Digest>Archives> February 2002

Childhood in the 1930’s at Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse

By Vivian Jensen Chapin


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Arthur Jensen at the top of the Eaton’s Neck ...

Perhaps one of the most picturesque sites for a lighthouse is on the north shore of Long Island where I grew up. Eaton’s Neck is a very beautiful stretch of heavily forested land jutting out into Long Island Sound. In 1798 ten of these acres were ceded to the federal government by John and Johanna Gardiner, who had bought Eaton’s Neck in 1792. This venerable lighthouse has just celebrated its 200th anniversary; the tower is the only part of the site still standing, with 1798 imprinted in cement on its base.

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Arthur Jensen and Vivian in 1923.

My father Arthur Jensen retired from Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse as its keeper in August 1942. His career in lighthouses started in 1908, after having served in the U.S. Navy in the Spanish American War. His first assignment in the Lighthouse Service was at Execution Rocks off New Rochelle in Long Island Sound, then cold Spring Harbor, on the north shore of Long Island, Eaton’s Neck, then Falkner’s Island off Guilford, Connecticut, and finally back to Eaton’s Neck until his retirement. My brother Arthur was born at Eaton’s Neck in 1917, my sister Alice in 1919, and finally I was born in 1923.

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Keeper and Mrs. Arthur Jensen in 1940.

The dwelling at the lighthouse was a two family arrangement, one part for the keeper and family and the other for the assistant and his family. Our house consisted of a living room, kitchen, with coal stove, kerosene stove, sink, well water, and upstairs three bedrooms. The facility was in the back of the house, a long walk on a cold winter’s night. The best part of the house was the kitchen, especially in the winter with the coal stove warm, and the oven ready to produce wondrous results. Sometimes the baby chicks my mother kept were put under the stove to keep warm if the temperature outside was too cold for them. The table in the kitchen was oval, and made room for us all to do our homework around it. At ten o’clock my father wound the clock and that was bedtime.

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The Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse in 1940.

The radio was a new and marvelous invention in the 1920’s, and my father was the second person in that area to own a radio. Every evening it was “Amos ‘n Andy,” sometimes boxing matches, and then “Fibber McGee and Molly.” Later when my brother was working on a yacht in Florida he sent my sister and I a radio, our very own to listen to, especially the Lux Radio Theatre.

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Inside the fog signal building, 1922.

The seasons brought different events, and the most exciting time was the painting of the tower in the spring. My father built a sidecar in which he stood while he whitewashed the tower; the car had two ropes, which we sometimes had to pull to straighten it so it would not tip. The very pinnacle of the tower was painted red. I remember not wanting to watch when he painted that.

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The fog signal building, 1934.

The spring season also brought the time for burning the fields. The lighthouse was in the middle of ten acres, many of which were abundantly full of luscious strawberries. The burning of the fields was an exciting time, and helped produce the berries. We were each equipped with a wet mop, prepared to attack the fire so it would not travel too far. Somehow it never got out of hand, probably because my father was always careful about watching for a good weather forecast.

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Arthur Jensen and family in 1928, Arthur, his ...

As a wonderful conclusion to the burning of the fields, when the time was ripe in June we would pick the small red strawberries, and my mother would make her jam which she would end up giving away to so many friends and relatives. Besides the strawberries we were also able to pick beach plums from the plum bushes near the saltwater. The beach plum jam was very special, tart, not like the strawberry jam.

A great event in the spring was the unannounced visit of the lighthouse inspector who would go over the station very carefully even running his finger on the top of the doors in the house. He arrived on the lighthouse tender. The lighthouse tenders were named for flowers; usually the Larkspur or the Tulip came to our station. At the time of this annual visit the regular supplies, such as paint, oil, and maintenance materials would be brought to the station. The fog signal building required many hours of maintenance, and during fog the blast was low and mournful. When my father was on a particularly long vigil in that building, I remember taking my checkerboard down and keeping him company for a while, even though the noise was deafening.

Many yachts visited Eaton’s Neck in the summer with the lagoon by the Coast Guard Station providing a safe and calm harbor. There were visitors who wanted to have a tour of the tower in the summer but in the winter it was quite different. We did have a telephone, a party wire, and sometimes it was difficult to get a call through because of the chatting that went on. There was one particular resident that was known for her gossip and listening on the phone was viable substitute for reading the local newspaper.

The wintertime was more isolated, but provided activities for sport. There was ice-skating on the ice pond about a mile away, and skiing on the pastureland of the local farm. The waters of Long Island Sound usually froze over and we would take our chances of jumping from one ice floe to another, often getting quite wet.

Getting ready for Christmas involved baking endless cookies, breads, and goodies, which were automatically distributed to neighbors. The Christmas tree was never bought, but chopped down from one of the nearby woods. We were very particular, my sister and I, as to which one we wanted our brother to cut. It had to be perfect, and it usually was.

One Christmas was particularly different since my sister had been very ill with a sore throat and temperature, but still did not seem to get better. Our doctor had access to a new medicine, which proved itself. It was penicillin.

It was during this Christmas that my brother wanted to supply our table with pheasant for the Christmas holiday. He came home with an impressive bird, but later that night he showed my sister and I his deep cut from a barbed wire fence he had gotten caught on as he crawled through. Quietly my sister got out iodine and poured it into the wound. My brother had a hard time to keep from screaming out at this point. He did recover but the wound took a long time healing; our parents never knew the risks he had taken.

For Christmas we always received a book in our stockings along with other small items. The public library was seven miles away. We did have a piano, which my sister and I both played. If the weather were fair, my parents would take us to the Presbyterian Church for the Christmas Eve service where there was always a Santa with a bag of hard candy for each.

If Christmas were snowy, Mr. Austin, the farm manager at Beacon Farm next to the lighthouse, would get out his sleigh and take turns giving us children a ride with the horses and the sleigh. Mr. Austin would also let us roller-skate in the cow barn if it were not milking time.

In the winter of 1934, there was a very strong blizzard which covered the roads deeply, especially the windswept road to Eaton’s Neck from Northport. A crew of men started to do the digging out from the village and another crew from Eaton’s Neck. They finally met in the middle, allowing the school bus to run again.

Occasionally the boats in the Sound would get into trouble and wash up on the shore. In the fall of 1935 a young man pounded on our door in the early morning. He had hardly any clothes on, was very wet, had swum to shore from his capsized sailboat. His companion was missing, and was never found. He used our telephone to reach his family from Connecticut and in due time was picked up by them. Meanwhile he was clothed in whatever we could get out of our closets, and fed heartily by my mother!

The road to the lighthouse on Eaton’s Neck was through private property, belonging to Beacon Farm, which was owned by a pediatrician, Dr. Frank Babbott, who wanted to raise special cows to produce very healthy milk. Eventually he sold it to Henry S. Morgan and the road remained private. Public access to the lighthouse became very limited; permission had to be granted ahead of time. Scouts were often given a tour of the lighthouse, and various similar groups. The land, which had formerly been farmland, became a hunting ground for duck and pheasant shooting. Beacon Farm became a kennel for the raising of hunting dogs, many imported from Scotland.

In times of emergency, occasionally a doctor would make the trip out to the lighthouse. However, my father was a patient of the Veteran’s Administration hospital in Northport. One time when he was cleaning the Fresnel lens he dropped something and it ripped into an artery in his wrist. Since my father thought my mother, being a woman, would not possibly learn to drive he had no choice but to have my brother, who was barely fourteen, take the wheel of the car. I remember my father being wrapped with an array of bloody towels and my mother telling my brother what to do, as he drove with haste to the local VA hospital ten miles away.

Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse was a unique place to remember as my home—the family life, the good neighbors, the vast opportunities for outdoor activities and the sublime realization that there was no place on earth quite its equal.

It is hoped that this beautiful historical lighthouse will be made accessible to the public and be assured of its place in the history of Long Island. It needs to be available to schoolchildren so that they will not forget that it has been an “aid to navigation” since 1798.

This story appeared in the February 2002 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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