This past April we lost a good lighthouse friend in the passing of Shirley R. Robinson, at the age of 90, who, over the years, shared so many stories and photographs with us of her family’s lighthouse life at Maine’s Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse.
Shirley arrived on Mount Desert Rock in 1928 when she was four years old. Her father, George York, had been appointed head keeper, and this was to be home for her, along with her brother Wilbur, and stepmother Helen - a home on a rock surrounded by water with no neighbors, no trees, no stores, no school, and not even a blade of grass. When she left the island at age 12, she knew that someday she would return to the place she loved so dearly. However, the wait to return to the island was a long time. In fact, it took her 64 years before she was able to make the trip back to the island that she once called home.
In spite of the hardships and dangers, she said that they had a good life on the island, a wholesome life, even though it was somewhat sheltered. Not only did she love the island life, so did her father, and he was proud to serve his country at this remote island lighthouse. He kept his station so well that he was awarded the Efficiency Star, the highest award given by the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
As a little girl, Shirley remembers the yearly visits of the Flying Santa of the Lighthouses and the gifts he brought. As a small child, she didn’t believe in Santa’s sleigh and reindeer; after all, Santa flew over their island lighthouse and dropped the presents from an airplane. She recalled getting mostly knitted things like a scarf and hat. One year she got a rag doll, and every year there was always a bag of candy for everyone and always books for reading.
Shirley’s stepmother was a certified schoolteacher, so they never lacked for learning and they always had plenty of books, some that were brought by the lighthouse tender. She recalls that she and her brother had regular school hours, just like the children on the mainland. In fact, she and her brother were required to take tests that they received from the mainland and then sent back to the local school district to be graded; she always received straight A’s. She remembered that when they would pass the tests, the government sent out new schoolbooks, and they were required to return the old ones. Shirley believes the one-on-one teacher arrangement helped make her a better student since her stepmother always had plenty of time to teach and answers questions.
She remembers the visits of the lighthouse tender, which came once a month with supplies. However, during one stormy period, it was two months before the tender could reach the island. Although her father tried to catch some fish, the weather was too stormy and the waves too high. As they ran out of supplies, the family lived on bread and molasses. On the day that help arrived, all they had left was some lard. That help came from a local lobsterman named Howard Beal, who apparently was more able to make the trip out to the island than the lighthouse tender that was supposed to bring the supplies.
There was never enough water, so additional water had to be brought out on the tender. There was a tiny spring on the island that bubbled up between the rocks, and she and her brother used to drink out of it. When the government found out, they came out to blast, in hopes of creating a well. However, the blasting destroyed the vein and all they got was salt water. The spring never came back, apparently having been sealed off by the blasting.
A generator supplied electricity and they even had an old floor model radio. Eventually they even got a telephone, which was laid by an underwater cable. However, it wasn’t always reliable.
Playing on the island could be dangerous, but they always seemed to be able to have a makeshift game of baseball, which was actually played with a tennis ball. They had pet roosters and chickens, which had to be moved inside at high tide or the creatures would have been washed away.
With no refrigeration in the early years, they relied immensely on what nature had to offer. They always had lots of seafood, fish of many different kinds, as well as lobster and mussels, but never any clams. Whenever her father saw ducks or geese flying toward the lighthouse, he would run for his gun, shooting only enough for dinner.
One time when her father had a vacation, they all left the island in a small peapod that was powered by a “one lung engine.” She remembers that day as her experience with being shipwrecked. Her father decided to stop at Great Duck Island to visit with the lighthouse keeper. As the boat approached Great Duck Island, the water became rough, and the craft was caught in the seaweed and swamped. Her father ordered everyone to jump in the water and swim to shore just moments before waves smashed the boat on the rocks. Because of that experience, Shirley was always afraid to go into the water. She would go out on the water in a boat, but would not go into the water. That day long ago left a scar of fear. Eventually, the lighthouse tender picked them up and took them to the mainland, and the vacation continued.
After her stepmother suffered a miscarriage because of a lack of medical assistance, her father requested a transfer to a mainland lighthouse. When his request was denied, he quit the Lighthouse Service and bought a farm. Shirley said it was a beautiful farm with lots of grass and cows, but she hated it. She wanted her island and the ocean.
When she married, she took a job in the fish business at Empire Fish Company in Gloucester, Massachusetts. She said, “It was a cold, dirty and wet job, but I loved every second of it.” It reminded her of her ocean home and so many wonderful memories.
After 30 years in the fish business, she retired and moved to Arizona, a long way from the ocean, but lighthouses were still in her life. She moved to Lake Havasu City, a community which has built a number of wonderful replicas of real lighthouses to line the shores of its beautiful lake. Since Shirley’s heart was always in Maine on her “Home on the Rock,” she sponsored a replica of Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse to be built on Lake Havasu. The 19-foot replica was dedicated in 2007.
With the passing of Shirley Robinson, the nation has again lost one of the few remaining people who grew up at a lighthouse under the days of the old U.S. Lighthouse Service. But, thanks to her efforts in sharing her memories and photographs, she will always be remembered through the pages of the history of our nation’s once proud lighthouse heritage.
Shirley Robinson was a kind-hearted person with a wonderful and warm personality. Our sincere condolences go out to her family and friends. She will be missed by many, but the world is a better place because of her.
Because a photograph truly is worth a thousand words, we have shared a large number of her photos with you. Some have been published before, while others are published here for the first time. As you look at these photos, let your mind drift in time and image what her life must have been like at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2015 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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