Life Among the Missiles:
Cape Canaveral Light Station in the 1950s
By Jeremy D’Entremont
The saga of Cape Canaveral Lighthouse is tightly interwoven with the military history of the area on Florida’s central east coast. During the Civil War the light’s first keeper dismantled the lighthouse and buried its lighting apparatus in an orange grove to protect it and as part of an effort to make navigation difficult for Union forces in the area. In both world wars the lighthouse station was utilized as a lookout post for spotting enemy submarines, and in fact several ships were sunk not far away by German U-boats during World War II.
In recent decades the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station has grown up around the lighthouse, which is itself now owned by the Air Force. The 1950s were an exciting time for the Coast Guard families living at Cape Canaveral Light Station during the height of missile testing and the embryonic days of the space program.
The missile proving grounds at Cape Canaveral was established in 1949, a century and a year after the first lighthouse was built at the Cape. The area’s sparse population, proximity to the ocean and mild climate made it perfect for the year-round testing of missiles.
A new age dawned at Cape Canaveral on July 24, 1950 with the launch of a Bumper 8 model rocket, which climbed to an impressive - for the time - 1,000 feet. At a commemoration of that event in 2000, Bob Droz recalled watching the launch from the lighthouse. "To think that within just a short time after that, we were walking on the moon," said Droz, who worked for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the time of the launch.
The U.S. Army began the testing of Redstone, Snark and other missiles at Cape Canaveral in the early 1950s. So many Snarks ended up in the ocean off the Cape that crews joked about the "Snark-infested waters."
Into this setting a young newlywed Coast Guard couple, Nancy and Baron Brown, arrived in 1954. North Carolina native Baron Beecher Brown Jr. had joined the Coast Guard on his 20th birthday, and after basic training in Cape May, New Jersey, he served a short time on a buoy tender. While attending engineman school in Groton, Connecticut he met his wife-to-be, and Nancy and Baron were wed in November 1953. They spent a few months stationed at Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse followed by a transfer to Cape Canaveral.
"We loaded up our 1940 Ford convertible with our few possessions and proceeded to drive to the Cape," recalls Nancy. "We traveled through the then small town of Cocoa Beach and onto Merritt Island." The Browns followed a gravel road to its end by the water, near two duplex dwellings just outside the main gate to Cape Canaveral.
Right alongside the road was a fence marking the boundary of the missile testing site, and it was immediately obvious that nobody lived in the area besides the Coast Guard families assigned to the light station. A small number of civilian residents had previously been relocated from a small fishing village near the lighthouse that was nicknamed "Stinkmore," for reasons unknown.
Living at Cape Canaveral was a bit of a shock to young Connecticut native Nancy Brown. "I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to live in the state of Florida," she says, "with the extreme heat and abundance of bugs." Despite the extreme climate and mosquitoes, Nancy says, "We were truly thankful that we were able to be together, realizing that many service families were separated. And we appreciated the fine living quarters assigned to us."
Four Coast Guard families lived in these homes, and each of the men was assigned eight-hour shifts at the lighthouse. Besides making sure the light operated properly, the Coast Guardsmen maintained radio beacon equipment at the station.
A Coast Guard pickup truck provided transportation from the homes to the lighthouse, and shopping for supplies was done in Cocoa Beach. "The quarters were completely furnished," says Nancy, " with two bedrooms, a bath, kitchen, living room, breezeway, and garage - excellent condition." It’s a good thing there was plenty of living space, as the Browns welcomed their first child, Baron III, at Patrick Air Force Base on December 16, 1954. Baron was on duty at the lighthouse when his son was born, but he hurried to the hospital as soon as his shift ended.
It’s said that during some of the early launches at Cape Canaveral, famed rocket scientist Werner von Braun would use the top of the lighthouse as an observation post. Legend has it that by scrutinizing the intensity and colors of the rocket engines’ plumes from this vantage point, he could determine if the propellants were correctly mixed.
The Coast Guard families were not notified ahead of time of launches. "The sounds of the rockets where extremely loud," says Nancy. "Many times these went off during the night - we often went outside our apartment to watch. The launches were exciting but I don’t think we really understood at the time the impact they were to have as years went on."
After leaving Cape Canaveral, Baron Beecher Brown Jr. was assigned to the Coast Guard Cutter WPB 95316, later named Cape Fox. He was with the vessel from the time it was commissioned in Curtis Bay, Maryland in 1955 until his honorable discharge in 1957. All the buildings near Cape Canaveral Lighthouse were destroyed after its automation in 1967, except for a little brick oil house that is the subject of a current restoration effort.
Baron and Nancy Brown will be celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary this November. Years after their Coast Guard experience they did missionary work at Indian reservations in the West, something for which the harsh conditions in Florida may have helped prepare them. In their retirement the Browns have ended up living in Central Florida, not too far from Cape Canaveral. "The difference now," says Nancy, "is that we have air-conditioning in our vehicle and our home. Also pest control on a scheduled basis!"
But their time at Cape Canaveral is remembered fondly. "It was a long time ago," says Nancy, "but it was a special time in our lives and memories are treasures."
This story appeared in the
October 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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