Digest>Archives> May 2002

One Hundred and Fifty Years of Family History


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The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Flower boat is a ...

That’s what the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum is celebrating this year, with a special commemoration in July.

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Living at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in ...
Photo by: Morgan Curry

Maybe you think lighthouses are all about ships and people, storms and daring rescues. And they are, of course. But before modern day electronics, when humans had to light the lights and lifeboats instead of helicopters were the chief means of rescue, it was all about families.

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Grand Traverse lighthouses keepers constructed ...

Dating from 1852, the Grand Traverse Light has guided ships through the treacherous Manitou Passage on Lake Michigan - and still does. Pleasure boats and ore boats, tug boats and ocean-goers; they all use the light eight miles north of the picturesque village of Northport, at the tip of lower Michigan’s “little finger” (Leelanau Peninsula).

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Portrait of keeper James McCormick on display at ...

Twenty-one lighthouse keepers have served Grand Traverse. The first, David Moon, was paid $350 a year. The last, Terry Herring, served in 1972. In between, there were five documented births at the lighthouse. If that’s not family stuff, what is? Actually, of course, there were many more children, and adults, who made homes at the Grand Traverse Light.

Bette McCormick Olli, daughter of Keeper James McCormick (1922-1938) wrote:

“Ma would sometimes make rag dolls for us with button eyes and bodies filled with sand. The sand would shift and the dolls felt as though they were alive. Store bought dolls were mostly for ‘looking at’ and not to be handled carelessly.”

This little girl’s family included her mother Mary, and siblings Justine, Maggie, John, David, Leon, Janet and Grace. An older brother and sister, Violet and James, had grown and moved on, but visited.

David, called “Doug,” spearheaded Northport volunteers who brought the abandoned lighthouse back as a tourist attraction in 1985. The Coast Guard had closed the building when an automated light on a waterfront tower was activated in 1972.

Bette Olli’s story of life at the light is delightfully told in her pamphlet, “The Way It Was,” sold at the lighthouse gift shop. She dedicated her little book “to all other lighthouse keeper’s kids who have now become an endangered specie,” as well as to her surviving siblings.

Philo Beers was the second lighthouse keeper at Grand Traverse, and served from 1853 to 1857. His son, H. J. Beers, was the fourth lighthouse keeper, serving from 1859 to 1861. Currently, the Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum (located in the 1858 dwelling and tower) displays a wedding dress which H.J.’s wife, Julia Near Charter, sewed for her daughter, Alice, 124 years ago. Many descendants of those who served at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse still live in the Northport area.

Imagine, if you will, what life was like at this remote lighthouse (and others even more remote or totally isolated) over the last 150 years.

Cooking was often done on wood-burning or kerosene stoves. Clothes were washed by hand or in the early washing machines, and almost always dried on a line strung in the yard. Sanitation was, until well into the 20th century, primitive. Heat and light were not available at the flick of a switch for many, many years.

Children who had access to schools traveled there by horse-drawn buses (sleighs in winter) until the motorcar came. They and their parents gardened for subsistence, not recreation. Animals were raised for food - just as at other farms and homesteads.

But the lighthouse children also had, in Michigan, the wondrous sweet waters of the Great Lakes at their doorstep. The drama, the danger and the delights of “big water” were their heritage. Family closeness such as seldom exists these days came naturally to them. And that’s why lighthouse history, so often told in terms of heroic deeds and horrendous maritime disasters, is really a family matter.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum sesquicentennial observances will emphasize the “people” aspects of history lived at the site of one of the Great Lakes most critical aids to navigation.

It is today’s people, as well, who are responsible for the fact that the Grand Traverse Lighthouse has been restored - to olden times as nearly as possible - so that the life of families in the past can be seen and felt by families today. Many, many volunteers now work and serve at the Grand Traverse light. So the lighthouse grounds are still a workplace for people and families, as they were for so many people and families, for so many years.

To get the feeling of family life in a lighthouse setting, don’t pass up a visit to Northport, Michigan and the wonderful museum at “the tip of the Leelanau.”

You’ll come away with a feeling of awe for your ancestors, and a sense of delight that their way of life has been preserved for posterity.

The Grand Traverse Lighthouse Sesquicentennial is July 19 -20:

Events begin at 5PM on July 19 with a reunion dinner, music and presentations at the Northport Public School Gymnasium.

During the day on July 20 at the lighthouses there will be bagpipe music, craft demonstrations, a local band, storytelling, folk songs, silent auction and of course you’ll be able to climb the tower.

For more information contact Grand Traverse Lighthouse Museum, P.O. Box 43, 15500 Lighthouse Point Rd, Northport, MI 49670.

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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