Digest>Archives> June 2006

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Flying Santa revisits Fire Island Lighthouse

By Jim Claflin


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This past October Ms. Amy Cott of Hicksville, NY contacted us in hopes that we could help reunite an

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ex-Coast Guard lighthouse keeper with a treasured memory from his past.

Ms Cott wrote to me: "I hope you can help me locate a particular book by Edward Snow. I believe it dealt primarily with stories about lighthouses, lighthouse-keepers, and (at least partially) with his "Flying Santa" runs where he’d airlift gifts to the lighthouse-keepers and their families. The book I am looking for has an illustration of a postcard written by Gottfried Mahler (Coast Guard keeper at the Fire Island NY Lighthouse from 1948 to 1954) thanking the "Flying Santa" for the gifts (a box of candy for him, a shawl and scarf for his wife, and some toy wooden cars for the kids, among other things, if memory serves). Any help you could render would be greatly appreciated."

Ms. Cott related how she first met

keeper Mahler:

One Saturday in October, my boyfriend and I visited the Fire Island Lighthouse for the first time. It was a quiet day, and one of

the volunteers was the former Keeper of the lighthouse, Mr. Gottfried Mahler. A very genial man, he had served there from 1948 to 1954 and began telling us stories from

his years at the lighthouse. One of them concerned the Flying Santa:

Back in ‘53 he had seen a plane buzz the lighthouse. He had been taking up flying, and the plane resembled one of those at the local airport, so he figured it was one of his friends flying in from Zahn’s airport and getting cute. So he gave the pilot a wave, and the pilot in turn waggled his wings. On the plane’s second pass, a small parcel was tossed out and came slowly to earth by parachute. Gottfried retrieved the parcel, brought it inside, and discovered gifts for himself, his family and his assistant’s family. Some of the items included candy, cigarettes, scarves and mufflers for the ladies, and some wooden toy cars for the boys. There was also a return postcard to notify Santa that the package was received and the contents were in good order. Gottfried sent the card back, indicating that all arrived safely, thanking "Santa", and wishing him a Merry Christmas.

Some time later, when Gottfried was to be transferred from the lighthouse to a lightship in the Atlantic, his aunt had happened upon a book about famous American lighthouses. Knowing Gottfried had been a lighthouse keeper, she asked if he would like to borrow it while he was at sea. He accepted it, and while he was reading during lights-out, he soon began to laugh. His bunkmate joked, "Pass that bottle down here, will ya?" Gottfried said he wasn’t drinking anything, instead, he had seen his reply to "Santa" written up in the book. The news went around the ship, and a copy of the letter was posted.

When he returned the book to his aunt, he asked that if she ever decided to get rid of it, he would like it. However, as years went by and the aunt passed on, Gottfried would spend the next 50 years going from antique bookstore to antique bookstore up and down the east coast, trying to locate the book.

Before we left the lighthouse, I made a mental note of the name of the author —Edward Rowe Snow — and decided to try locating Gottfried’s beloved book.

"I have an Internet connection…and I’m not afraid to use it", she said, and soon she found me.

As you may know, Mr. Snow, with his wife Anna-Myrle, made hundreds of visits as the "Flying Santa" to light stations throughout New England. The Snows considered the light keepers and their families to be extensions of their own family, and the feelings were always mutual. Pilot Bill Wincapaw began the "Flying Santa" tradition in 1926, dropping Christmas gift packages from his plane to more than 40 remote lighthouse families. Mr. Snow took over the role in 1935-36 and continued the flights until 1981. Each year Mr. Snow, wife Anna-Myrle and daughter Dorothy readied packages for their well known yearly Christmas airdrops to remote lighthouses and Coast Guard stations. Mr. Snow logged 44 years as the Flying Santa, missing only one flight, in 1942, as he recovered from war injuries.

We looked through our inventory of books by Mr. Snow and soon, there it was, the article Ms. Cott was referring to — in Famous Lighthouses of America (Dodd, Mead & Co., New York. 1955. pp. 8-9). Soon she purchased a copy and began plans for a surprise presentation.

In Mr. Snow’s Famous Lighthouses of America, he described exactly how packages dropped from his airplane were prepared, so they simulated the original packaging. The package was wrapped, first in newspaper, then excelsior, then in brown wrapping paper, and finally tied with cord. Excelsior was available at a local crafts store in the floral department. Fisherman’s twine was not available, so butcher’s cord was used instead.

In December, at Fire Island Lighthouse’s annual “Flying Santa” event, keeper Gottfried Mahler and his wife Marilyn were presented with the package inside the Lighthouse Visitor Center (formerly the light-keeper’s house). As part of the “Flying Santa” celebration that day, Marilyn had just discussed what had been in the original package back in 1953, substituting modern equivalents for some of the original gifts. The two toy cars still at the museum, however, were part of the original contents of the “Flying Santa” package dropped over Fire Island back in 1953. The Mahler’s children (and their grandchildren) had once played with those cars, which are still in perfect condition.

Reunited after over 50 years, Keeper Mahler showed everyone his message pictured in Famous Lighthouses of America, that he had sent to Mr. Snow in 1953, thanking him for the gifts. Not only were the Mahlers moved, but also a few in attendance said they had become a little teary-eyed at that point. This is truly what the holidays are all about.

Thanks to Amy Cott for her inquiry, and for putting this wonderful celebration together.

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Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990’s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508)792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the June 2006 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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