In August of 1974, then 73-year old lighthouse keeper Clarence Abram Skolfield sat down with Portland Press Herald staff reporter Fred J. Kahrl to talk about his lighthouse days. Skolfield had served at Maine’s Seguin Island Lighthouse as the assistant keeper from 1936 to 1944 and then as the head keeper from 1944 to 1946. After he left Seguin Island Lighthouse, he was transferred as the head keeper at Maine’s Perkins Island Lighthouse where he served until 1955 when he was transferred to the nearby Squirrel Point Lighthouse where he served until he retired from lighthouse duty in 1968.
But apparently Seguin Island Lighthouse was his favorite of the lighthouses where he had been stationed. He said at the time, “I’d pack up my bag tomorrow if they wanted to make me the caretaker of the place . . . of course, my legs aren’t as good as they used to be, so I’d probably have to pass it up, but I’d love to have an excuse to spend some time out there again.”
When he first entered the Lighthouse Service and was assigned to his first post at Seguin Island Lighthouse, he was somewhat unprepared. A few days after arriving at Sequin Island Lighthouse he was forced to eat sardines for his Thanksgiving dinner. It seems that bad weather had kept his wife and a more lavish meal on the shore at Popham Beach two miles away.
Actually, he had not planned on being a lighthouse keeper. As a merchant mariner in World War I, he had placed his name on a list of applicants for lighthouse keepers on a whim and gave it little thought until his income dramatically dropped from what was once a lucrative smelt industry.
Because his son Thomas was only a year old at the time, Clarence Skolfield and his wife Annette decided it was better that he go alone to Seguin Island Lighthouse. She would stay at the homestead and visit in the warm weather when the rough seas would allow safe travel. So, when he arrived at Sequin Island Lighthouse as the 3rd assistant keeper, the other two keepers had their wives on the island to cook and do washing, but Clarence Skolfield had to do those chores himself, all while tending to the many duties required of the 3rd assistant keeper.
Dried beans, corned beef, and potatoes were staples in a time when canned goods were still a novelty and refrigeration was almost a fantasy. The ocean provided lobster and fish, but Skolfield said he remembered longing for some fresh meat, especially during long stretches of bad weather that cut the island off from the mainland.
Skolfield recalled, “But we certainly had it better than keepers like the Colemans out at Matinicus Rock. They were there for years . . .hauling out soil in bags for their window boxes . . . went months without mail . . . paid a lobsterman to bring it out for them. However, at Seguin Island Lighthouse, Clarence Skolfield enjoyed the luxury of small vegetable gardens scratched in pockets of good soil that brightened up his summer fare of food.
Heating and cooking was always with coal. Each bag of coal was laboriously hand off loaded from a lighthouse tender onto a small skiff and then carried ashore and loaded onto the tramway to be hauled up to the top of the 150-foot tall mountain top, as they called it, where the lighthouse stood at the top of the island. In fact, Seguin Island Lighthouse is the highest lighthouse above water in the state of Maine.
But Skolfield said that they were lucky to have the tramway. Before the tramway was built, the keepers had to haul the coal by oxen up to the top of the island. And because of the nearly constant fog, the keepers kept the coal fires banked all the time for the steamers to be ready to operate the steam powered fog horn. However, when the diesel compressors were installed, life got much easier for the keepers.
Keeping the light lit was much different than throwing a switch. Skolfield recalled his struggles with the pressurized, kerosene-fired Wellsbach mantle lamp. “It was tricky, without a doubt,” he grinned. “There was an alcohol lamp you used to heat it up, and then you had to know how to keep the pressure just right so it wouldn’t die out.” After he became the head keeper, he recalled that one of his 3rd assistant keepers never got the hang of it. “But it was plenty bright - a big improvement over the Aladdin lamp we used before that. But, during the war (WW II) the government made us put the Aladdin lamp back into use . . . we were too bright and they didn’t want the Germans navigating by our light.”
All the keepers, regardless of standing, shared in the responsibility for making runs to the mainland for supplies. If something broke down, the Coast Guard from the Kennebec River Life Boat Station would bring out supplies. But that wasn’t often, recalled Skolfield: “most of the time we made the run ourselves.”
Getting to Seguin Island Lighthouse, even in marginal weather, can be dangerous, as Clarence Skolfield’s son Thomas experienced when, at 18-months-old, he got an unexpected baptism. It seems that the Coast Guard’s 36-footer’s engine quit in the small harbor by the island lighthouse, and in the excitement one Coast Guardsman threw the anchor downwind. The line got around the hull and a big wave rolled the boat right over. When the boat righted itself, the crew managed to get the engine going again, “but for a moment in time we were under water.”
When he was eight years old, son Tom got another unexpected dip while visiting his father at Seguin. Tom Skolfield said, “Dad knew those waters better than anyone, but one day when we were headed in from fishing a wave broke in a place where surf had never broken before and flipped the boat right over the bow.” Clarence Skolfield then added, “After the boat rolled over us I saw Tom about ten feet away. He went under three times before I got to him – he’d gotten a rap on the head and wasn’t able to help himself. I held unto the boat - then one of the Army boys who was stationed out there during the war happened to see us go over and launched a boat to go out to us.”
Although Clarence Skolfield went on to serve at other lighthouses, he always had that desire to go back to Seguin Island Lighthouse. When he retired in 1968, it is believed that he was the last civilian lighthouse keeper still serving on the coast of Maine, and perhaps in the United States. His devotion to duty to the career that he loved so much will always be carried forward for all future generations. He passed away at the age of 88 on June 14, 1990 and he is buried at the Pine Grove Cemetery in Brunswick, Maine. Not surprisingly, there is a lighthouse engraved on his tombstone.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2016 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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