Digest>Archives> August 2008

The Old Foghorn: Discovery of a Lost Treasure

By Jim Lipsky


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In 1972, on a cool, gray afternoon, I set a tape recorder on the shore of Lake Michigan, near the Kewaunee Wisconsin Harbor, to record the sounds of the harbor, especially the old foghorn. I realized that many of these sounds would not last forever.

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Officials had already removed some of the old foghorns on the Great Lakes and replaced them with automatic, electronic devices. However, these devices, while perhaps more effective and efficient, lacked the familiar, nostalgic droning of the old foghorns. The car ferry was being loaded with train cars this day, and its days were numbered also.

History tells us that Kewaunee once challenged Chicago, Illinois to be the major port on Lake Michigan. The Library of Congress, in their research of the maritime history of the little Northeastern Wisconsin town, stated:

"In the late 19th century, Kewaunee Wisconsin, one of the great maritime ports of the northern Great Lakes, sought to challenge Chicago as Lake Michigan’s supreme port city.

Its car ferry and rail loading tracks were constructed in 1891 when an automated signal was installed. Improved rail connections to other cities led to the ultimate decline of the port; Kewaunee’s aspirations were short lived. This recording preserves lost sounds of the once bustling lake port."

So with a modest, little tape recorder, I was fortunate enough to record these harbor sounds - the old foghorn, the car ferry and the train loading it. However, I put the tape away for thirty years until I moved to Green Bay Wisconsin from River Falls Wisconsin, where I taught at the University. One hot, summer day I took out the tape of the old foghorn and wondered if it would relax and cool me off, just as it seemed to do during my childhood years growing up in Kewaunee. It worked! A lost treasure was found! Since I knew of no other recording of this old foghorn, I wondered if I should share it with others. I soon found out that many individuals from all over the country and foreign countries also, were interested in these extinct sounds.

In addition to providing recordings of the old foghorn, I believed that these sounds should be preserved in the Library of Congress. In the year 2000, Congress passed a law to include sound recordings in the Library of Congress. Just a few years later, they accepted my recording. The foghorn recording was one of fifty other historic recordings selected by a prestigious board for that year (2005). Consequently, the old fog horn recording was accepted, along with other recordings such as John F. Kennedy’s famous Presidential Acceptance Speech, Jack Benny’s Radio Show, the Beach Boys, Star Wars sound track, "Lovesick Blues" by Hank Williams, as well as other famous recordings.

The following is a quote from a letter received from James H. Billington, The Librarian of Congress, dated June 13, 2006:

Congratulations on the selection of your recording of the Kewaunee, Wisconsin, foghorn to the National Recording Registry. There is no better way to highlight the importance of preserving ephemeral sounds than to recreate a lost experience by sharing a recording like the one you captured of the old foghorn that is now gone from its lakeshore community. This recording illustrates how closely memory and emotion are tied to the soundscape of our environment... in short, your June 1972 perspicacity helps preserve our nation’s cultural memory for future generations.

It didn’t take long for the Green Bay Press Gazette to find out about this Library of Congress acceptance, and they sent a reporter over to interview me. Upon leaving, the reporter said, "This is an A-1 story" meaning that it was front page headlines!

That day the Associated Press called and said this article would be in newspapers across the country. WGN Radio in Chicago, called that evening and wanted a live interview the next morning.

In l982, the old foghorn from Kewaunee was on its way to the Smithsonian Institute and was petitioned to be placed in the Duluth Minnesota outer harbor where it blew for almost ten years (a second life?). After that it was reported that the device was dismantled and will likely never be assembled again.

This old foghorn represents many different memories and emotions for different people. Some realize it was a very real part of their growing, up (like the author), and some enjoy the relaxing repetition of the predictable, dual tones. Being a songwriter, I was inspired to write a song I call, "A Sound of Hope." I felt that the foghorn was a sentry, making these sounds to call out to those unable to navigate safely without some help. It is said that, back when the Native Americans lived in Kewaunee, when someone canoed out into the lake and was surrounded by fog, someone from shore would call out in their language the word "Kewaunee" which meant "I am here."

The Old Foghorn

By Jim Lipsky

As I lay here sleepy

Wrapped in my warm blanket

I think of that cold, gray blanket

That wraps and smothers everything

Holding it prisoner.

Suddenly, the silence is pierced

By a penetrating, deep voice

That echoes out to an endless sea

As a parent calling out to its lost children

Again and again it cries out

Alone... alone... alone... alone

Anyone interested in obtaining a 31 min. CD of the old foghorn recording, as preserved in the Library of Congress,

can send an e-mail to: jim@lipsky.us.

This story appeared in the August 2008 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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