Digest>Archives> June 2009

Beaver Island’s Magic Life Saving Station Gardens

By Cynthia Johnson


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The original United States Life-Saving Service ...

There are many reasons for lighthouse lovers to visit Beaver Island, Michigan at any time of year, and we have discovered one prime reason to visit in mid June. Aside from the location being pristine and spectacular, private and quiet, the island features two lighthouses. In addition, the Beaver Head Lighthouse tower is one of Michigan’s lighthouses open and accessible for climbing during most seasons.

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By the time this photograph was taken sometime ...

The list of reasons for any traveler goes on, as this ancient "emerald isle" is historically unique, being the only location in the United States where a Jesse James Strang, resident Mormon once declared himself King. One can still view the Strang Hotel or The Print Shop Museum where he printed his own newspaper.

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The original Life Saving Service Life Boat ...

The boating, swimming, hiking, and camping opportunities here are endless. The journey to arrive teems with the adventure of flying over Beaver Island’s Archipelago of seven tiny islands. Or, one can begin by visiting Charlevoix and passing by that lighthouse on a lovely ride atop the decks of the Emerald Isle ferryboat. Two and a half hours later, the Emerald Isle skims past the 1856 Whiskey Point Lighthouse and what was once the St. James Coast Guard Life Saving Life-Boat Station on Beaver Island.

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The surf men assigned in the late 1800s and early ...
Photo by: Cynthia Johnson

One good reason for visiting involves Gene Masta’s hosta gardens surrounding his home that was once used to house life-saving boats next to the Beaver Island Harbor Lighthouse at Whiskey Point. For lighthouse and maritime history lovers, this now lovely cottage home nestled in forest and exquisite flower gardens offers a chance to glimpse a charming slice of rich lighthouse and life saving station history.

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The original 1875 Life Saving Service Life Boat ...
Photo by: Cynthia Johnson

The term "garden" does not fully describe this vast expanse of meticulous, gorgeous rock and plant beds that Gene has created around the home. Huge, twenty to thirty foot beds in various shapes encased in ancient island rocks hold plant varieties that number in the hundreds. There are many varieties of trees, plants, and flowers, held in graduated beds lined with stately, elegant hostas. An incredible, still beauty prevails throughout the garden; enhanced by metal arches, tubular bells and designs also created by Gene. Gene’s talent at combining machinist skills, landscape architecture and magnificent artistry is demonstrated with dozens of metalwork designs, created from pipes, wheels and other antique items that Gene collects.

This quality of peace represents Beaver Island’s lifestyle and culture that prevails across this quiet, tranquil island. If a picture post card were created to represent the pure, clean and unspoiled environment necessary to preserve a national treasure, that post card would look like Gene’s gardens. These well-groomed beds and paths often look like they have been combed and styled by the hands of fairies, elves and gnomes. Or perhaps it is leprechauns from the many Irish descendants still living on the island that magically maintain the islands largely untouched and undeveloped forests, meadows and marshlands.

In 1963, no one on this historical island could have envisioned the transformation that has taken place on this once totally wooded site. The story begins with Gene’s purchase of the original Life Saving station boathouse in the early 70’s.

The building’s ownership had already passed from the Coast Guard into the hands of Charlie Martin. Charlie had hauled the building across the icy harbor to a location on Main Street near the old net shed across the street from McDonough’s Market.

Native islander, KK Antkoviak recalls visiting the building on her birthday, listening to old time piano and attending many other celebratory events. Coincidentally, the Life Saving station had once possessed the only "island phone" and this was where people gathered to spread news in emergencies and otherwise. It seems the old Life Boat building has always been a place for people to gather and remains so to this day.

In the mid-70’s, the Life Boat structure was moved once again, down Main street, up the hill and over to McDonough road. This is where Gene began a 30-year transformation in clearing the property, building the gardens and reconstructing the house.

The original catwalk where life-saving crews surveyed the harbor has been reinforced and below it, clear glass arched windows now fill the giant door where wooden longboats once exited into Lake Michigan. The two-story building remained next to the new boathouse for many years but now rests cross-lots from the library, Beaver Island Lodge Motel and Laurain Lodge; both ideal accommodations near the water on the Northern shore of the island.

Within walking distance of the ferry landing downtown, the garden remains a near secret. It is usually only discovered by wandering tourists attracted by a historical machinery display across from the library and then enticed by Gene’s attractive paths.

Now a private home and bordered on three sides by forest or fence, the timid stroller may not venture onto the grounds. More adventurous wayfarers and travelers that interpret the path as an invitation will enter and be drawn onward to ongoing paths meandering through Gene’s domain and front yard. However, even as one realizes they are now in someone’s yard; Gene’s collection of old island street signs and decorations make the location look so much like a public park that one is continually led into the inner sanctum of tranquility, peace and magic that sums up Gene’s vision.

At this point, a charming, white haired and casually clad gentleman may appear to greet such travelers. If they are lucky, Gene may have time to chat with them about the gardens and the home’s history. Gene is most often found with shovel or tools in hand, constructing a new bed, installing trellises or simply maintaining one of the 28 or so gigantic beds.

Once described in a magazine story about the Life Boat structure, simply as "a man from Michigan" Gene is to be applauded for his part in preserving this valuable piece of United States Coast Guard and Life-Saving Service and maritime history, creating such a beautiful landscape, and for magnanimously offering it for occasional public view. If not for Gene’s efforts, this building may well have gone the way of so many other precious pieces of lighthouse history; abandoned, neglected or destroyed.

Gene may not be able to recite the entire history of the long line of lighthouse keepers and life-saving activities that occurred on this island’s shores but his lovely home and it’s magic gardens present a rare opportunity and delightful embarking point to begin such a journey delving into the Beaver Island past and present.

For more information about the history of Beaver Island’s lighthouses, contact the Beaver Island Chamber of Commerce, and the Beaver Island Historical Society. These contacts can lead to more information about the island’s rich history also held and preserved at the island’s Marine Museum and Print Shop Museum. Information about the island and the many other historical and recreational sites is also available at www.beaverisland.org.

This story appeared in the June 2009 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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