Digest>Archives> May 2010

Wickie’s Wisdom

Officials Want to Evict Curator And Disable Michigan’s White River Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison

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The White River Lighthouse in Whitehall, Michigan.
Photo by: Larry A. Jacobs

The future of the White River Lighthouse Station in Whitehall, Michigan is now facing its biggest threat in its 135 years existence.

For all practical purposes, the public officials who represent the people of Fruitland Township, which owns the lighthouse, like Pontius Pilate want to wash their hands of the lighthouse, thereby shirking the responsibility that the people of the surrounding community entrusted to them 44 years ago.

Citing budget problems, Fruitland Township officials want to toss out Karen McDonnell, who has lived at the lighthouse for the past 27 years as its caretaker, museum curator and tour guide. They have given her one year to get out. She is currently paid $13,660 a year for her 24 hour a day job. Including benefits, her total compensation is approximately $23,000 per year. However, about one half of that amount, $12,000 to be more precise, is covered by admission fees paid by people who tour the lighthouse and climb the tower.

The Fruitland Public officials have also instructed McDonnell to do away with the gift shop at the lighthouse because it is too risky to buy merchandise that might not sell. These officials have apparently never run a successful business. You can’t make money if you don’t have merchandise to sell. Yikes, nearly every lighthouse in the world, that is open to the public, offers merchandise for sale to help cover expenses and raise money for the ongoing care of the lighthouse.

Currently, McDonnell opens the White River Lighthouse six days per week from Memorial Day through October 31. Now, Fruitland Township officials want the lighthouse to be open only two days per week and have it staffed by volunteers for those days. Again we have to wonder how many of these officials have ever run a successful business. As any elementary school child can figure out, they will now lose four days per week in admission fees.

At a recent meeting of the Fruitland Township Board of Trustees nearly two dozen people showed up to voice their support in keeping the status quo at the lighthouse. Additionally, a number of people have written to the local newspapers. One local resident, Aileen Newald, wrote to Mlive.com, “It sounds like another case of politics trying to get rid osf what is good for us just so they can save a buck for themselves. The museum curator has done a wonderful job for all those years and suddenly someone new gets in office and there is a problem. . . . I feel that if they get their hands on the museum it will fall into disarray and we will all lose. As far as their excuses go, I, for one, am tired of excuses by people who are supposed to have our best interest at heart, when the only interest they have is in their own pockets and quest for power.”

We have to agree. Of the township’s budget of $809,000, an amazing 42% goes to payroll for staff. Perhaps a small cut in everyone’s salary would be enough to keep the lighthouse open.

In 1966 when the Coast Guard, through GSA, offered the lighthouse to Fruitland Township. The property was appraised at $12,500 and the township was required to pay one half of that amount to obtain ownership. The township said they would agree to take ownership and run the lighthouse as a museum that would be open to the public provided the people of the community would donate the $6,250. The people stepped forward and donated the money. We wonder how those people would feel today of they knew the township wanted to break the spirit of the agreement.

To prevent vandalism at the site, the township agreed to hire a caretaker/curator to live on the premises, a position that has been in force since 1975. While no one can predict the future, once an on-site caretaker is removed, you can almost be assured that the lighthouse will be vandalized. How much money will it then cost the township to make repairs? Also, priceless artifacts could be stolen and never replaced. This is obvious by the many stories of vandalism and thefts at lighthouses that we have written about over the years.

In 2003, the Friends of White River Light Station was formed to raise funds to purchase artifacts for the lighthouse and to provide educational opportunities for the people of the community. The Fruitland Township officials have taken no initiative to work with the Friends group to come up with some new and fresh ideas to raise money for the lighthouse.

If the only solution of the township officials is to institute massive and drastic cut backs, without taking other initiatives with other government agencies, the community and the Friends, this becomes a perfect example of bureaucrats who want to exist only on taxpayer dollars for the benefit of their own paychecks and not the good of the community and the historic lighthouse that they have been entrusted with.

For additional information, you can contact Betsy Grein, President, Friends of White River Light Station, 5780 Oak Tree Lane, Whitehall, Michigan 49461.

If you would like to make a donation to support keeping the White River Lighthouse open to the public or send a letter of protest to the officials, you can write to Fruitland Township, 4545 Nestrom Road, Whitehall, Michigan 49461-9715.

You can also e-mail the township clerk at clerk@fruitlandtwp.org. The township Supervisor is Mr. Sam E. St. Amour and his e-mail address is supervisor@ fruitlandtwp.org.

This story appeared in the May 2010 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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