Digest>Archives> April 2002

Mystery of Middle Island’s Missing Lens

By Timothy Harrison


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The 300-acre island in Lake Huron, where Middle ...

When Marv Theut retired about 13 years ago, he planned on spending the winter months in warm Florida and his summers on a 300-acre island located in Lake Huron about two miles offshore, halfway between Thunder Bay Island and Presque Isle Michigan.

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Middle Island Light Station, Michigan. This photo ...

He planned to restore the abandoned Middle Island Light Station that he purchased at auction in 1998. However, he soon realized that even with the help of his family, the restoration was way beyond the scope of one man’s dream.

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Joy Theut with one of the missing panels from the ...

It was then that he decided that for a man to realize his dream that it had to be shared with the world. What he didn’t realize then that his date with destiny would lead him to become involved with not only saving and restoring the Middle Island Lighthouse, but helping lighthouses all over the Great Lakes.

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Middle Island Light, Michigan from a 1997 photo.
Photo by: Jerry Biggs

When Marv and his group of volunteers, some of whom had been “volunteered” by Marv with a little arm twisting through his amazing way of talking people into getting involved to restore the heavily vandalized and deteriorated light station, one of its major components was missing, the original lens in the tower. What happened to it was unknown. Over the years as the difficult restoration slowly progressed, the lens was always in the back of Marv’s mind.

Realizing there is strength in numbers, he formed the Middle Island Lightkeepers Association to raise money to save the lighthouse for future generations and share it with others. To make a long story short, one thing led to another. Soon Marv found himself cofounder of the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival, a volunteer job that has almost become a full time job in itself, and then co-founded a gift store that would benefit the lighthouses of the area and eventually a museum to tie it all together.

But through all of this, the thoughts of what happened to the lens remained in the back of his mind. He knew that many lighthouse lenses across the country had disappeared into the dusty pages of time. Years ago many were destroyed, some were taken by unknown people, some were destroyed when they were removed from towers, some were shipped to warehouses to be forgotten and others wound up in museums or on display at Coast Guard offices.

Then, suddenly a man, who we will call John for the rest of this story, showed up at the Great Lakes Lighthouse Festival with a lens panel from the Middle Island Lighthouse and gave it to Marv. It wasn’t the entire lens, but it was one large panel from it.

It seems that at the age of fifteen, John and some of his friends set off in a borrowed boat for Middle Island to do what boys would do, explore and have some fun. The year was 1975.

One of the boys suggested that they climb the tower, like many of the locals did who visited the island in those days. This was quite easy to do at the abandoned station; for years the steel graded window at the base of the tower only had one bolt holding it in place, allowing for easy entry and exit from the tower.

While up in the tower admiring the view, one of John’s friends asked him if he could remove one of the panels from the lens. John replied, “Yeah, I can do that.” He took out his big buck knife and removed the screws and out came the panel. He took the panel home and for the next 27 years hid it, always with a great feeling of guilt. He says he and his friends did not touch the rest of the panels, but left them in place.

Over the years, John traveled extensively, working most of his life on or around the water. In the early 80’s he worked as a commercial fisherman in Alaska and in the late 80’s he found himself working in Florida as a concrete mason and carpenter and then seven years as a net mender for a commercial fish farm in Maine. But, he always had this guilty feeling in the back of his mind for taking that lens many years earlier. Today, he is a man with a big heart and conscience to match.

In 1995, John returned to Middle Island and spent the summer there, not vacationing but doing backbreaking work restoring over three hundred feet of sidewalk. This was true hard labor, as all the sand, stone, and cement had to be transported by five gallon buckets to the island and then 3/4 of a mile through the woods to the site. He felt he owed it to the island. Since then he has done other things to help these old beacons.

John’s dream is now the same as Marv’s, to hopefully have the lens panel reunited with the rest of the missing lens. But what happened to the other panels remains a mystery. Maybe someone reading this story has the answer, maybe the answer is in some old faded Coast Guard records, maybe the panels are in someone’s house, being hidden like John hid part of the lens for nearly 30 years. Hopefully, someone will come forward to reunite the lens with the tower of Michigan’s Middle Island Light Station.

For more information or to join the volunteers working to save and restore the lighthouse contact Middle Island Lighthouse Keepers Association, 5671 Rockport, Middle Island, Alpena, MI 49707.

This story appeared in the April 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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