Digest>Archives> May 2002

The Story of One Keeper’s Daughter

By Jim Merkel


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Edna Lane at Michigan Island Lighthouse. Her ...

For Ed Lane, his wife, Elizabeth, and their four children, life was full of flower gardens, songs about a lighthouse keeper’s daughter and beams from the Michigan Island Light Station.

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The Michigan Island Lighthouses, the lighthouse ...
Photo by: Bob and Sandra Shanklin

Lane was keeper at Michigan Island from 1902 until 1939, making him the longest-serving keeper in the six light stations of the Apostle Islands of western Lake Superior. From stories told by a daughter years later, an image emerges of an idyllic existence, the kind one imagines for inhabitants of the lighthouses in paintings sold in gift shops.

“We children never missed playmates - Mom and Dad played with us and formed teams,” Edna Lane Sauer recalled, nearly half a century after her father’s retirement. “So many happy memories of those days - never was lonely - just busy working and playing.”

Before her death in 1991 in Moline, Illinois, at the age of ninety-six, Sauer provided a vivid portrayal of the happy life of a family that seemed perfect for the isolated life at a light station.

“It’s not the typical kind of life that one would have living in a town,” said Bob Mackreth, historian for the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, which cares for the light stations of the Apostles. “Some people of course adapted well to it and others did not adapt so well. It certainly seems that the Lanes were able to adapt very well to this isolated life. . . . Edna had many pleasant memories and many fond things to say about her time at the lighthouse.”

Sauer was just turning seven when the family came to the island. She attended school in Bayfield, a nearby town on the shore, and summered on Michigan Island until 1914. Then she developed a condition, called an “inward goiter,” that made her faint and made it harder to breathe.

Told by doctors her health would improve if she lived in a warmer climate, she moved south, to Davenport, Iowa. Her health improved and she never moved back. But she often returned to visit, and shared her recollections with local residents, and later historians for the National Park Service. It is those recollections and letters she wrote that provided a clear picture of life on Michigan Island.

Sauer last returned to the Apostle Islands region in 1985, when she was ninety. Four years later, she expressed thanks to God that her mind was still clear.

She wrote:

“I hope they (the National Park Service) refurnish Michigan Island some day, and that I can help. I know and remember every piece of furniture in my old home, even to the woodbox in the kitchen. Keeping it filled was our job! Earlier in the fall, Dad would walk out the path. . . . where he would cut down the birch trees, and sawed the limbs into correct length. We children would pile them up for the winter. He always made a shelter for us of birch branches to keep us warm. Loved it!”

Dave Snyder, the former historian of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore and the historian for the U.S. Lighthouse Society, thought of visiting Sauer before she died, but never did. Nonetheless, he has strong recollections of speaking to her by phone several times.

“When she was still in her home, and then when she was in her rest home, I talked to her,” Snyder said. “I talked to her maybe five or six times, and she would write me, but she wouldn’t always remember that she wrote. She would write the park and she would thank us and she would say that she talked to that nice guy, but she could never remember my name.”

In her conversations, tapes and letters, Sauer was highly accurate, Snyder said.

“She would tell me some odd little thing and I would kind of research it and ferret it out and make a much bigger, more interesting thing out of it,” Snyder said. “She had a very, very excellent memory.”

Although she left Bayfield as a youth, Sauer kept up her contacts with lighthouse people.

“As a young married woman she went back to Michigan Island several times to visit her father. Then her brother was the keeper on Passage Island off Isle Royale for a time. So she would continue to be steeped in lighthouses all these years,” Snyder said.

In November 1987, she provided this glimpse into food preparation at the station:

“That kitchen was really something! Dad boarded up one end to make a pantry. The huge wood box stood in one corner - the wood-burning cookstove opposite it with a shelf above where the coffee mill, tea and coffee pots, canisters for tea and coffee, which we had to grind each morning - sitting on the step between dining room and kitchen. One long table against the wall with seven chairs around it (Mr. and Mrs. Lane, four kids and Grandma Lane). One window. Black iron sink and pump in one corner - towel rack (roller towels) on the wall. That was it.”

In 1988, she offered this recollection of the vegetation around the light station.

“There were ninety-six wooden steps coming up the hillside and ending in a small platform at the top, overhead an arch of cherry tree blossoms. The cherry tree formed a ‘wind-break’ along the top of the clay banks. Then there was a very large one beside the fancy ‘outhouse’ just a short distance from the dwelling.- it was always loaded with fruit. In later years, Dad transplanted nearly a dozen trees to the meadow side of the dwelling. The meadow contained three huge crabapple trees and one pear tree which never bore fruit. Each spring Dad burned the meadow over and then it was a beautiful sight filled with yellow daisies and brown-eyed susans. A tiny streamlet ran throught the meadow and over the hillside to the lake. Mom always planted a vegetable and fruit garden in part of the meadow.”

Early on, Sauer’s father was doing his part to save the eagles, she recalled in 1989.

“There was one huge pine tree - partly on the (lighthouse grounds) that one lumber company wanted Dad to sell to them - they didn’t know my Dad! That tree was where the eagles always nested. When Dad would be fishing, lifting a net, the eagle would watch him and Dad would wave a nice trout then throw it in the air. Mr. Eagle never missed it.”

Sauer was not alone in her devotion to her father.

“Ed Lane was known to be a very meticulous keeper and when he retired, the district superintendent sent him a letter that said, ‘Your lighthouse has been one of the showplaces of the Lighthouse Service. It’s clear that it will not be able to maintain those same standards’,” Mackreth said.

The Lanes saw their love of lighthouses as an occasion for singing.

Sauer recalled her mother loved to play the guitar and sign a ballad about Grace Darling, a Victorian-era lighthouse keeper’s daughter in England. Darling became famous because of her brave rescue of nine survivors of a shipwreck in the Farne Islands in England on September 7, 1838.

“They named one of their daughters Grace Darling Lane,” Mackreth said. In later life, Sauer remarked that she was not sure whether her sister appreciated having the middle name Darling.

“They took their position as keepers of the light quite seriously, when they named one of their daughters after a figure from lighthouse history,” Mackreth said.

There was nothing unusual or eccentric about Ed Lane, Mackreth said.

“I would put it the exact opposite,” Mackreth said. “He was a very normal, stable kind of guy from every indication. You’ll see evidence that there are some people who really adapt well to lighthouse life and some people who do not.”

Some keepers fought with their assistants and some assistants quit in disgust after a year or so.

“Ed Lane and his wife, Elizabeth, they seemed to quite like lighthouse life,” Mackreth said. The fact that the Lanes spent so long on the island indicates they accommodated well to it, Mackreth said.

In their thirty-seven years, the Lanes saw major changes in the routine at lighthouses. The major one, of course, was the move from the old lighthouse built in 1857.

A series of changes came to the station in 1928 and 1929. A new brick building contained an electric generator, a radio fog beacon and a hoist engine for a tramway. In 1928, the Lanes and an assistant moved to a new three-bedroom brick building.

In 1929, the station got a new, taller cylindrical steel tower for the light.

Ed Lane recorded the change from one light to another this way in his log book:

“October 29, 1929 - Put window shades and worked in old tower. Started up new tower at sunset. Everything in good shape, but station looked odd.”

What struck him as odd was that the old tower was dark for the first time in sixty years.

“In 1929, he would have been at that station already for twenty-seven years. That’s a huge change in the routine,” Mackreth said.

Lane stayed on for another ten years before his retirement. He moved to Moline, Illinois, where he lived until 1949.

The end of Lane’s service at Michigan Island also brought the end of an era. In the letter noting Lane’s retirement, the district superintendent said the lighthouse was scheduled for automation. The process was completed by 1943.

In many ways, the Lanes represented the best of lighthouse lore. Without the willingness of Edna Lane Sauer to share her memories, we would know much less about the family’s day-to-day life.

This story appeared in the May 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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