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South Fox Island Looking for Descendants


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This undated image of the first South Fox Island ...

Are you a descendant of any of the lighthouse keepers who served at South Fox Island Lighthouse in Northwest Michigan? Or do you know of someone who is? If so, the Fox Island Lighthouse Association is looking for you as they try to collect historical photographs, stories, and other information about their lighthouse keepers in preparation for the South Fox Island Lighthouse Celebration Day on June 17, 2017.

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Aerial view of the original 1867 South Fox Island ...

The lighthouse station was manned from 1867 to 1958. The head lighthouse keepers include the following:

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Historic image of the assistant keeper’s house at ...

Henry Roe 1867 – 1871

William Bruin 1871 – 1876

Willis S. Warner 1876 – 1882

William T. Lewis 1882 – 1885

Joseph Fountaine 1885 – 1891

Lewis Bourisseau 1891 – 1915

William F. Green 1924 – 1940

Frederick W. Leslie 1940 – 1946

William Kruwell 1946 – 1948

Peter Timmer 1947 – 1948

Allen P. Cain 1948 – 1958

And, of course, there were dozens of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd assistant lighthouse keepers who served South Fox Island Lighthouse, too many to mention here.

This was a tough station. At 17 miles offshore, it was one of the most remote stations on Lake Michigan. Reportedly, one keeper quit the Lighthouse Service when faced with a posting to South Fox Island.

While it was manned year round for only a few of its many years, the shipping season often extended from April until December. Keeper Willis reported building a board fence around the light station, 320 feet long and 5 feet high, “to keep drifting sand and snow out.” Beautiful in the summer, it had to be pretty desolate by the end of the season.

It could be dangerous, too. The fourth keeper, William Lewis, died from a fall on lighthouse property. There were lumbermen and commercial fisherman on the island in various periods, but never a doctor, so medical attention typically required a trip to the mainland.

But clearly some keepers must have enjoyed, or at least tolerated, the posting. Keeper William Green served 12 years as an assistant, went elsewhere, then returned for 16 years as head keeper. Frederick Leslie also had a long career here, starting as a 2nd Assistant from 1926 to 1928, then as a 1st Assistant from 1931 to 1940, and finally as head keeper until 1946. Allen Cain also started as an assistant for several years before being promoted to head keeper from 1948 until 1958, when the light was automated.

Wives didn’t always agree. Marie Baumberger, Allen Cain’s daughter, tells of how her stepmother, Anna Cain, “didn’t like the Island life,” and how happy she was when the station closed and they could move to Alpena, Michigan. On the other hand, Betty June, wife of Robert June (USCG, serving the island during the 1955 & 56 seasons), reported in an oral history that “it was peaceful and nice” and told of picnics and hikes on the scenic west beach. For their three children, it was a rare time when Dad was home for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and only an earshot away.

Being an island, there is also fine history of the tenders and supply boats that frequented the station. The Hyacinth provisioned the stations, made repairs, and moved keepers and their families on and off stations in the early twentieth century. Reportedly, they had a dog, Sport, who, as they approached a lighthouse, would grab the heaving line in his teeth, dive into the surf, and swim to the waiting lightkeeper who would take the line while the Hyacinth maneuvered into position. In the early Coast Guard years, they used 36 foot MLB’s (featured in the recent movie “The Finest Hours”). The arrival of the various boats were a welcome reprise on an isolated station, except, perhaps, when they delivered a Lighthouse Inspector!

If you can help with stories or photos of South Fox Island Lighthouse please contact southfoxisland@gmail.com.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2017 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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