fired up and sounded and there was a hand pumped model in case the boiler couldn't be fired up quickly enough. Doug remembers, "If we couldn't see Cat's Head Point for the fog, then it was time to sound the whistle. Some people think this used to be Cat's Head Light--never was."

At all times, the keeper and personell were charged with keeping a sharp eye out for vessels in distress as well as a log of the day's happenings. There was inventory to be taken, grounds to be maintained, and of course the light and tower to be kept in perfect working order. Bette writes:

The lighthouse keeper's life was full of duties and regulations and I must admit that Pa was a strict adherent. . . I find it next to impossible to list all of the keeper's duties here, but suffice to say that a keeper worked from sun to sun and yet at night he still wasn't done.

Keepers took their charges seriously, half because they had to and half because they were the sort of people who needed to. The U.S. Lighthouse Service was an organization it would be hard to find a modern day equivalent for. The epitome of the correctness of the Service was the Inspector who would arrive announced only by the distinctive blue commission pennant run up their mast.

Bette related one instance when their parents were away and the girls sighted the blue flag bearing down. In a frenzy of cleaning, a cast iron skillet was overlooked on the stove. That was enough for a demerit. Demerits were few for the McCormick family, however. The gold star, a symbol of utmost rightness, was the usual rating of the inspector. Bette said, "My mother always used to tell us not to put our hands on the wall. When we moved back here, the first thing I did was put both my hands on the wall and say 'Look Ma, I've got my hands on the wall.'"

Doug recalled a few of the Inspectors. Some of them were concerned primarily with mechanical precision while others, like Charlie Hubbard had white gloves which would run doubtfully over every surface and sharp eyes which seemed most concerned in finding fault with cleanliness. "Nobody really hated them for it, they were just doing their job," Doug said. For the most part, "When we saw that flag it was a signal to head for the woods. Mother didn't want us messing anything up. All of Cathead Bay was our playground at the time."

"There was a sort of competition among the lightkeepers in those days. A clean light was important, but it went farther. I remember my father looking at the planter that Johnson built (a beach and stone planter built by Reinhold Johnson) and saying, 'I'm going to build a bigger one.'"

James McCormick did so, and that planter and the rest of his beach stone and mortar work around the Grand Traverse Light have stood the test of time. Doug took me around the lighthouse, explaining the care with which he and the Foundation acquired artifacts to bring the building back to the way it was. "When the Coast Guard left, they took pretty much everything. A lot of what we have now came from residents of the area. We've tried to keep it to a period, most of the things come from 1910 to 1935."

The organ which sits in the living room, a wedding gift to Mary in 1899, was returned by a local person while the nickel plated coal burning stove was picked up by Doug, the same model as the one which warmed the McCormicks during the long winters. As we walked through the dining room he touched a lace doily on the wooden table, "This was my mother's," he said as he lightly touched it.

I admired a coppered brass fire extinguisher and Doug immediately took me to where three old brass extinguishers he had recently acquired were waiting to be unpacked. Although the lighthouse offers one of the most comprehensive pictures of what a lighthouse was in the early 1900s, there is always work refurbishing and improving the furnishings, as well as the less rigorous but still necessary grounds keeping and cleaning to be done.

The structure today is very similar to that built in 1858, which is the same basic building as that at South Manitou and Point Betsie, although the heights of the towers and layout of the structures differ slightly. One renovation that James and Mary McCormick might have appreciated is that their bedroom on the ground floor has been enlarged, with the steps to the second floor and tower now originating in a different room. Doug touched one of the four 45 foot timbers which form the framework for the tower, and showed where he had to repair the wood. "You can't get wood like that anymore," he observed.

Far above, reached by a good deal of stair-climbing, is the top of the tower where the light once shone forth. Now the light is burns no more, but from there one can see the whole of the Manitou Passage, North and South Manitou Islands, the sweep of Cathead Bay, and North and South Fox. "Dangerous water," Doug commented. "You can get quite a current in here--very uncomfortable. I remember every year around the 15th of December we'd see the lightships, White Shoal, Grays Reef and the others heading past us for Charlevoix. The lighthouses all closed around that time--no shipping until the lanes reopened in March.

"Later, in the Coast Guard, one of my duties was to bring all the keepers back in spring. The first thing we did was open all the doors and windows, to get rid of the dead air. We'd wait until they had got the generator going, to be sure they'd be all right. I can tell you, there's nothing colder than a old, dead lighthouse."

The accumulated cold of fifteen years of abandonment has certainly left the Grand Traverse Lighthouse. In part, it has been displaced by the hard work of the volunteers who have worked to restore it to a semblance of its former vitality. Also, the caretaking of Doug and Bette, whose love for the lighthouse is evident in the way they speak of it and touch a wall or a lace heirloom and smile cannot be discounted. However, that alone would not be enough. What has really banished the chill, and will continue to ward it off in the future, is the stream of visitors, over 7,000 a year, that make the journey to the northern tip of the Leelanau.

I asked Doug why he thought that lighthouses hold such a fascination for people. He thought for a moment and replied:

"Lighthouses are a vanishing thing. There's fewer every year who remember what it was to be a keeper. I think that lighthouses hold a lot of romance. They don't care about the unmanned lights. They want to see the buildings and hear the stories. The kids want to peer into the basement windows--looking for ghosts, I guess."

The work goes on, here and elsewhere, to preserve the heritage of the Great Lakes Lights. Doug still hopes that South Fox, his personal favorite which deteriorates further every year, will be preserved. It takes time and money and, most importantly, a will on the behalf of people to ensure that even when all those who have lived in the houses under the light have departed, some of their legacy will remain.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Leelanau State Park is open every day through the summer from 11-7 PM. To get there, take M-22 to M-201 through Northport and follow the signs to Leelanau State Park and the Lighthouse. There is no phone at the Light, but you can write the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Foundation at P.O. Box 43, Northport, MI 49670. For more information, you may also visit the Grand Traverse Light Home Page

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