Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2021

Christmas Memories at Little River Lighthouse

By Delia Farris


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Vintage image of Little River Lighthouse on ...

Editor’s Note: Originally published on January 1, 1977

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Velma and Willie Corbett with their children at ...

The thickly-spruced sides of Maine’s Little River Island bristle like a hedgehog squatting at the mouth of Cutler Harbor, and on the seaward side of the island is the easternmost island lighthouse on the Atlantic coast of the United States that has guided generation upon generation of mariners.

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Aerial view of Little River Island Lighthouse off ...

A few decades back, Capt. Willie Winslow Corbett finished out his career as a light house tender on Little River Island, and his brood of four girls and four boys spent a goodly part of their childhood there. For Ruth Corbett Farris, one of Willie’s girls, holiday decorations evoke memories of Christmases past on Little River Island:

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Roscoe Johnson, grandfather to the Corbett ...

“Papa had a hard time finding nice-shaped Christmas trees because he was so confoundedly impatient. He usually brought home such a big ark of a thing: the branches would be so long they had to be bent up along the walls. Father would blunder the tree into the dining room, pound on the wooden base, and cram it all into the corner. Then Papa would discover that the tree was way too tall for the ceiling and he’d hack the top flat off.”

Now, Capt. Corbett derived great delight out of scaring the living daylights out of his children: “Why, that cussed, infernal Papa, he used to pretend he was talking to Santa Claus. We kids were all snuggled in bed one Christmas Eve at Little River Lighthouse, and Papa let out a blat from downstairs that woke us right up. ‘Santa, you old devil,’ Papa bellowed, ‘you chewed a great hunk out of our roast beef. Look, some of your whiskers are still stuck to the meat!’ We kids never did touch that roast the next day at Christmas dinner, much as Mama coaxed and Papa pleaded.”

There was always a sense of magic and surprise associated with holidays on the tiny island: “One Christmas, Mama lined up three dolls for Emily, Kathleen. and me on chairs in front of the tree. I crept downstairs early that morning, saw my doll, and wanted to grab it right then. Papa appeared to be dozing in his Morris chair next to the kitchen window. By and by, just as I snuck towards the tree, out from behind a door moved what I swear to this day was Santa Claus. Up the stairs I tore with no desire anymore to snatch that doll before my sisters got theirs.

“My sister Florence and I always thought the best part of our island Christmases was first coming uptown on Christmas Eve to the church concert. We’d speak our pieces, then bundle up and be rowed by Papa back down to the island. The sea vapors, they would blow, and the snow, she would spit. The sweep of the light from the tower would guide us from the boathouse across the path to the back of the island. And there our mother Velma would be waiting in the warm main dwelling.

“The tree, which had stood bare-naked when we left, would now be decorated best as Mama could with her precious few bulbs and loops of rope. Mittens, scarves, neckties and bolts of cloth were laid unwrapped across the branches and made the tree look pretty in an old-fashioned way. Our tree was as much of a treat as anything on Christmas.”

Of course, everything wasn’t store-bought back in those days. Ruth recalls: “Our grandfather [lighthouse keeper Roscoe Johnson] made our brother, Purcell, a little bobsled once. Its runners were wood with a metal strip on them. We kids would hitch a sleigh-sled on behind it and lay a board across the top, and make a long barge rig. The only thing I ever had in the way of a new Christmas sled was a red, store-boughten one. It was cute but not worth a darn.

“I dashed outdoors Christmas morning, got a running start, belly-flopped onto my brand-new sled, and it sunk like a stone into the snow, sending me sliding off headfirst. That sled with its flat metal runners was just made to look at, I guess.”

The U.S. Mail was always generous to the island children around Christmastime: “We kids down on Little River Island looked forward to five boxes that came in the mail. I liked to haul them up from the boathouse on the big bobsled. There was a box from Sears-Roebuck Catalogue. Then one from Olga. She was the daughter of Daniel Stevens, light tender of Monhegan back in the 1920s. Olga was a friend of my mother’s when Papa was assistant keeper on Monhegan.

“She would send bolts of cloth for us girls, tablets and pencils for the boys, a plum pudding, Hershey bars, and ribbon candy. It wouldn’t have seemed like Christmas without ribbon candy. Nice thick pieces they were in those days.

“A Dr. Potter from Tenant’s Harbor, where Papa tended Southern Island Light from 1921 to 1924, would mail us a package of bright paper, ribbons and odds and ends. Papa would growl: ‘Let’s hurry and open the thing. Don’t know what for; nothing sensible in it.’ But Mama enjoyed picking over that collection of fancy items.

“Our Seacoast Mission Society package came addressed to Little River. The other kids in Cutler received their mission gifts the night of the Christmas concert. Those mission presents were always wrapped in white paper and tied with red string. Each of us would get something to eat – a carton of hard candy – and something to play with – a game or book – and something to wear – woolen mittens, caps or socks. Papa’s label read: ‘Capt. Willie Corbett.’ And he without fail would receive a tide calendar from the Boston Towboat Co.”

Then one Christmas, something really special happened: “The children uptown envied us when the Flying Santa Claus dropped Christmas boxes on the island. That first year Edward Rowe Snow winged over us, he let loose with a parcel containing just La Tourine Coffee. I remember the second time as plain as can be. It was a cold, clear December day. The plane swooped down right over where I was standing between the bell tower and the lighthouse. The belly of the aircraft opened up and as the box was pushed out, they yelled: ‘Merry Christmas.’ Then up over the trees they went.

“The box bounced when it struck the ground, and burst open. Out tumbled combs, Life Savers, packages of cookies and doughnuts, a bag of balloons, funny books, magazines, and Mr. Snow’s latest volume of sea stories. When the snow melted next spring, we kids found bars of Lifebuoy soap that had been scattered into the woods.”

Ruth believes that holidays then were not quite the same as holidays now: “My brother Neil and I agree that you take around the early part of this century in Cutler, there wouldn’t be as many gifts in the whole town as there are now under each of our trees. But we think our Corbett childhood Christmases were better than most anybody’s today.

“We were so pleased by our few toys that we played and played with them until they wore right out. Back in those days, families had a real spirit of togetherness. Our simple life on the island seemed to especially draw us Corbetts closer to the true meaning of Christmas.”

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2021 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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