When life grows too hectic, many of us like to make the soul-satisfying trek to our favorite coastal haven where we temporarily allow our daily problems to fall behind us - a place where the manic pace of life suddenly comes to a serene halt. During these relaxing sojourns by the sea, our thoughts seem to be carried away by the outgoing tides while in the shadow of a lighthouse.
As the lighthouse looms majestically over the seascape getaway, our imagination is inspired to run wild by sun-splashed sands and warm gentle breezes that suddenly transport our thoughts back to a simpler time - perhaps back to a time of what life might have been like growing up at a lighthouse.
Many of our nostalgic thoughts about life at a lighthouse are enhanced by the first-hand accounts from those who came before us - real people who lived the lighthouse life. Sadly, those individuals who can lay claim to being born or having lived in one of America’s historic sentinels during the golden age of lighthouses dwindles with each passing decade. Yet, without the vivid descriptions of this bygone era from keepers and their children, idyllic images etched in our minds of the dedicated lightkeeper and his hard working family would have been lost forever.
One such “lighthouse kid” is Harry Spencer, Jr., or “Keeper Spencer,” as he is affectionately known by his many friends and lighthouse enthusiasts. Harry was born at Liston Range Rear Light, Port Penn, Delaware, in 1920 where his father, Harry, Sr., was keeper. The Spencer family lived at the light until 1927 when his father was transferred to the homey Liston Range Front Light located in Bayview Beach, Delaware. Harry, Jr. lived at this light until 1942, when at 18 years of age, he enlisted in the army and was assigned overseas during the height of WWII.
Harry’s father passed away in 1943 while stationed at Liston Range Front Light, at which time his mother Sophia was appointed lamplighter for the lighthouse until she left the light in 1948. For Harry, Jr., his return to the States following WWII was a fast-moving time when he married his lovely wife Dot, raised a family and carved out a successful career in the commercial lighting industry. Some fifty-plus years would pass before Harry would come full circle with his lighthouse past. By 1998, he was provided an opportunity to “go back home” to Liston Range Front Light by a close friend who purchased the lighthouse property and from there, Harry hasn’t missed a chance to enrich the lives of others who care to learn about growing up at a lighthouse.
Despite living life to its fullest each day for 82 years, “Keeper” Spencer’s energy and love of life remains as strong as ever. In fact, Harry treasures his present day opportunities to walk lighthouse enthusiasts through Liston Range Front Light. His personable and enlightening tours act as a sort of time warp for visitors as he transforms a static lighthouse into a real living history experience. People stand fascinated as Harry talks about everything from daily chores to storms that happened occasionally at the lighthouse. There are few topics about life at a lighthouse that don’t trigger some sort of memory for Harry.
Tours of the lighthouse begin in the living room where Harry describes the structure as being a “four square.” He elaborates, saying, “Every room in this house is the same size. There are four bedrooms upstairs and four rooms downstairs - all identical in size.” His intimate knowledge of the historic sentinel enables him to point out some of the elegant aspects of the lighthouse when he states, “All the trim you see in here is all chestnut, while, I don’t know if you noticed, but the finish on the fireplaces is glazed brick and quite beautiful.”
Harry goes on to say that for the Spencer family, the kitchen of the lighthouse was the hub of activity, especially during the long and cold winters. Harry vividly recalls the kitchen area for visitors when he states, “This was the kitchen of course, and our living quarters in the wintertime. In that corner we had a large, flat, cast-iron coal stove. It had a tank in it that heated hot water. With no running water, we had a sink in this corner, and it had a pitcher-pump - it’s how we pumped water. In wintertime, of course, Mother used the cook stove for cooking and such. Refrigeration was by a metal galvanized box that we hung on the outside of that window. Because it was on the north side, and the sun didn’t get to it, it would freeze things in it and that’s where we kept the perishable things during the winter. In the summer months, why we had what was known as the old-fashioned icebox. The iceman would come once a week and put ice in it and that’s how we kept things.”
“Keeper” Spencer fondly recalls his mother’s prowess for cooking, saying, “I think my mother had more ways to prepare crab than anybody I ever knew. We had crab everyday. Dad had a big garden and mother canned everything as far as canning is concerned. We depended on these preparations. We also raised chickens and turkeys and used to have a farmer who butchered pigs. Mother would take the pork and jar it so we would have the meat over the winter. We ate very well.”
Liston Range Front Light also afforded a variety of recreational activities for an active teenage boy growing up by the water. As for some of his favorite past times, Harry recalls, “I used to swim in the Delaware River up to five times a day, each and every day during the summer. In fact, I remember my mother saying, “Son, if you don’t wear something other than a bathing suit, people will think it’s the only clothes you own.” I also trapped muskrats in the wintertime for the meat, crabbed everyday and enjoyed walking along water’s edge looking for “treasures” that might have washed ashore.”
During any tour, conversation naturally gravitates to the elements and how the lightkeeper and his family coped with Mother Nature’s harsh conditions. Again, Harry doesn’t disappoint the astonished visitors when he describes, “Despite having coal burning fireplaces in each room downstairs, Dad, being very conservative, wouldn’t permit any lighted fire. Since he wouldn’t let us burn any fire, we closed off half of the house in the wintertime where the living room and sitting room were located and utilized just the dining room and kitchen on the first floor. Needless to say, the closed-off rooms grew very cold. Dad had a desk in the corner of the sitting room where he kept all of his lighthouse service records and that sort of thing. Well, one winter, it honestly got so cold in this half of the house that when he went to use the ink - well, the ink was frozen. Dad had to let the ink thaw out in the kitchen before he could use it to pen a letter.”
“Keeper” Spencer even astounds the children when they learn that there were no shower facilities, and that needing the bathroom required a walk to an outdoor privy. Eyes pop wide-open when Harry states, “Of course we didn’t have an inside toilet system to use except the two-seater out at that corner. And if you’ve ever had the experience of using that in the middle of the winter, well it’s an experience you don’t forget. We used the Sears & Roebuck catalog - I kid you not. People say, ‘Oh come on,’ but it was true. Back in those days paper products were not necessarily easily available or they were costly, so there was a Sears & Roebuck catalog in that privy and I very honestly did use it. I’m 82 years of age and still here today.”
No tour of a lighthouse is complete of course without talking about the light and how the keeper kept it burning bright each and every night. As visitors ascend the square staircase to the lantern room area, Harry begins to explain everyone’s favorite aspect of the lighthouse when he says, “Dad kept the fourth order Fresnel lens constantly clean and all the brass-work polished to a shine. Our light source was an Aladdin lamp - that’s all we had. It was a kerosene unit and the mantle really was positioned so it was a focal point of width, and of course the center part of the lens. If you look directly in the back, you’ll see the rear light. This is why we call this a range system - two units, one steady beacon, and one flashing beacon. The front light was a flashing beacon. The rear light is three miles from here. This is the longest navigable range in the United States - seen some 19 miles down river by ships. At one time, Dad lit the light a half-hour before sunset, but by 1938, the office of the Lighthouse Service sent Dad a letter and said the range would be lit 24 hours a day hereafter.”
Harry Spencer, Jr. affectionately recalls his father, saying, “Dad was extremely dedicated to ensuring not one thing was out of compliance with the regulations of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. He devoted his life to the duties of being an excellent lighthouse keeper, as well to being a wonderful husband and father for his family.” That being said, one has to believe that Keeper Spencer would beam with pride at the same unwavering dedication his son displays keeping the flame of “life at a lighthouse” burning bright for today’s present and tomorrow’s future generations to understand and enjoy.
This story appeared in the
April 2003 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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