Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2020

The Keeper's Wife: Nellie Johnson Aronson


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Nellie Johnson (1879-1954) married Adolph Aronson ...

By Harmon W. Nichols

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Adolph H. Aronson (1872-1940) joined the U.S. ...

Originally published March 20, 1950 by United Press.

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This 1951 aerial view of Pomham Rocks Lighthouse ...

Washington (UP) – Spring means house-cleaning time in the lighthouses off our shores. The job will be done by the keepers’ women folks – unsung and unpaid heroines. Wives of the keepers have been acting as assistants for years without drawing a dime from Uncle Sam. But a bill now before Congress would rectify, at least in part, an old wrong. It wouldn’t put the wives on the federal payroll, but it would provide benefits to widows of lighthouse keepers.

The House Marine and Fisheries committee is looking into a bill introduced by Rep. Edward A. Garmatz, D., of Maryland. It’s a sort of deferred salary payment measure to benefit widows of lighthouse keepers.

Right now, there are 389 such widows and their average age is 76. Thomas A. Lee, secretary of the active retired Lighthouse Service employees, points out that a civilian lighthouse keeper’s wife has been part and parcel of the Lighthouse Service in all respects but one – she isn’t on the federal payroll.

During fog time, who keeps the lighthouse while the tired keeper is asleep? The man’s lady. Who has to know about wind, rain, snow and fog? Who gets on the semaphore, the wig-wag or flag hoists when the old man is tied up? In the old days, who had to know a rum-running vessel off shore when she saw one? Who got out the broom and dust mop to have the place spick and span for a surprise inspection by the federals? Who was just as lonesome as the keeper? The lady, of course, according to Tom Lee.

The proposed legislation seems of little consequence to people who never visited a lighthouse. But congressmen have been shelled, via the mails, with letters from lighthouse widows. One letter came to a representative from Mrs. Nellie Aronson of Riverside, R.I.

Her hubby, she said, was in the lighthouse service for 38 years. He joined the service in 1899 as seaman on Hog Island Shoal Lightship No. 12. Later, he was assigned as keeper to Pomham Rocks Light Station in 1908.

“At Pomham Rocks, which was a one-man station a quarter of a mile off shore,” Mrs. Aronson said, “I had to know how to handle a boat in good as well as nasty weather. Shortly after, we were in married in 1900. I learned that I, too, was actively in the Lighthouse Service, although I didn’t get any money for it. One thing I had to learn was how to take care of the fog signal, which is a large bell struck by machinery – A double blow every 20 seconds. It has to be wound by hand – or did in those days.

I can assure you, sir, that winding a fog signal and winding a clock are entirely different. It was hard work – manual labor. When something went wrong with the machinery, and it often did, I’d have to pick up a heavy sledge hammer and ring the bell that way – every 20 seconds.”

Mrs. Aronson is one among many. She’s not complaining, she said, but she thinks she has a right to tell her story. During the 38 years her man was with the Lighthouse Service he had only 10 days’ leave. His sick leave amounted to two months when he was hurt in an accident while on an errand of mercy between lighthouse and shore. As soon as he was able to hobble after his foot was amputated, he was back on the job.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 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.

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