Anyone who thumbs through the pages of history while researching lighthouse keepers will find some keepers where the information abounds, especially if they were stationed at a popular land-based lighthouse or if some reporter wrote about them, but there are others such as Joseph M. Muise who quietly served his country, sometimes dangerously, and sometimes tragically.
Once a person learns about the rough childhood that Joseph Muise endured, it’s amazing that he was able to work his way up to secure the prestigious job of lighthouse keeper, especially because of circumstances where his life could have taken a much different turn.
Born in Canada to French-Canadian parents, Joseph Muise’s mother, Rose Emma, died at a young age during a time that his father, Thomas Muise, was at sea and Joseph Muise and his sister Ann Adele were temporarily taken in by an aunt and uncle. Then, on one of his father’s trips to sea, Thomas Musie took the children on board a steamship from Canada, and on a stop in Maine, he abandoned the children on the streets of Southwest Harbor, Maine. At that time, Joseph was 12 years old and Ann Adele was only 8 years old, and neither one of them could speak English. Somehow or another, the now “orphaned” youngsters survived by living in fish crates on the docks.
A Changing Life
Eventually Ann Adele was taken in by a local family as a housekeeper, and Joseph found work around the docks and on fishing boats. While working on a fishing boat owned by Oliver Church, Capt. Church invited him to visit with his family in Jonesport, Maine. It was here that he met Annie N. Seavey and the couple eventually married and settled in Rockland, Maine where Joseph Muise secured a job as a laborer in the limekilns, which was hard brutal work that soon started to take a toll on his health. It was then that Annie’s brother George Seavey, who was a lighthouse keeper at Thacher Island Lighthouse in Massachusetts, suggested that Joseph Muise join the U.S. Lighthouse Service, offering to help him through the process.
His first assignment on June 30, 1926 was a 3rd assistant keeper at Moose Peak Lighthouse on Mistake Island off the coast of Jonesport, Maine. By this time, Joseph and Annie Muise had three children: Ronald, Madeline, and Willard. His stint at Moose Peak Lighthouse lasted six months when he was transferred as the 2nd assistant keeper at the remote Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, 25 miles out to sea, and considered one of the most desolate and inhospitable lighthouses on the coast. But it was here where the family lived for 3½ years.
Born at Sea
In 1931 Joseph Muise was promoted again, this time to keeper, and was sent to the remote, but much more hospitable, Baker Island Lighthouse, which is one of the islands of the Cranberry Isles, near Maine’s Mt. Desert Island. Although daughter Adele was born in the same year that the family arrived at Baker Island, she was born on the mainland. However, the next child birth created a lot of unexpected excitement. It was 2 am on November 8, 1932 when Annie Muise went into labor at Baker Island Lighthouse and, to make matters worse, there was a storm raging over the ocean. Being the lighthouse keeper and not allowed to leave his post, Joseph Muise radioed the Coast Guard Life Boat Station on Cranberry Island for help.
In quick time the Coast Guard arrived on the scene and loaded Annie on the boat, and in high seas and howling wind and rain, they headed for Northwest Harbor. But the baby refused to wait, and two miles from town, baby Prudence was born at sea.
In August of 1932 tragedy struck the Muise family. While playing on a raft just off shore from the island, their 12 year old son, Ronald T. Muise, drowned. Naturally the family was devastated. It was so painful that Joseph Muise requested a transfer, which was finally approved when he went back to Moose Peak Lighthouse where he had started his career. However, the family was transferred again, this time to the Deer Island Thorofare Lighthouse on Mark Island near Stonington, Maine where they lived from 1935 to 1936.
A New Beginning
In November of 1936, the family and all their belongings boarded the U.S. Lighthouse Service lighthouse tender Hibiscus for another new assignment to the Burnt Island Lighthouse in Boothbay Harbor. The winds and rolling sea on the trip to their new home made Joseph Muise and his family wondered if this was an omen. But, for the next 15-years, they enjoyed a good comfortable life at Burnt Island Lighthouse where memories were created that would last forever.
In 1937 the Muise’s youngest child Ann was born. During those early years, Ann did not see much of her sisters Madeline and Prudence who were living with their grandparents in Jonesport while they attended school. During this time, Willard remained on the island to help his father, but it was a difficult time for him; he was not happy with the isolation. On the other hand, Ann was young and she followed her father everywhere on the island as he went about his daily chores. In fact, she considered her father as her “playmate.”
Joseph Muise was extremely dedicated to his job, and everything at Burnt Island Lighthouse was always in tip-top shape. He was remembered by his children as a perfectionist. He kept the workroom shelves orderly, and he generally went about humming as he worked. He taught the children not to touch the brass or the lens and would become upset if the tourists touched them.
Joseph Muise believed that silence was the golden rule, especially when it came to the dinner table. No one talked at dinner, and laughing and giggling was forbidden. The children were required to eat everything that was put on their plate.
The famous and often controversial preacher Harry Emerson Fosdick, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, New York’s West Village who summered on Mouse Island, often came to the Burnt Island Lighthouse for lunch. But the pastor had a bad habit of leaving his burning cigar on the lawn, which outraged keeper Muise, who was always afraid of a fire on the island.
In the summertime, his daily chores would often be interrupted by tourists who stopped by to visit the island and the lighthouse. However, he had rules that visitors were required to follow. Being a stickler for tourists to wear proper attire when visiting the lighthouse, he banned the young actor Sterling Hayden, who summered at nearby Tumbler Island, from both the island and the lighthouse. Although Hayden was known as a war hero, that didn’t make a difference to keeper Muise, who said that Hayden’s shorts were not proper attire to be worn while visiting a lighthouse.
Although the government supplied him with a peapod, he never used it. Instead, he would use his own powerboat to get supplies and the mail from town, which he did every three days. He would tie up the boat at the footbridge in town and then walk to get the mail and groceries, which would then have to be carried back to boat. Once at the island, the groceries were unloaded into a wheel barrel to bring them up to the house.
Every day at sunset, Joseph Muise would head up to the tower to light the Aladdin lamp in the lantern. Without electricity to produce the flashing light from the lantern, he would have to crank a weight up the center of the tower every six hours so that the lens would rotate and produce the flash every five seconds. Then, if the fog moved in, he needed to go to the bell tower every four hours and crank the weights that caused the bell striker to hit the bell every minute.
Life on the island was good for the family, and all of children had fond memories of their time there. Their favorite time of the summer months was on the 4th of July holiday when tourists were not allowed on the island, mainly because of the fear of someone’s fireworks setting off a fire. But for the family, this was a special day when they could enjoy each other’s company without unknown people walking all over the place. Naturally, another favorite time was the Christmas visits by the Flying Santa, when presents were dropped from an airplane onto the island.
The worst time and the most stressful was inspection time, when the white gloved Lighthouse Inspector would show up, especially when he would run his glove on the top of the moldings in the house and on the top of the Fresnel lens. But, as was obvious from what has previously been written, Joseph Muise always passed inspection. Another example of how well the light station was maintained came from Coast Guardsman Joe Johansen, who recalled a visit to the Muise family. “We went into the house to have a cup of coffee and we had to take our shoes off. You could see your face in the deck.”
After his retirement in 1951 the family would often reminisce about their days of lighthouse keeping and their wonderful memories of life Burnt Island Lighthouse, which by far overshadowed the hardships and tragedy of their earlier years before Burnt Island Lighthouse. When Prudence Muise died in 2010, her love of lighthouse life was evident with a lighthouse engraved on her tombstone.
This past July in a ceremony at the Mt. Height Cemetery in Southwest Harbor, Maine, Lighthouse Digest was honored to place a long-overdue U.S. Lighthouse Service Memorial Lighthouse Keeper Marker at the tombstone of Joseph Muise, who served his county with distinction and his family with love.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2016 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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