Helen York, a remarkable young lady, was responsible for the most phenomenal garden that ever grew in Northeast Maine. Located on a tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean, twenty-five miles south of Bar Harbor, it could not be seen from the mainland.
George York, a native of Brooklin, Maine, had been working as a warden with the Sea and Shore Fisheries Service and thoroughly enjoyed his duties. In 1928, he had custody of his three-year-old daughter, Shirley and his two-year-old son, Wilbur, from his previous marriage when he married Helen, a recent graduate from the Farmington Vocational School. She was 22 and he was 31.
That same year, George had an opportunity to join the United States Lighthouse Service and he was eager to accept it, but Helen was not thrilled with the plan, although she was game. So the young family of four moved to the Mount Desert Rock Light Station where he began the duties as an assistant keeper. The head keeper was R. W. Powers.
A solid granite rock, two acres in size at low tide, lay as a menace to shipping some twenty miles south of Bass Harbor. The rock, only seventeen feet at its highest point, could be completely awash during a heavy storm.
Helen had grown up in farm country where there was an ample supply of meat and dairy products. The school had electric lighting and natural gas stoves. Most of her clothing had been store-bought and she was accustomed to an active social life with friends her own age. She often saw silent films at the local nickelodeon theaters.
However, as the wife of an assistant keeper at the Mount Desert Rock Light, her life was quite different. They lived in a small house without electricity, cooking on a coal-burning iron stove, washing clothes by hand in a tub and in full charge of two small children. After a year and a half, Mr. Powers resigned and George was promoted to head keeper. The family of four moved into a much larger, two-story home. The buildings were connected by enclosed walkways which were comfortable in rough weather.
When Shirley turned six, Helen set up a rigorous home-schooling program. She was an accredited teacher and the state provided books in order to provide a logical curriculum. Both children were in their seats at 8 a.m., there was a 10-minute break at 10, lunch at noon and they were out at 3:30 p.m., just like the mainland kids.
The children had regular chores, such as lugging coal for the cooking stove and helping their father polish the brass fixtures up in the lighthouse tower. In the summer months, there was ample time for playing outside. Even though it was solid rock, to them it was a very big yard with tide pools for their little sail boats, collecting shells, picking up crabs and when they were older, their father played baseball with them.
George made extra money during the Great Depression by laying out traps along the ocean floor where he was able to catch, dry and salt fish as well as lobsters. He had a 16-foot peapod boat that he loaded with fish and takes them ashore earning himself some very good extra money.
George put Helen and the two children ashore on the mainland for three weeks every summer, so that they could visit relatives. Also, there was a monthly supply run to Bass Harbor and an especially big one before winter set in where they bought tubs of peanut butter and cases of canned milk.
It was probably on one such outing that word got back to the fishermen’s wives about how much Helen missed not having a garden out on that barren rock. A plan was set in motion that was so spectacular that it attracted the attention of a young writer for the Sunday American Weekly magazine. The article first appeared in a Boston paper in August 12, 1934 and was later reprinted in the U.S. Lighthouse Service Bulletin vol. 4.
"The farthest out lighthouse on the coast of Maine is on Mount Desert Rock, 25 miles from the mainland. After a hard winter, such as the last one, the occupants of the lonely station welcome the advent of spring and the return of the small fishing boats.
And particularly do they welcome the fisherman from Bar Harbor, Southwest Harbor and Bass Harbor, on Mount Desert Island, for nearly all of these sturdy men carry off a big grain bag or two of plain dirt for the women folks on the rock.
Mount Desert Rock is a small place, perhaps a half acre of stones above a high water mark. It is just about big enough for the occupants of the lighthouse station to ‘stretch their legs.’ Yet this remote isolated station has borne the reputation for a few brief months of being a floral paradise.
The dirt the fishermen bring off is carefully packed in between the crevices and seeds of many varieties are sewn and carefully tended. Strangely enough they nearly all thrive in the cold moist atmosphere. Visitors approaching the rock during the summer and early fall are amazed at the kaleidoscope of color that greets the eye on the barren ledge.
With the first fall frosts, the garden disappears and long before the winter is over the raging storms that literally throw huge waves across the rocky area wash every vestige of soil from the offshore rock garden. Long before spring comes around again not even a spoonful of soil is left on the rock.
All through April the fishermen carry off their bags of dirt until the women cry ‘enough.’ In May, the seeds are planted. It causes a strange a pleasant sensation to the landsman who first views the annual ‘riot of color’ on bleak Mount Desert Rock. The last place on the world where anyone would expect to find a flower garden."
It was a blessing for Helen York, in 1931, when the U.S. Navy installed a radio beacon at Mount Desert Rock and generators brought electricity to the light and to the keeper’s house. Not only were electric lights installed in the home, but George bought the family a radio console which provided them with music and news from the outside world.
Still, when one thinks of Helen’s day-to-day routine, her schedule boggles the mind. Besides tending to the flower garden and feeding the chickens, she continued to
prepare meals on a coal-heated iron stove, the dishes were washed by hand, as well as the clothes; she may have had a foot-pedal driven sewing machine for making the children’s clothing. She had to watch the children at play outside, when they were small and nurse them when they were sick. On top of all that, in 1935, when she was pregnant with twins, she had a miscarriage and nearly died because she was too far from shore to get proper medical assistance.
In 1936, when Helen got pregnant again, George put in for a transfer to a light station on the mainland. However, the Lighthouse Service had no openings and in December, the family moved to Ellsworth where George had bought a farm with the money he had saved from the sale of fish. Shirley was now twelve and both children were enrolled in public school.
The folks of Mount Desert Island who go down to the sea to fish have passed along the story of the floral paradise that could be seen on the rock 75 years ago. The beauty of the site has been described from generation to generation. However, few will remember that it was started by Helen York who dedicated her life to the well-being of others. Thanks to the generosity of fishermen who donated bags of dirt and to their wives who thought of it in the first place, her eight year stay on Mount Desert Rock was a truly memorable occasion.
The soil was enriched by sun and showers,
In the planting, the gardener had control,
The rich, good earth nurtured the flowers,
And pretty blossoms fed the human soul.
(original poem by Richard Clayton)
This story appeared in the
August 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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