In 1929, Morrill and Evelyn Richardson gave up mainland life to move to a small hunk of real estate just off the south western tip of Nova Scotia. As well as buying the lion’s share of Bon Portage Island, they became keepers of its lighthouse for the next 35 years.
The Richardsons settled into the routine of their 600-acre island, as defined by the rhythm of the tide, the wind and the weather. Despite a grueling schedule (three children to raise, no electricity or running water, a farm to run, no telephone, and primitive living conditions in the drafty 1874 lighthouse), Evelyn found the desire and the time to make note of her family’s life on Bon Portage. In 1945, she published her first book, We Keep a Light, which remains a classic Canadian account of life on the lights in pre-World War Two days.
In early 2002 I sat down with eldest daughter Anne (Richardson) Wickens to record her memories of her parents and her lighthouse experiences. At 73 years of age, she had vivid, humorous and eloquent recollections of life on Bon Portage Island.
ne of my earliest memories is going up the stairs to light the light on the occasions when my father wasn’t there to do it just at the minute of sunset. I crawled up the very narrow, steep stairs. My mother would push open the heavy trap door and we would all be in the lantern.
“Then she would do the evening chores and light the light. She would have a few minutes to pick us up and show us the ocean and some of the islands. We would see other lights blossoming in the dark and that was always very interesting.
“As a little girl, I pictured all lighthouses with people living in them. Cape Sable (eight miles east of Bon Portage) was a great big tall needle of a lighthouse and I thought there would be little boys and girls sleeping on all of the stories going up to the lantern, as Laurie and I did [in our lighthouse] when we got a little older. I would look over at my Great Grandpa Larkin’s light [on Emerald Isle, also known as Stoddart’s Island] -— it was just a little one story light on the island next to us — and I would think about my little half-aunt and half-uncle who were younger than I, sleeping in that and it was a great blow to me when I found out that they didn't!”
Anne was just a year older than her brother Laurie and too young to remember his entrance into the world on Bon Portage Island. But as her mother later told her, it was an “interesting session.”
Laurie was born in July which meant he could be born on the island because father could be practically certain of getting off to get the doctor and the midwife when the time came.
“It was a very hard birth and in the middle of it, [our] cow Amaryllis decided to strangle herself! The cow wrapped the rope around her throat and lay down and started rolling around [outside]. The midwife screamed, the doctor dropped everything and went rushing out. He didn’t know what to do for the cow, so the midwife came tearing out with a carving knife and cut the rope!”
“Laurie did get born, eventually and my earliest memory of him is lying in a crib in my parents’ bedroom. He was looking at me through the bars of the crib and I thought he was the most horrible looking object! But I couldn’t help loving him anyway!
“Little Laurie was followed by Betty June. Bon Portage Island’s rock strewn shores and quiet woods were a wonderful playground for the three Richardson children. The ever-changing sea finally undermined the soft bank near the lighthouse and eventually “made away” with the stunted spruce trees favoured for “climbing,” but on a light station where their father also farmed to supplement his income, there were other diversions for the children.
Dad’s farming operation was very gradually built up from one cow and a few sheep. The sheep became a flock of about a hundred and the first thing Dad needed was an animal for transportation and carrying heavy loads. So he invested in an ox.
They were the draught animals and nearly everybody in this area used oxen. The terrain is mainly peat moss and it’s cluttered with glacial detritus -- either small stones, gravel moraine or enormous boulders -- and the ox can travel on that type of ground without the damage to his hooves that a horse sustains.
“The first ox was named Broad, and he was a Jersey. Broad would lie down and chew his cud and we would play by climbing up one side and sliding down the other. Then we would climb over his horns and slide down his nose. He never offered to get up; he never minded anything we did. We used to whack him right in the eyes because the flies liked to get in his eyes and we didn’t want them to do that! He was the largest playmate I ever had and he was one of the very few playmates we had at the time.”
While Anne and her siblings played, Morrill and Evelyn stayed perpetually busy, tending the light, keeping house, farming, cutting wood and any of the other myriad chores that came up in the run of an island day. As Anne grew older, she began to notice her parents’ commitment and strength of character in their light-keeping life.
“I came to realize they were very dedicated. There was a journal of some kind that told the light keepers the exact moment of sunrise and sunset. At sunset you lit the light right then and there and at sunrise, you put it out right then and there, which of course, meant getting up four o’clock in the morning on summer mornings and staying up ‘till around 10 in summer evenings.
“The only lighthouse around us who paid much attention to this was Cape Sable. Cape Sable was always lit right at the minute and always out right at the minute. This was the sort of thing my father tried to do. I remember him coming in, tearing through the kitchen, leaving the doors open behind him to dash up the stairs saying “The Cape’s lit!” It was a dreadful dereliction of duty and a disgrace to the whole Richardson clan not to do your duty at the very moment it was supposed to be done!
Some of the other light keepers didn’t seem to bother too much with this notion. Great Grandpa Larkin was one of them and on one occasion, Dad mentioned to the old gentleman -- he was in his 80s then -- that you know, the light wasn’t being lit right when the sun went down. But Great Grandfather had been a sea captain in the days of sail and he did everything by the tide. He didn’t see any reason at all why his little inshore light should be lit before the tide brought the local fishing boats in from the fishing grounds. In those days, he had a fish business, a farm and he sold fresh vegetables to any ships that called. Sometimes quite large vessels and often American yachts would come in to the anchorage just off his light, but no, that didn’t matter! If they couldn’t find their way in the dark it didn’t matter. It was the fishing boats he cared about!
“So, my father -- with his I’m sure great-grandfather thought persnickity-ness -- didn’t get very far with Great Grandfather Larkin!
Dedication aside, Morrill Richardson found time for fun, although not everyone immediately caught on to his style of humour, as Anne told me.
“Dad sort of wormed his way into [peoples’] affections. He was affectionate and very courteous. After mother became famous, so to speak and her books were widely read and people began coming to the island from all over, all the little old ladies fell in love with Dad. There was just no resisting him!
“He had a quirky sense of humour, which tickled most people, although some people just looked at him with a very blank stare. Mother had a good sense of humour and she sort of put up with Dad’s. But sometimes it would get to be a bit much for her. She had a best friend, Mildred Ritcey, who used to come to the island almost every summer. Aunt Mildred was very intelligent, very well-read, but she could not grasp father’s puns! On one occasion they went out on the porch looking out at the beautiful star-lit night with the moon shining on the waters, and Aunt Mildred said “Ohh Morrill, what a night!”
Dad said “I’ve seen better knights, and better ladies!”
“Poor Aunt Mildred went in and burst into tears! She never seemed to get the hang of the fact that Dad was pulling her leg!
The coming of the Second World
War made life more demanding for the Richardson family. With the danger of enemy aircraft overhead and U-boats lurking offshore, light keepers and their families all around Nova Scotia had to be increasingly vigilant for strange craft and happenings. Their duties came to include a daily listening schedule for instructions broadcast by CBC radio (Canada’s national broadcaster) as to whether the light and horn should be operated as normal, or shut down if enemy craft were in the area.
During this extremely busy and stressful time, Anne’s mother began to feel that changes in the wind might sweep away some of the old ways and the history of south west Nova Scotia. She also thought that perhaps readers might be interested in a family’s life on an isolated island light station. Thus was born We Keep A Light.
Mother realized that this was a way of life that was changing and was going to change even faster in the war and probably afterwards. So it was important for people who lived then to get some of what their lives were like down on paper.
She was very interested in people, especially I think in putting people together with their backgrounds, and that comes through in her books. She was always putting down some turn of phrase a fisherman would use. She would grab a pencil and paper and [record it], especially if it were something she hadn’t heard or hadn’t heard used just that way before.
I think my father didn’t have any doubt at all that she could write a book if she wanted to, but he was afraid that people wouldn’t be very interested in this sort of thing. Mother argued that well, yes they had farm, well yes, they were light keepers, but they were still in rather a special situation and the fact that there was now a war made it even more so. She eventually convinced Dad that he should at least let her try, so he bought her an old second-hand typewriter.
“I think the driving force behind it was the fact that she saw some of the old values disappearing. Her ancestors all the way back to seven or eight of the original settlers of Barrington Township, were Puritans. They had very religious moral beliefs -- the work ethic, keeping everything very plain. No ornaments, no detritus, not even any music in the churches -- which she didn’t agree with -- and she was afraid these things were, in the turmoil of war, being lost. I also think she was a little afraid of what was thought of in those days as progress. I think she was afraid too much of the human condition would be swept away.”
The public loved We Keep A Light - just a few months after the book’s publication in 1945, it won Governor General’s Medal for creative non-fiction. Evelyn made the long journey from Bon Portage to Toronto to be awarded her medal. Then, with the creative bug firmly established within her, she began to write more, as Anne told me.
Having had a success and intellectual acknowledgement with the Governor General’s medal, she set out [to record] the times of the sailing ships and things that were part of her mother’s childhood. Mother thought, “Well, I should try to save that too.”
So she did. First she wrote a novel called Desired Haven, based on the sea stories that were drifting around the shore here. Then she wrote My Other Islands, which was the story of her youth, bringing in [the story of] her grandparents. That book is my favourite of my mother’s writing. It provides a link between the generation I didn’t know at all, except for Great Grandfather Larkin, and my own.
Evelyn’s growing portfolio of writings brought an element of fame to the “literary lighthouse,” on Bon Portage Island. It also drew visitors, many bent on setting a face and a place to the story they had come to love.
“One interesting visitor we had was a staff member of the Boston Public Library. [Her name was Harriet Balcom]. She had read We Keep A Light, wrote right away and invited herself to come. So mother wrote back and told her to come.
Often people came who had heard about the book or skimmed through it and they would come in their high heeled shoes and their fluffy, frilly dresses and this sort of thing. Well, Harriet turned up in rubber boots and a parka and some sort of very old, very dilapidated pants, with her camera. She wanted to see everything. We dragged her through the savannah (swamp), she fell in the bog holes and that was like being in the book, you know! Anything like that, Harriet just fell for it.”
By now, the Richardson children were growing up and starting to make their way in the world. Anne left home to go to teachers college on the mainland. But she returned to the island in the 1948 to marry fisherman Arthur Wickens.
“My husband’s father and mother had kept Bon Portage light for almost two years during the First World War, and it’s rather odd when you think about it, because his father was not fitted for island life, let alone light-keeping, and it didn’t last long. But it was a sort of bond. After we were married we lived that winter until June or July in the guest cottage which my father built on Bon Portage.
“But that was the end of my life on the island. I used to go back with my husband when he was substituting for Dad and be light keeper. Arth would sometimes be gone for weeks at a time, fishing and I would gather up one-two-three-four kids, and go on and stay for a few days. But, that was the end of my Bon Portage experience.”
Nonetheless, the “Bon Portage experience” stuck with Anne and six decades after leaving her island home she had this to say about her island years.
“I was a very anti-social child. I hated to see company coming. I would get fond of some of the relatives, but I was always glad to see them go, just the same. To this day, I do not like people as people. I don’t like crowds. I don’t like lots of people talking.
What bothers me is where do people today go to find a place without people, where there’s just themselves and nature? I mean as a family or as an individual. In a great many lives it can’t be done. I have always prized the fact that I had that on Bon Portage. And frankly I miss it yet.”
Special thanks to Anne Wickens for sharing her memories of life on Bon Portage Island with me, and to her sister Betty June for allowing me to reproduce family photos from her collection. Today, Anne lives in Bear Point, Shelburne County, just a few miles from her childhood island home. Her parents left the island in 1964, after 35 years, deeding their portion of land to Nova Scotia’s Acadia University. It continues to operate the Evelyn and Morrill Richardson Field Station in Biology from the light station.
Evelyn continued to write books about the things that intrigued her most -the human history of south west Nova Scotia and about the natural environment that was so much a part of her life. Her last book, B Was For Butter…and Enemy Craft (detailing her family’s experiences during the war) came out in 1976, the year she died.
Evelyn Richardson’s legacy remains today in the form of more than half a dozen books (We Keep A Light is still in print), countless articles, a school and a literary prize named after her and in the stories of her surviving children, Anne and Betty June.
Material from Anne Wickens’ interview and dozens of others are included in Chris Mills’ book Lighthouse Legacies: Stories of Nova Scotia’s Lightkeeping Families, published by Nimbus Publishing Ltd. in Halifax, Nova Scotia in May, 2006.
This story appeared in the
May 2009 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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