Digest>Archives> September 1997

Her Life as a Keeper of Lighthouses

Woman's book, lectures, recount her adventures

By Richard Fabrizio


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Connie Small has fond memories of life at six ...
Photo by: Timothy Harrison

Courtesy Portsmouth Herald Newspaper

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Maine's Avery Rock Lighthouse where Connie Small ...
Photo by: Courtesy of the National Archives

In the days of relatively unsophisticated ocean travel, a lighthouse provided a beacon of hope, a chance for survival, a comforting guide.

Constance Small, a resident at the Mark Wentworth Home in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, is a woman who knows a great deal about lighthouses. Now 96, and nearly 50 years removed from her last duty as a lighthouse keeper, Small continues to metaphorically cast a ray of light on the people around her.

Small and her husband Elson spent 26 years as keepers of five different lighthouses and spent time as substitutes on a sixth, the Cape Neddick lighthouse, popularly known as Nubble Light. Small said she and her husband retired in 1948 after the U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility of Fort Point Light in Portsmouth Harbor.

Small said her husband was a Merchant Marine before working at Avery Rock, his first lighthouse, in 1922. Although her husband was technically the keeper of the now dismantled light in Machias Bay, Maine, Small said she had a nearly equal responsibility in keeping that and other lights to follow functioning. Small was 21, when she moved to Avery Rock, but she quickly added that she felt blessed to have had the experience.

"It was a good life," she said. "I had a better general education living all those years on the lighthouses than I could have gotten anywhere else. We lived the life you have to read about today."

Another lighthouse the Smalls maintained was in Lubec, Maine. That, she said, is the eastern most point in the United States, where sunsets in the dead of winter came shortly after 4 p.m. The Smalls also lived at a lighthouse on a small island in the St. Croix River, near the United States/Canadian border in Calais, Maine. The island, complete with sandy beach, provided the couple with a sense of paradise, Small said.

Small, who said lighthouses are a wonderful link to nature and the past, authored a book The Lighthouse Keeper's Wife, to share the beauty of her experiences. The book, published in 1986, offers a look at the many challenges she faced along with her husband.

Small said she witnessed several shipwrecks, braved severe storms and fought hunger at times. She said the lighthouse had no electricity, telephone or refrigeration, and food rations needed to last for 10-15 days. Much of it was canned to keep it preserved.

Small said she was responsible for maintaining the lighthouse while her husband went ashore for food and supplies. She said it wasn't uncommon for her to go three or four months at a time without hearing a human voice other than her husband's. Small recalls one special day while she awaited her husband's return. She was feeling particularly depressed until she picked up a sea urchin from a rock and realized the world was literally at her fingertips.

"The lighthouses provided a life of learning, discovering and investigating nature," she said.

Small's husband died in 1960, and she said it took her some time to find her own way. She became active in a historical society. Eager to share what she believed to be a remarkable and unique experience, Small said she was surprised to see how some people received her. One woman doubted her ability to share any noteworthy experience because of her isolation from the world, she said.

That was in 1963, and today, Small looks differently at that encounter. "I've said 'God bless that woman' so many times," she said "It's all come together because of that."

Small used that doubt to motivate herself, and she has since given 514 lectures, been profiled in countless newspapers and magazine articles, and met former President George Bush, whom, she said , told her that he read and loved her book.

Her lectures have varied in scope and audience, but Small said her favorite ones involved children. Though she never had children of her own, she said she has been adopted as a grandmother to seven grand-children and three great-grand-children, whose parents she met through her lighthouse book and related work.

Small said she uses rocks as a means of relating the hidden treasures of nature to children. One rock she proudly displays is one she found while wading off the rocky coast of Maine; the rock is naturally shaped but looks like Jimmy Durante's nose, a whales mouth, and a barking dog, she said. It is also shaped as if it were a pounding tool worn to the fit of an ancient craftperson's hand, she noted.

Small said the beautiful images found in rocks are something she has always loved, and are an example of the type of discovering most people don't seem to be interested in today.

"I try to teach children today to never throw away a rock until you see what's in it," said Small. " Also, to never throw a rock away because that destroys nature.

"I try to teach children about values-I call it sowing the seeds-to try to teach them to have ambitions for better things."

Small said she has five lectures remaining on her schedule and then she plans to retire. She expects to remain busy, however, by taking up painting, a hobby she said she worked at so many years ago, and by continuing to share the history and lore of lighthouses.

"The things you read about are gone," she said. "The lighthouse today is only an electronic beam, but they were so much more than that. They tell the stories of people's lives and in your own vocation you'll see some of the same things-challenges, the rewards. I can't really explain it-it's just something inside you."

Connie's book is available through Lighthouse Depot as item #31643 for $13.95 plus shipping by calling 1-800-758-1444.

This story appeared in the September 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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