Editor’s Note: This story was first published in Yankee Magazine in 1958 and then again in Lighthouse Digest in 1992. Because of recently discovered photographs and historical information that can now enhance the story, we are publishing it again so that this valuable slice of history can be properly told and saved for future generations.
By William A. Small
“Please sign right here on the bottom line, Miss Severance.” This polite request was made by Mr. Payson Smith, State Superintendent of Schools for the State of Maine. On that cool June evening in 1915, Mr. Smith had just hired the first traveling lighthouse school teacher in the United States.
Born on a farm in East Orrington, Maine, this nineteen year old Castine Normal School graduate had never been in a boat. Four years later, she had traveled hundreds of miles along the Maine coast in dories, mission boats, and steamers.
Lilla Severance’s first assignment was Matinicus Rock Lighthouse, over twenty-five miles off Rockland, Maine. As the little steamer approached the station, she noticed a man in a dory bobbing amongst the deep rollers. “What is that man doing out there all alone? Isn’t it dangerous?” The steamer’s captain squinted to where she was pointing. “He ain’t out here for his health. That’s the keeper. He’s coming out to take you to Matinicus.”
Miss Severance stayed on Matinicus Rock Lighthouse for a week teaching the keeper’s three children during the day and their parents at night. During her absence, the mother and father would continue their children’s lessons with the help of an outline.
For the first six weeks, Miss Severance had no books or supplies. She used what books she found at the stations as well as at home. Flash cards were fashioned from cardboard into shapes of lobsters, clams, and codfish. Geography classes were held in the uppermost part of the lighthouse where breathtaking views lay before them. Science field trips consisted of explorations amongst the rocks and inlets.
Miss Severance’s total class membership seldom exceeded forty in one year, although ages ranged from 5 to 16 (often younger, when baby brother or sister did not nap). She adopted the device of telling them that she was placing them in a town with which they had some degree of acquaintance. She told them about their new classmates and explained how they were studying the same things, using the same books, and moving along with the others.
The sea governed Miss Severance’s arrivals and departures. Oftentimes, expecting to stay only for a few days, heavy seas and fog would extend her visit to two or more weeks.
One such prolonged stay was caused by an unexpected Nor’easter. It was on Boon Island Lighthouse off York Harbor, Maine. The wind swept the thundering waves against the lighthouse all night. Early that morning, Miss Severance was awakened by someone pounding on her bedroom door. She slowly opened the door. It was the keeper’s wife. “Oh, Miss Severance, the north window in the stairwell is out. The sea is coming in something awful!”
Miss Severance hurriedly dressed and went out on to the staircase. Each huge wave that hit sent water cascading through the open window and down the stairs. “The only way to stop it is to shut the blinds from the outside. There’s a window about four feet above it.” The keeper hesitated. “Would you? . . . No, of course not; it would be asking too much.” “What do you mean?” “Well, we could shut the blinds from above if someone would hang out the window. Mae and I are too heavy. You don’t weigh more than a hundred pounds.” “107 pounds,” answered Miss Severance. “Go get me a pair of your trousers and a heavy sweater.” That morning as she huddled next to the kitchen stove trying to thaw out, she smiled. Maybe a course in gymnastics should be added to the curriculum at her alma mater.
The lighthouse families were hardy and closely knit. A few had sought refuge from bustling city life. Others had fallen into it because their parents were keepers. The average yearly pay ranged from $300 to $700 a year, hardly enough to support a large family. Most of them supplemented their diet, as well as their pocketbooks, with fishing, clamming and lobstering.
During her four years as a traveling lighthouse teacher, Miss Severance’s diet included such delicacies as roast wild black duck, lobster, codfish, clams, and gulls’ eggs (slightly fishy).
Mail to the lighthouses was erratic. Oftentimes, it was three to four weeks before the mailboat could make it due to heavy seas. When it did, it was a sight to behold! As the sack was emptied on the floor, the letters flew about like snowflakes, the children squealing as they scrambled to gather them for their mother and father. One of the choicest items was the semi-annual Sears Roebuck catalogue. Happy hours punctured with “Ohs and Ahs” were spent pouring over the eye-catching pages. From their meager earnings the keepers’ families outfitted themselves through this priceless book from the mainland.
It was on Petit Manan Lighthouse, eighteen miles off the coast, that the young lighthouse school teacher experienced one of her most unique “extra-curricular activities” – midwifery.
As the mission boat left her at the slip, the keeper came dashing down, pleading for the captain to return to the mainland for a doctor. His eighth child was to enter the world. Miss Severance, without hesitation, gathered her petticoats about her, climbed over the slippery rocks, and went straight to the kitchen. Within a half hour, she had a roaring fire going and had started to cut and stitch the “indispensables” from a bolt of diaper cloth.
When the doctor finally arrived, she administered ether and “culminated her activities” by oiling the newborn baby boy and applying his belly-band.
Miss Severance’s arrivals at the stations were noisy with the squeals of children’s laughter. Even the terns and gulls seemed to sense the joy and added a background of screams. All privacy was cast aside as busy eyes watched her greet the keeper and his wife. The eyes never strayed until her last dress was shaken and hung in the tiny closet.
In 1922, the plan of employing a traveling lighthouse teacher was replaced by a system of boarding children ashore for attendance at school or maintaining regular schools at light stations.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2020 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2023 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.