Digest>Archives> September 2003

Women of the Light: Josephine Norwood, First Lady of Boston Light

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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The Norwood family on Ram Island, Maine, on ...

Josephine Emmons Norwood, who will be 99 years old this year, is matter-of-fact about the years she spent living at lighthouse stations as a keeper’s wife and mother of nine children. “It was a nice life,” she says. “It was a lot of work. It was worth it.” Born November 1, 1904, in Maine, Josephine at the age of 16 married Ralph Clough Norwood, who left a job in a textile mill to join the Lighthouse Service.

First was a six-month stay at Great Point Lighthouse far out on the sandy dunes of Nantucket, Massachusetts. By this time (1929), Ralph and Josephine had five children. Next stop was America’s first light station, Boston Light in Boston Harbor. Four more children would be born during the Norwoods’ stay there, including daughter Georgia in 1932 — the first child ever born at Boston Light. During a spring storm, Josephine believed the birth was imminent and a doctor was summoned from the nearby town of Hull.

It took an hour and a half for the boat to land at the island in heavy seas. As it turned out, Georgia wasn’t born until a week later in calm weather, but the headlines from the night of the storm forever stamped Georgia as the “Storm Child.” A writer named Ruth Carmen based a novel called Storm Child on the story. And Hollywood came calling to make a movie version with Georgia, advertised as “the Bay State’s own Shirley Temple,” slated to play herself. The movie never happened. “I would not separate the children,” said Josephine. “Each one was as precious as the other and they all needed my supervision.”

“The days spent on Boston Light were busy ones,” Josephine told her grandson Willie Emerson for his 1986 book First Light, “with eleven of us to cook for... As we never knew when inspection of the houses, tower and fog signal would be held, it was a matter of course to have the beds made, the dishes done, and the sweeping and dry mopping done by ten o’clock. Of course our children were brought up to help with the work. Then they had their time to swim, go fishing, walking over the bar at low tide, or go rowing.”

In the 1930s, there were three families and as many as 19 children living on tiny Little Brewster Island. The school-age Norwood children lived with their mother in Hull during the school year, but always looked forward to their glorious summers on the island. “You never relaxed until they were all safely in bed at night,” said Josephine. She once rigged a leash attached to the clothesline for her young son Bobbie, but “Georgia felt sorry for him and untied him.”

Ralph Norwood was first assistant keeper at Boston Light until 1941 when he became the officer in charge under the Coast Guard. In the mid-1940s, the Norwoods moved on to Ram Island Light and Spring Point Ledge Light in Maine. After some retirement years spent in Florida, Ralph and Josephine returned to Maine. Today, Josephine lives with her daughter Georgia in East Boothbay. At last count she has 36 grandchildren, 61 great grandchildren, and 11 great great grandchildren.

“We were lucky to have a job and be able to take care of our family,” says Josephine in retrospect. “You’ve got to sacrifice something when you have a family to keep together. It was worth it to us. We liked that life. It was all right for me.”

This story appeared in the September 2003 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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