It was 1922, late in the year. Maggie Boutilier sat in a small open boat as it cut through the choppy waters of Saint Margaret’s Bay, on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. She was headed for Croucher’s Island, where her husband Wentworth had just been appointed lightkeeper. It was a good job for Wentie–he’d served with the 85th Nova Scotia Highlanders in the First World War. Burrowed into muddy holes in the battlefield and always on the lookout for snipers, Wentie was stricken with trench leg. He spent the remainder of his tour in a military hospital, returning to Nova Scotia in May, 1919.
Three years later he had bought most of Croucher’s Island and then been appointed as its lightkeeper. Maggie wasn’t so sure she wanted to move a mile offshore to this little wooded island, away from friends and family. But it was a good steady job for her husband and as the boat reached the granite shore of the island, she remembered that she had agreed to try lighthouse life for one year.
That one year turned into 22. Maggie fell into the rhythm of island life, raising six kids, creating extravagant flower gardens around the tiny lighthouse, chopping wood and cooking for summer visitors.
Her daughter Geraldine, who was 81 when I interviewed her in 2002, said Croucher Island was her mother’s “Island of Dreams,” because she had no “hope” of getting off the island. But those dreams finally came true in 1944 when the Boutiliers packed up and left Croucher’s Island for good.
Almost 60 years later, Geraldine remembered life at her family’s lighthouse home.
My father kept lighthouse on Croucher’s Island for a little over 22 years and he wouldn’t have been able to do it if my mother hadn’t been such a wonderful help to him! It’s not just keeping the lighthouse. You have to make your gardens and if you want flowers, you make a lovely little flower garden, which my mother did. We [had] a little nook where we had swings and hammocks. Dad made an apple orchard and he built two hen houses and a barn and a workshop. One day my brother Bert got locked inside the workshop. But that was no problem! All the tools were in there for him to get out, which he did!
I often heard [my mother] say she was there seven months before she had her first trip off of the island. She said there were times she wondered ‘is this going to be it’? It seemed so long and lonely [out there]. But after we children got older, she taught us to row the boat. She used to take us just off the shore and we would fish – we’d get perch, flatfish. Every now and then we’d get one of those hideous sculpins!
Fred Hiltz was the [lighthouse] inspector and I remember him sayin’ to Mum “How do you keep [the lighthouse] lookin’ like this with all these children?” Then he says “You’re teaching them to knit and sew and embroider?!”
Maggie’s children studied through correspondence, but they also received a practical education, as Geraldine remembered:
By being on the island, we learned a lot of things that other children wouldn’t learn. We learned about gardening and how the soil has to be manured to make the seeds grow. We grew peanuts one year! And watermelons one year! To us, this was the normal way of living and growing. Mother taught us so much. In our embroidery work, Mother bought little squares of stamped white material and the first quilt Ethel and I did, we did with all red embroidery floss. We got first prize on it at the exhibition!
Two years later my brother Bert decided he wanted to help. So he did one. It was a bunny sitting down and Mum said, “He sure put a reliable backbone on that bunny!”, because I think he went over it twice! We got first prize again! We were told not to dare put any more needlework like that on because it wasn’t fair to other children! So the next year, we hooked our first mat. We got third prize on it! Mum says “Well, that’s enough now!”
Built in 1882, the Croucher’s Island Light was the standard Department of Marine and Fisheries wooden tower with a small attached house for the keeper and his family. These lights were built for economy and not for comfort, but they did the trick in both the habitation and aids to navigation departments, as Geraldine told me.
The first floor was the kitchen and on the southern end there was a bedroom. The porch was on the northern end of the house and that’s where we kept our wood. That’s also where Mum did the washing. She had one of those washers on a stand, shaped something like the half of a barrel. It had a handle and you just worked it back and forth. That was a lot better than an old scrub board!
Above Mother’s and Dad’s bedroom was where the boys slept. Above the kitchen is where the girls slept. Then above that was the lamp room. That’s where the soap and the polish for the lamp was kept. That’s where you lit this lamp and you carried it upstairs while it was lit and then you had to put it in the reflector (lens). When the sun shone on it the lens seemed to have lights of yellow and blue and green. I presume that helped to throw [the light so] that you could see it about 20 miles.
Every Sunday morning Dad would bring the brass lamp down in the kitchen and he would clean it. We kids used to just sit there and watch him. Big thing for us! We saw Dad doing something that we kind of thought maybe a woman would! Oh, he used to make it so you could see your face in it!
While Wentie tended the light and polished the lamps, other “women’s work” consumed most of Maggie’s time, as Geraldine remembered.
She was always busy, always doing something. When we children were still small, she gave us a lot of attention. She [also] helped Dad. To be truthful, I think when it came to a job like that, mother was stronger than Dad. Dad was a very quiet kind of timid-like person. Mum always said he went to war and he came home a wrecked man.
Mother was kind, understanding. To escape from us children she used to like to go out and go up in the hayloft to escape. But we usually found her and cuddled up there with her. She didn’t seem to mind being found!
Geraldine recalled that Maggie and Wentie also lent a hand when there was trouble on the water.
There was a hotel in Seabright, and there was a couple staying there. During the late evening it was calm and they decided they’d get a boat and go out for a little row. After a while, they got away from shore and the wind started to come up and they didn’t have a clue how to get back to shore. The land at that time looked all the same because there weren’t so many lights to be seen.
It was kind of dark by this time. My mother happened to be outdoors and she heard a woman scream. So she told Dad about it and he come out. By this time, the both of them were calling for help. Dad got in his little motorboat and he went and he got them. [The woman] was crying by this time. Dad found out what happened, so he says “Okay, I know where to take you,” and he took them home. The next day, they got somebody with a motorboat to come to Croucher’s Island so they could go up in the light and see it and to thank Dad for what he and Mother had done.
More than two decades after that “trial” year on Croucher’s Island, it was finally time to leave. Wentie and Maggie retired to their property on Indian Point, on the east side of Saint Margaret’s Bay.
Maggie died in August, 1986, just three weeks short of her 88th birthday. Her son Bertram wrote a tribute for the December, 1986 issue of a local paper, The Bay News. “On the island, everything ran by ‘Norwegian Steam,’ he said. “In their twenty-two-year stay on the island, no draught animal or motorized device ever moved a pound of the tons and tons of supplies that were carried, wheeled or dragged up the steep hill to the lighthouse. But Maggie B. did! A robust woman, she was capable of shouldering a hundred-pound sack of stock feed and carrying it up the hill.”
Bertram wrote that even with the challenges of providing an education for her children “…Maggie B. had something else to teach her children that exceeded academic lore. She was able to instill in them the same insatiable curiosity and the love of beauty that she herself possessed. I shall always believe that the isolated situation in which they lived enhanced those qualities. When necessity dictates that tools or toys be invented and manufactured with whatever happens to be at hand, even the average intelligence can be most ingenious.”
And so Maggie’s 22 years on her “Island of Dreams” paid off in the end.
Note: Chris Mills interviewed Geraldine (Boutilier) Stevens in 2002 as part of the NSLPS “Lighthouse Life in HRM” oral history project and again in 2005 for his book Lighthouse Legacies: Stories of Nova Scotia’s Lightkeeping Families (Nimbus Publishing, Halifax, Nova Scotia). The Croucher’s Island lighthouse was torn down in the 1940s, but a small skeleton tower remains at the site today, flashing its nightly warning over the waters of Saint Margaret’s Bay.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2011 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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