In August of 2012, I flew over South Fox Island in northern Lake Michigan because it was here that my grandfather, Andrew John Nowland, helped save the lives of two crew members on October 24, 1922 while he served aboard the lighthouse tender, Hyacinth, during his nearly five years in the U.S. Lighthouse Service. He even got a commendation for his quick thinking and actions on that day.
The first keeper arrived on South Fox Island in 1867, and for the next 91 years the station was an active aid to navigation. The last keeper left in 1958 after the light became fully automated. The light itself functioned for another decade before it was discontinued. In 197, the southernmost 115 acres of the island, including the light station, were transferred to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for public parks and recreation use.
I recently learned about the non-profit Fox Island Lighthouse Association (FILA) which has been making several trips to South Fox Island each year since 2006. This is their fourth year for sponsoring a Summer Keepers program where people can stay at the light station.
South Fox Light Station is one of the only stations with seven structures still standing and salvageable. FILA and volunteers have been working to undo years of neglect by clearing sidewalks, saving the 1897 Boat House from decay, securing the 1897 Carpenter’s Shop; they are also working on the 1895 Oil House, the 1895 Fog Signal Building, the 1910 red brick three apartment Assistant Keepers Quarters and the 1934 steel light tower. They even put on a temporary steel roof and re-glazed the windows of the 1867 lighthouse.
As Summer Keepers, we were to be boated 22 miles out to the island for a two week stay with no running water and no electricity. We had to have to bring our own supply of food, cookware, camp stove, and sleeping bags and pads. A solar was shower is recommended since the lake is often too cold to bathe in. All in all, it sounded like a challenge worth accepting. My husband and I picked a date and sent in our refundable $200 deposit to reserve our stay.
One of the many projects FILA wanted to have done was to whitewash the long-neglected Milwaukee “Cream City” bricks of the original lighthouse. For at least fifty years, no upkeep had been done – and it showed. FILA also wanted to be historically accurate, so they planned to use lime and water with an added stabilizer. Whitewash is better for bricks since it allows them to breathe. Latex paint holds in moisture that leads to spalling, causing parts of bricks to break off into smaller fragments. We’ve painted before, so we thought that whitewashing couldn’t be that different.
We packed enough stuff to last us longer than two weeks, mainly because the boat transportation is at the mercy of Mother Nature. After an overnight orientation by the caretakers we were replacing, we were left on our own. We began filtering water as we were going to need lots of it. FILA had a large plastic tote with our name on it that held all the required equipment. They had been thorough. We first sprayed the bricks with a 25% bleach solution to get rid of any algae. It also did a fine job of evicting spiders! Then we mixed up the lime and let it sit overnight. Next came our experiment with rollers, brushes, and lots of ladder moves.
We started with the most exposed east side, then moved to the front, and finished with the west side. What fun it was to cover those long neglected and discolored bricks with a thin coating of lime that dried to a brighter white. Our many days of work were undisturbed except for buzzing grasshoppers and the flash of monarch butterflies. We also saw the occasional rat and garter snake, but they were just going about their business so we left each other alone. We went to bed when the sun set at 9:30 and got up when it returned. We felt like we were back in 1867, living like the early keepers must have.
We washed our clothes in the lake and used a wringer before hanging them on a clothesline to dry. A year-old, spacious outhouse was only fifteen steps from the lean-to where we slept soundly. We never saw a live mouse, but we still made sure to replace any missing rat poison the previous keepers had put out in the lighthouse. The constant sound of waves kept us company as well as the cries of sea gulls. Ripe, red raspberries tickled our taste buds as we walked the trail to the secluded west beach. One day we trekked over sand dunes and marveled at the sight of virgin cedars and untouched beaches that extended beyond our vision. The solar shower grew warm on the sidewalk under the rays of the sun. It was a welcome end to our working days.
And yet, we weren’t totally cut off from civilization. Twice a day we’d climb the lighthouse tower to where a solar panel charged up a cell phone booster. Besides our mixing and applying whitewash, we also mowed, swept, washed windows, and even painted some inside stairs. We brought books along to read in the evening and played a few games of cribbage.
Applying the second coat of whitewash was a bit of a surprise. It almost looked like we were removing the first coat! But when it dried, we could see how much it had improved the coverage. Sadly, we weren’t able to whitewash the tower portion of the building, mainly due to safety concerns. That would have to wait for more equipment. But we proved that their method works, and we made a unique and visible contribution to South Fox Lighthouse. It was gratifying to be a part of history, to be a part of something bigger than ourselves.
You can also make a difference. Perhaps you’d even consider being a Summer Keeper, or you could give financially to help with upkeep or restoration. At the very least, check out their web site at www.southfox.org.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2018 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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