Digest>Archives> August 1999

Career woman Bea Spurling started life in a lighthouse


It's those daily fish sandwiches that keep her going, 94- year-old Bea Spurling reported in an interview last week.

That she's never taken a drink and never smoked probably helps, too.

A career woman, Spurling all but ran the only real estate and insurance company in town for 56 years.

Not bad for a girl who never saw a school house until she was 11. Spurling spent her first ten years on Franklin Island, 12 miles off Friendship, where her father was lighthouse keeper and where she was home-schooled.

After her father became keeper of Dyce's Head lighthouse in 1911, she was able to walk from the lighthouse to the normal school, which housed Castine's first six grades. She and 72 others then attended Castine Grammar School (now Adams School) for seventh, eighth and ninth grades. They were taught by a Mrs. harquail who, despite no college education, took summer courses at the normal school and, according to Spurling, taught the children very well.

After taking classes at Shaw's Business College in Bangor, Spurling began working for Ralph Wardwell in 1921. After Wardwell's death in 1945, Bea continued working for his son Freddie until her retirement in 1977.

Her starting salary? $8.50 a week.

In the early days, The Ralph S. Wardwell Agency also had a bank in its offices, the Waldo Trust company. Spurling and Wardwell made out wills and wrote insurance policies themselves. Real estate, though, gave her more pleasure.

"I liked to go out and show people houses to sell," she recalled. "It was more fun." She'd learned to drive in 1919. "I drove for 70 years without an accident," she said proudly.

Spurling has played the piano even longer. She began taking lessons at age 11; a year later, her parents bought her the piano that still sits in her back parlor. She took lessons for 12 years from the late Nina Macomber, who taught generations of Castine youngsters.

When silent movies came to town, Spurling accompanied the action on the screen, which meant memorizing lots of music. "If there was a wedding, I had to play the wedding march. If there was a funeral, I had to play a dirge," she recalled. And, since this was the day of chaperones, she was accompanied to and from the movie theatre by one of her parents.

She came by her musical talent honestly. her mother, Gertie, played the organ and her father, Edward, played violin by ear. He used to play for the square dances at Town Hall.

When asked about her dancing partners, Spurling said that Birbeck Wilson and his brother were good dancers, and Poodle Vogell was full of fun.

Seated comfortably in her memory-filled living room, Spurling said the house, built by her father in 1930, cost $3,000. "He never borrowed a penny," she said.

"It's a lovely, warm, cozy place," she said of her house. She sold Larkin soap to buy the side-by-side desk in one corner. Her father bought the big, golden oak mirrored sideboard for $25 from Charlie Wood, Jean Hamilton's father who ran Wood's Inn, now torn down, just south of the Head.

High above the sideboard hangs a shadow box of a sailboat, made by Spurling's father in his spare time. A white owl, looking just like the one on the cigar box, keeps watch by the side of the piano. Her grandfather shot it over 100 years ago when he was keeper of the Great Duck Isle lighthouse.

As for Spurling, you can always find her downtown at lunchtime--at the town wharf on good days in season--and she still plays the piano whenever there's a gathering. On July 31, you'll probably find her playing at her own 95th birthday party.

This story appeared in the August 1999 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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