Digest>Archives> April 1996

Shedding light on a unique life

Maine woman has no regrets about growing up in several lighthouses

By Dana Pearson


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Imagine a world of people deprived of modern conveniences - no telephone, television, radio or plumbing. Imagine a landscape stripped of trees, shrubbery, and fields, with only a scattering of grass desperately creeping out from between the rocks. Imagine living in a world where you can count every inhabitant with your fingers and toes.

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Edwina Davis doesn't need to imagine such a place; she can remember it. Until graduating from Cape Elizabeth High School in 1927, Davis lived with her family in a series of lighthouses from Jonesport to Cape Porpoise. Did she ever look around her and say, "Oh my God, I'm out in the middle of nowhere"?

"We never gave it a thought," she said at her home in Cape Porpoise, where she has resided since 1971. "It was the only life we knew, and we enjoyed it."

Davis was born in 1907 when her father, Capt. James Anderson, obtained his first position as an assistant lighthouse keeper at the Moose Peak Light on Mistake Island off Jonesport, 35 miles east of Mt. Desert Island. She spent the first six years of her life on Moose Peak, until her family moved into a house on the mainland.

In 1915, the Anderson family moved from Jonesport to the lighthouse on Matinicus Rock, 25 miles offshore from Rockland. The head keeper and three assistant keepers, Anderson one of them, lived on the barren island with their families, totaling 17 people. The Anderson children - Kathleen, Robert, Edwina and Betty - amused themselves with the other kids on Matinicus.

"We did whatever nature would let us do," said Davis. "Even though we were 25 miles out to sea, we weren't lonesome. We didn't have to come ashore to be entertained because we could entertain ourselves."

While inside, they played various card games and read piles of books. Weather permitting, the children played outside, although the lack of open pastures prevented them from playing traditional ball games. Swimming was hardly an option ("The water was too darned cold"), so they explored the rocky terrain, which often got them into trouble, although not with their parents.

"There was no grass, so the Medrick gulls hid their eggs in the crevices of the rocks every spring," said Davis. "It was the kids' fashion to get down and get ahold of those eggs. The mothers protecting those eggs, well, they'd peck you all over, especially your head. By golly, your head would be sore!"

Another popular outdoor activity was squid-hunting. "We'd look between the rocks for them," said Davis, "sometimes for something to do, sometimes to sell to the fishermen."

Davis learned to roller-skate on Matinicus rock. An enclosed wooden corridor stretched from the head keeper's house to the Andersons' stone house. It was the perfect place to strap on a pair of skates and roll around.

In his spare time, Davis' father would make wooden boats which he floated off the rocky coast. Her mother, Mary, who "knew more about the sea than my father did, and could handle a boat anytime," spent her leisure hours knitting.

Although there was no church to go to on Sundays, the Matinicus families did not lack spiritual guidance. "What religion we had came from our mothers and fathers," said Davis. "I can't remember any Bible readings, but I know we were told about it...we were taught right from wrong."

Education was provided by the federal government, as lighthouses at the time fell under the auspices of the US Lighthouse Service. A teacher sailed to the island once a month and stayed for a week. upon leaving, the instructor would leave behind books and lessons to be read and learned by the next visit.

"The men, two at a time, would go for supplies two or three times a week, once in the winter," recalled Davis. "We had good wholesome food, although no fresh milk. Sometimes we'd get a bushel of raw peanuts, and it was a real treat to cook them." For obvious reasons, seafood was abundant. The island's water supply was provided by Mother Nature. Rainwater off the roof would be funnelled to large whitewashed cisterns in the cellar, and was pumped from there to the kitchen.

"We must've been healthy because we were never really sick," said Davis. "We never slept late in the morning, and went to bed early at night. It seemed as though we lived by the clock. It was a good way of living."

Even if they were feeling slightly ill, the children wouldn't care to admit it. "We'd get a good dose of castor oil or Atwood's Bitters," said Davis. "That would make us sick!"

The only pet on Matinicus Rock was a parrot that had been brought home from South America many years earlier by Capt. Anderson's seafaring father, Robert. "Polly" was a stalwart bird with the typical longevity of a parrot, following the Andersons for more than 30 years from Moose Peak to Cape Porpoise, where he eventually died.

"The only Santa Claus we knew was Sears & Roebuck," said Davis with a laugh. "All four families ordered at the same time. It was big doings." Once sailed in, the gifts for all the children would be placed under a shared Christmas tree.

The Andersons stayed on Matinicus for two years, forging deep relationships with the other dwellers and developing an affinity for the far-flung rock. "Those friendships lasted forever," said Davis, who returned to the lighthouse a few years later with her family for a summer vacation.

The Andersons transferred to Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth in 1917. Davis remembered that during World War I, Marines constantly patrolled the grounds, protecting the wireless station that was encircled with barbed wire. Those very same soldiers also swept off a pond in the winter so that the lighthouse families could ice-skate together.

Davis and her siblings attended school in Cape Elizabeth, walking the four miles every day since there was no available transportation. For their efforts, the children were each paid 15 cents a day. "I don't think we missed many days of school," said Davis, "or we'd miss that 15 cents."

The Andersons moved to Goat Island Light in Cape Porpoise in 1926, where Capt. Anderson was head lighthouse keeper until his retirement in 1939. One year after arriving on Goat Island, Davis graduated from Cape Elizabeth High School. She attended the University of Maine, endured a brief marriage ("I won't do that again!"), then taught first grade in Maine for six years and in Rhode Island for 35.

Upon retiring in 1971, Davis returned to Cape Porpoise and the house she bought in 1930 for practical purposes. "The only reason I bought the house was to have some place where I could dump everything. My mother got tired of me leaving everything at her house."

For 25 years, Davis has led an independent life, traveling to Europe (seven times), Hawaii (twice), Alaska and Brazil. She lives in her Cape Cod house on Main Street with Ricky and Rocky, two formerly wild cats who share the idiosyncrasy of ducking for cover whenever guests arrive at the door.

The lighthouses where she spent her youth have become automated. The US Lighthouse Service is no more. Two Lights is a museum. Matinicus Rock has been swept clean of all but one building, and is now mostly known for being the home of the Atlantic puffin.

Not far from Davis' home lies Goat Island, now under the care of the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. The oil house and bell tower are gone, and the main house is used only in warm weather. The lighthouse is a curiosity, annually drawing thousands of camera-wielding tourists, who snap away form the Cape Porpoise pier. For Edwina Davis, though, the lighthouse is a reminder of simpler, more innocent times.

"A woman up here got robbed a short time ago. They said, 'Well, she didn't have the doors locked.' In all the places I lived," said Davis, "I never knew what a house key was."

Story reprinted courtesy of the York County Coast Star, Kennebunk, Maine.

This story appeared in the April 1996 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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