In July 2022, 90-year-old Dottie Orford came back to California’s Point San Luis Light Station. Her return had been a long time coming.
Dottie, her husband Richard Andrew “Dick” Orford, and their four young children had lived at the light station sixty-six years earlier. Dick had relieved Nels A. Howe as officer-in-charge. Howe was retiring from the Coast Guard after twenty-four years of service; he had been assigned to Point San Luis only temporarily.
The Orfords’ sojourn at the light station had occurred during the early years of their marriage. Seventeen-year-old Dottie married nineteen-year-old Dick in 1949, two years after his Coast Guard enlistment. Children followed quickly: Kenneth in 1950, Hal in 1952, and Vicky in 1954 just before they arrived at the light station. Their youngest, Richard Jr., was born in 1956 while they were living there.
The Orfords lived in the left (west) side of the Victorian duplex, built in 1890. When they moved in, there was a large dining set in the dining room, a couch and chairs in the living room, and a small table in the kitchen—furnishings provided by the military. Upstairs were three bedrooms. While there was a second-story balcony that straddled the two sides of the duplex, Dottie does not recall that it was ever used. “It was for decoration only,” she believed. But the view out the windows and from their front porch was “terrific.” She loved watching the tankers sailing to and from the nearby Union Oil pier, ships riding high out of the water when they were empty, or very low in the water when they were fully loaded with fuel.
Dottie recalled that when Coast Guard technicians came to the station to do work on the electrical equipment or phone lines, they would sleep in the old keeper’s dwelling which was otherwise unoccupied. She did not remember whether the dwelling was furnished but thought it was in good condition. Her husband would have people go inside to dust every once in a while.
Big shopping was done in San Luis Obispo; small shopping at the general store in Avila, “a cute little town,” she said. “The people who ran the store were very nice.” Before her son was born, she purchased a baby bassinet from the store’s owners. (Most likely the general store Dottie recalled was the Avila Grocery, run at the time by Harold and Nadine Martin.)
Abalone were plentiful at the time and so delicious to eat, Dottie remembered; it was easy to harvest big ones at a low or minus tide.
The Orfords had a good time socializing with the other people stationed at Point San Luis during their two-year stint, including Lucky and Del Jackson, William B. A. “Tex” Plemons, Richard and Moana Newcomb, and Ron and Sandy Stuart. Everyone was very friendly, Dottie recalled. Plemons, a single guy at the time, often ate with the Orfords; “he was part of our family, and like an older brother to our kids.” When their own extended family came for visits, “they were all enthralled because they were coming to the lighthouse.”
Asked about animals at the light station, Dottie remembered the piglet her husband bought for the kids because he thought they needed a pet. Unfortunately, it got loose on rancher Marre’s property which surrounded the light station’s thirty acres. By the time the pig was found, it was a pretty good size. “Mr. Marre shot it, cut it up, and brought it down to us.”
Bob Marre (grandson of the original landowner Luigi Marre) and his wife lived on the ranch with their two children. The only road in and out was on the Marre ranch. “You’d have to get permission to come through.” However, Marre’s wife Imogene hosted Dottie and Dick when they left the hospital after their son was born. “We stayed at the ranch and had lunch when we brought the new baby back because the tide was out and the boat couldn’t cross from Avila to the light station.” The relationship between the Marre family and the Coast Guard was very cordial, Dottie recalled. “After hours, Dick would go out and help Mr. Marre round up the cattle that he ran in the fields.”
When the Orfords’ oldest child Kenneth was kindergarten age, the family transferred. To get their son to school, they would have had to go by trail or boat. The trail was steep and too dangerous; taking Kenneth to school and back by boat each day wasn’t very practical. So in the fall of 1956, Orford was assigned to a lightship; Dottie and the children moved to Albany where they had a home.
Dick retired from the military in 1967 as a Chief Boatswain’s Mate, after twenty years of Coast Guard service. Following his retirement, the family moved to Marysville, WA where Dick worked in construction, eventually starting his own business building custom homes. He retired again in 1990, after which Dottie and Dick took time to travel. After spending two winters in Arizona, they decided to make it their home. Dick passed away in 2008.
Dottie’s return to Point San Luis—after sixty-six years—was bittersweet. While she was delighted to see the light station again, and fondly remembered the keeper’s dwelling, the light tower, the Fresnel lens, and the breathtaking views, she felt a certain sadness too. No trace remained of her long-ago home, which had held so many memories. The Victorian duplex was destroyed by the Coast Guard four years after she left.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2023 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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