“The experience of living in a 1870 limestone building settled in a four-acre park on Lake Ontario has been thrilling, frustrating, exciting, cold and windy, hot and windy, sometimes lonely, sometimes overwhelming,” says Donna Jones, who since April 2002 has been director of New York’s Sodus Bay Historical Society. The position requires Donna to live in an upstairs apartment in the Sodus Bay Lighthouse. A retired educator, Donna believes that a historic site like the lighthouse should provide fun learning opportunities for visitors and volunteers alike. “My philosophy for my volunteers is to make each guest feel welcomed into our ‘home’ with fun and laughter, and to offer an experience that they will remember,” she explains. “I want the lighthouse to be more than an old building with old ‘stuff’ in it.”
Sodus Bay is considered the best natural harbor on Lake Ontario. The original 1824 lighthouse was replaced by the present one in 1871, and since 1984 the Sodus Bay Historical Society has run the lighthouse as a maritime museum.
Donna grew up a couple of hours from Lake Ontario in a rural community near Binghamton, New York, and her family summered in the Adirondack Mountains. A local folklorist named Harvey Dunham became Donna’s mentor. “In addition to being a writer,” she says that Dunham “was a commercial artist and graphic designer who illustrated his stories and taught me to airbrush.” This led to Donna’s pursuit of a career in art education. “My career was unique in that I was fortunate enough to teach at every level from pre-kindergarten through graduate level,” says Donna. She eventually got into the field of computer graphics, teaching adults who were “downsized from industry.”
“The organizational skills needed to run a museum are similar to the skills needed in a classroom,” Donna says. She is a firm believer that history doesn’t have to be presented in dry fashion. “We try to have visitors imagine what it must have been like to live and work in a lighthouse. Many of my school tours show up in historical costumes. It does add to the general enthusiasm and ambience of the day.”
What’s so special about the Sodus Bay Lighthouse? “The once-abandoned building has been lovingly restored and cared for by members of the Sodus Bay Historical Society,” explains Donna. But it’s the “people that make it happen” that make it really special, she says. “One of my greatest pleasures this past season was the large number of new people who came aboard and offered their services in a myriad of ways.”
Last year Donna heard that a local building was to be demolished, and she learned that the building had a foundation made from limestone she suspected was salvaged from the lighthouse station in the late 1890s. She had 24 hours to remove as many stones as she could. Help came almost immediately, she says. “Two former executives, one from Kodak and one from Xerox, came to my rescue, and the three of us plus a stranger with a front-end loader and a man with a dump truck who miraculously appeared on the site, made the deadline. Our architect will incorporate the stone we salvaged in the plans for our expansion.”
There is a full schedule of entertainment at the lighthouse set for the coming year, underwritten by corporate accounts. “We have free concerts on the 4th of July,” says Donna, “and we have a concert every Sunday afternoon through Labor Day.”
Overall, Donna is “very optimistic” about the future of the lighthouse museum. “Last season,” she says, “guests from every state of the union visited us. We had to wait until late August before South Dakota came around. I gave them T-shirts to celebrate our success. In addition, we had visitors from 34 foreign countries.”
Donna says that as much as she loves life at the lighthouse, it is still “a bit unsettling when a tour bus scheduled for 10:15 a.m. shows up at 7:50 a.m. because the driver made a mistake and made us his first stop.” How does she maintain her sanity at times like these? “You gulp down that cup of coffee, grab an outfit and a smile and go to work!” she says. “That is when all of those years spent with teenagers and their raging hormones and out of work executives come in handy.” Some of Donna’s friends still question why she chose to take up “light housekeeping,” as she jokingly told them, in her retirement years. Many former colleagues visited her at the lighthouse last summer. “As each of them left to return home,” she says, “they had new respect for my fate in life and thought I had the perfect ‘retirement.’”
This story appeared in the
March 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2023 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.