As with much of our research for stories in Lighthouse Digest, one interesting fact leads to the next, and by the time we are finished, entire secondary stories emerge that have other important connections to the lighthouse world that had previously been forgotten and buried under the sands of time. Such is the case with some of the historical information and stories Jamie Wyeth touched upon in his interview regarding Tenants Harbor Lighthouse. When we looked into them further, we were amazed at what we found.
When Tenants Harbor Lighthouse was decommissioned on August, 30, 1933 and replaced with a lighted bell buoy offshore, it was sold on the auction block the following year along with eight other surplus District 1 lighthouses along the Maine coast that were going to be used primarily for private summer residences.
By October 30, 1935, the island and lighthouse had been flipped by a local real estate developer into the hands of a group of three very successful and wealthy businessmen operating out of Boston and New York: Adriel Ulmer Bird, who was president of W.S. Quinby Company and La Touraine Coffee Co. in Boston, a well-known lawyer and owner of the opulent Samoset Hotel in Rockland; Samuel Longley Bickford, who owned diverse industrial food services and started the Bickford’s restaurant chain in New York; and Edwin John Beinecke, who along with his brothers and their wives’ families, established S&H Green Stamps and founded the rare book library at Yale University.
All three men, ranging in age between 42 and 49, had known each other for years through their business collaborations and had become fast friends by the time they took possession of Tenants Harbor Lighthouse on Southern Island. For 15 years, they used the lighthouse as a summer retreat from the business world and stresses of New York and Boston life, though it appears that only Adriel Bird had the reputation for making it into a swinging party place as the local social columns mentioned him “entertaining” guests for the weekends on the island more than once. Adriel was estranged from his wife, famous painter Esther Brock Bird during that time, and there were many rumors of his involvement with film starlets and stage actresses on both coasts.
As for Beinecke and Bickford, they were married family men, though by 1935, all their children had reached adulthood. Bickford came from a strict Baptist background, his father being a minister; he did not drink, so it is doubtful he participated in any bacchanalian revels out at the lighthouse. And when Adriel Bird died at a young 56 in 1950, the other two men worked with the Bird estate’s executors to turn Tenants Harbor Lighthouse over to the Knox County General Hospital as a charitable donation in 1951.
But the real story of these men’s relationship, particularly of Bird and Bickford, centered around the pranks they played on one another over many years of their lives. With an infinite amount of money at their disposal, they came up with the most elaborate jokes to exact revenge upon one another. Jamie Wyeth’s stories of the New York Checker Cab being delivered to Southern Island, the fake tombstones and the unnecessary winter snowplow bill were only the tip of the iceberg where these two were concerned.
The following article was published in many newspapers across the country by United Feature Syndicate, Inc. in July of 1946 and gives a more complete idea of the extent to which their friendly rivalry ran, or overflowed, as it were
“A gentleman named Adriel Bird, originally out of Rockland, Maine, by way of Bowdoin College, and possibly now in his early 50s, looks like a meticulously tailored Baptist deacon, which I hasten to assure you he is not. The man astounds and amazes me. He simply can’t seem to lose a bet, be taken in any sort of game, be proved wrong in an argument, or be persuaded that it’s time to go to bed. Trying to stay up later than Bird is like trying to stay up later than the furniture of wherever you happen to be.
“His particular friend, and foil, is a gentleman of dignity and substance in New York, whose name is Sam Bickford. The job these two do on each other at every opportunity is a certain bestseller if the author existed who could ever catch the pair and hold them down long enough to get it.
“Once, for instance, Mr. Bickford had a serious business trip to make to San Francisco. After the train was well on its way, his dear friend, Mr. Bird, had a going-away present delivered. The present consisted of a generous number of female house cats of the alley variety, all of them very darned expectant. Mr. Bird had carefully ascertained from the railway company, what the charge was for each passage, and for any passenger that might develop en route. All this, he carefully charged to Mr. Bickford, and the crates were delivered to the baggage car in Chicago. There was probably never a cross-country argosy such as that one in history. New delegations of kittens kept arriving in every state.
“Part of all this was the fact that Mr. Bird knew that Mr. Bickford was a very kind-hearted man. When the latter arrived in San Francisco, he couldn’t do anything for two or three days until he got his cats settled, and he spent practically his whole trip ringing door bells in a hunt for homes for his flock.
“His revenge was to wait until he got to Florida the following winter. Then he started shipping Mr. Bird an alligator-a-day. Mr. Bird was stuck in Boston, and his apartment is no zoo, but first came one of those little two-inch alligators you buy and send north to dear friends from some gift shop. The next day’s was a little bigger, and finally they were running up to six or seven feet and all of them alive. Mr. Bird received a total of something such as 90 alligators. They had him more than ringing door bells.
“The Bickfords were at a swank hotel and, at long last, Mr. Bird arrived at the site, exhausted and wanting most awfully to sleep. Mr. Bickford had hired a bellboy to come in every half hour all through the night and dump a washtub full of cracked ice into the bathtub of the Bird room, on order that the recently arrived guest might have a cold bath if he wanted one. Bird offered the boy money but couldn’t get him to stop because Bickford had told him he’d give “50 more than Bird” if he’d keep on lugging ice. He kept lugging.
“Mr. Bird’s revenge was exquisite. Mrs. Bickford’s birthday was due a couple of days later, the Bird reservation had been made by Bickford and the room was charged, as yet, to the Bickford account. Out of these two facts, Bird quickly parleyed a diabolical scheme. Pretending to the girl in the hotel flower shop that nothing she had in stock was good enough, he ascertained from this somewhat miffied miss that American Beauties of great stem length, guaranteed beauty and terrific price, could be ordered especially from New York.
“‘That’s what I’m looking for,’ said Mr. Bird, and he proceeded to order some six dozen, specifying furthermore that they be immediately flown down in a chartered plane, the whole to be charged to his room, which was still on the Bickford account. The unbelievably beautiful roses came and were delivered. Mrs. Bickford, of course, promptly and naturally accredited this magnificent gesture to her ever-loving spouse, who could only keep his trap shut and start planning his next revenge.
“The war cooled this pair off considerably, but the last I heard, Mr. Bird had managed, at great pains, to buy an elephant somewhere and was trying to have it shipped to Mr. Bickford.”
How many more pranks occurred that included Southern Island or the lighthouse will probably never be known, but it was Samuel Bickford who apparently had the last laugh, remnants of which are still at the lighthouse today besides the gravestones and Checker Cab engine block. Because of Bickford’s business association with the Scammell China Company who produced all of the branded dinnerware for the Bickford’s restaurants, Samuel was able to take photos of the three men and have them especially produced on a limited set of china to be used out at the lighthouse for when the three were present.
Jamie Wyeth’s mother, Betsy, discovered some pieces left in the lighthouse cabinets, but it is the coffee cup, in possession of Samuel Bickford’s grandson that shows the real joke. Adriel Bird’s photo is alone on the inside of the cup and gets covered by coffee when filled. Given that his main claim to business fame was his La Touraine Coffee Company during that era, it was a permanent jab that can be appreciated even today.
But the story does not end here. What was amazing to discover through further research was that these three men were the benefactors who sponsored the early annual flights of the Flying Santa program at the same time they owned Tenants Harbor Lighthouse and even were on some of the flights dropping packages to lighthouse families! Alan L. Bird, Adriel’s uncle, who was also a well-known lawyer in Rockland, was the sponsor of the second Flying Santa Christmas flight, piloted by William H. Wincapaw in 1930. Alan was aboard the plane that year dropping packages of newspapers and magazines to around 25 lighthouses located in the Penobscot Bay district, including Tenant’s Harbor Light.
By the fourth year in 1933, Adriel Bird had taken over the sponsorship of the flight which was made in one of his La Touraine Coffee Company planes. Wincapaw had frequently piloted Bird on business trips during this time, so the flight originated out of Boston and Adriel was even onboard to drop the packages to the lighthouse keepers, which now included a pound of his La Touraine coffee. Not surprisingly, the third passenger on this occasion was none other than Samuel Bickford, who came along for the ride and presumably helped with the present drops.
1935 was when the three businessmen bought Tenant’s Harbor Lighthouse. Who knows but that Bickford and Bird’s Flying Santa adventures and sponsorship helped inspire their purchase of the lighthouse, and conversely, their ownership of the lighthouse kept their interest going in sponsoring the Flying Santa for years to come. A Christmas card sent out by Adriel Bird that year shows Tenants Harbor Lighthouse on the front and a La Touraine-marked plane flying over it.
That year, the program extended to the point of needing a second plane that 17-year-old William Wincapaw Jr piloted. Newspapers across the country ran a photo of Adriel Bird helping the two Wincapaws load packages for the flight.
By 1936, the Flying Santa Christmas deliveries had extended from Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse in Massachusetts and northeast to Grand Manan and required the two planes to make two separate runs to cover all the stations. The gift bundles were upgraded to include cookies, silk hose (for the wives), almanacs and another book, candy, cigarettes, as well as the former coffee, magazines and newspapers.
The Bangor Daily News reported that, “Assisting Wincapaw in preparing the 1936 Christmas flight are three business men, each of whom has done considerable flying with the veteran pilot. They are Adriel U. Bird of Boston, and Edwin J. Beinecke and Samuel L. Bickford, both of New York.
So, during the 1930s, all three of the Tenants Harbor Lighthouse owners were participating in the annual lighthouse Santa event, sometimes flying with Wincapaw, and all at least involved in providing the funding and planes necessary to deliver the packages into the hands of New England coastal lighthouse keepers during those early years. Eventually, Bickford-owned planes were used and Edward Rowe Snow took over the role as the Flying Santa until 1980. The program proudly continues today by means of helicopters to bring yuletide cheer to various Coast Guard stations.
Adriel U. Bird, Edwin J. Beinecke and Samuel L. Bickford are remembered best for owning many prestigious businesses between them, serving on multiple boards for institutions, backing charitable organizations and acting as philanthropists on many levels. But their lighter moments of pulling grandiose pranks upon each other, along with their ownership of Tenants Harbor Lighthouse and interest in lighthouses in general though the Flying Santa program, probably were counted among the high points of their personal lives and gave them a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment along the way.
As was written in Adriel Bird’s obituary, “As a man he was warm-hearted, generous to a fault, with hosts of friends in many different walks of life. An able and progressive business man, he took pleasure in trying to serve others.” This could probably be said of all three of the owners of Tenants Harbor Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
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