How many of us can say, “My father was born in a lighthouse?”

Longtime historical society volunteer, Judith Kelley, told me just that one recent afternoon as we sat chatting at the Cushing’s Point Museum. It happened to be Judy’s last day of volunteering as a docent after 11 years. I thought it would be fun to sit and chat with her for a bit. I’m sure glad I did!

Judith Kelley’s great-grandfather, William Tarlton Holbrook, lighthouse keeper of Bug Light from 1909 to 1919. Judith Holbrook Kelley Collection/South Portland Historical Society

Judy’s great-grandfather, William Tarlton Holbrook, was born in New Castle, New Hampshire, on Jan. 15, 1844. William had already experienced a long life of service to the United States before he became the lighthouse keeper at Bug Light.

Bug Light’s official name is the Portland Breakwater Light but it is known as Bug Light due to its diminutive size. Holbrook served in the New Hampshire militia prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Then in 1862, at the age of 18, he joined the 13th New Hampshire Infantry. He fought for the Union during the Civil War, serving in the infantry and, later in the war, the Navy, where he served aboard the sloop Vandalia. In his later life he carried a cane said to be made of wood from the Vandalia.

Following his service during the Civil War, William was employed for 38 years as a lighthouse keeper on the Maine coast. The stations he served before Bug Light were Halfway Rock (according to Judy her great-grandfather would have to row the nearly eight miles to get to Peaks Island where his family lived), Bass Harbor Head Light and Burnt Island Light.

He became the keeper at Bug Light in 1909 and maintained that position until 1919. Judy’s great-grandmother, Evelyn, known as Eva, tended the light along with her husband. Their son, Judy’s grandfather, Elias Tarlton Holbrook, and Judy’s grandmother, Minnie “Florence” Holbrook, also lived in the keeper’s house. Living with Elias and Florence at Bug Light were their three children, Grace, William (Judy’s dad), and Raymond. Judy’s father was born in the keeper’s house at Bug Light in 1911. His brother, Raymond, was born there in 1913.

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Judy remembers hearing about the challenges of going to the bathroom at Bug Light. According to her uncle Raymond, “Our two-place outhouse opened up to a wooden shaft that went down to the sea below. A draft of cold wind blew up though the shaft at low tide. We were very careful to check the wind and tide before going out there!”

Bug Light. Judith Holbrook Kelley Collection/South Portland Historical Society

At the time, the breakwater at Bug Light was much longer than it is today. The area surrounding the breakwater was filled in during World War II thereby creating the land that stretches from lower Preble Street to Bug Light Park. Before the keeper’s house was built in 1889, the keeper would have to walk out to the lighthouse along the breakwater, which extended 1,990 feet into Portland Harbor.

As you might imagine, this was a treacherous undertaking in the winter when waves rolled over the jetty and the rocks were slippery with ice. The iron handrail, added in 1879, was only somewhat helpful. Hence the need for the keeper’s house. The keeper’s house was removed in 1934 when Bug Light was connected to the Spring Point lighthouse via an underwater cable that allowed Bug Light to be operated remotely.

According to Judy, her father and aunt Grace would walk the length of the breakwater to attend the East High Street School in the Ferry Village neighborhood where Dora Small (the namesake of the current Dora Small Elementary School) was their teacher. If high waves or ice prevented them from returning home in the afternoon, they would spend the night with friends in Ferry Village.

Raymond Holbrook wrote, “If we happened to be ashore and a storm came up, we had friends that would put us up. The Al Upton family was very close to us. Their house was always open … We had a lot of good times ashore with the Uptons. Other friends were the Adams and Floren families. We got together on holidays and always met before and after school.”

Raymond, Grace and William Holbrook in the fall of 1918. Note: Raymond’s ill-fated teddy bear. Judith Holbrook Kelley Collection/South Portland Historical Society

Everything that was required by the family and for the maintenance of the lighthouse had to pass over the breakwater or be brought in by boat. Raymond Holbrook wrote that upon his grandmother’s passing in 1917, “We watched her casket being carried over the rocks, the half mile to shore.”

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According to “Life and Times of Raymond Osborne Holbrook,” a short book written by Judith’s uncle: “We were isolated for long periods of time in the winter. Maine winters can be very cold with lots of snow and ice. I remember one winter was so cold that we saw horses pulling sleighs over the ice on the Harbor to the islands …There were gales and blizzards. The high winds caused a mist off the water that froze to ice on the granite slabs and cold iron railing making it impossible to walk ashore. My parents had “ice creepers” handy to strap on to their shoes to make it safer to walk out in an emergency.”

Despite the lighthouse’s remote location, the children who grew up there had a diversity of experiences and seemed to genuinely enjoy their unique upbringing. They had an outdoor space adjacent to the lighthouse that was surrounded by chicken wire to prevent them from falling into the sea. The children played school and Judy’s father had an affinity for throwing things in the water. One day he threw his younger brother’s prized teddy bear into the sea!

“I remember watching until it floated out of sight,” remembered Raymond.

During World War I the boys played soldier with wooden guns, drums and flags. The children witnessed numerous goings-on in the harbor and Casco Bay. During World War I the siblings saw a variety of war ships and watched the construction of the Ferris ships (wooden cargo vessels for the war effort) at the nearby Cumberland Shipyard.  “The ships grew in size each day as they were being built, from keel and ribs, to full size ships,” wrote Raymond.

Sometimes groups of men would play poker or shoot craps on the jetty or sweethearts would walk the breakwater. “Many a romance blossomed from an afternoon walk to the Lighthouse,” wrote Raymond.

At times the children simply enjoyed the boat traffic plying to-and-fro. Raymond wrote, “There were lots of sailing vessels sailing in and out of Portland Harbor. They were beautiful under full sail, always sailing on high tide and fair wind, carrying all types of cargo … These ships came in all sizes from Two Masters to Six Masters … Many passenger steamers arrived and departed on a regular schedule from New York, Boston, Bath, Bangor, and Boothbay Harbor. We looked forward to seeing them at certain times each day.”

Although a childhood on a lighthouse was challenging, and the winters were particularly isolating, the family seems to have enjoyed their lifestyle. “Living on these rocks a half mile out in the water made us a little detached from society, but, it made us self reliant,” Raymond wrote.

In reading Raymond’s description of a typical sunset, it’s not hard to imagine why the family loved their little keeper’s house so much: “Most of the time, night on the Breakwater came suddenly and beautifully. We had many colorful sunsets, and then, the darkness dropped upon us like a black blanket. There was no electricity to brighten the outside or inside. All we had were kerosene lamps in the house and a lantern to carry in case we had to go outside. There was no telephone to call ashore, and at that time, we had no radio. All the lights at sea showed up brilliantly flickering as they moved quietly by above the water.”

Seth Goldstein is the development director of the South Portland Historical Society and also serves as the director of the society’s Cushing’s Point Museum at Bug Light Park. The South Portland Historical Society can be reached at 207-767-7299, by email at [email protected], or by mail at 55 Bug Light Park, South Portland, ME 04106.

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