Digest>Archives> October 2004

A Late 1970s Interview with Roscoe & Dorothy Fletcher

From a Northern New England Marine Education Project 1978

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Roscoe Fletcher in 1978.

Roscoe Fletcher, accompanied by his wife, Dorothy, served on two lighthouses between the years 1931 and 1945. From 1931 to 1936 Mr. Fletcher was an assistant keeper on the lighthouse on Petit Manan. This lighthouse is located on a small island off Steuben and Milbridge, in Washington County.

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Roscoe served as Assistant Keeper at Petit Manan ...

In 1936, Mr. Fletcher was promoted to keeper and transferred to the light on Matinicus Rock. This is the same lighthouse where Abbie Burgess spent twenty-two years of her life.

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Matinicus Rock is a small, barren island located about 15 miles south of Vinalhaven and about 22 miles southwest of Rockland. It is about 5 miles from Matinicus Island. Matinicus Island is the place the Fletchers often went for groceries and their mail. Matinicus comes from the Indian work “manasquesicook” which means a collection of grassy islands.

The Fletchers have two daughters who were of school age while they were stationed on Matinicus Rock. The daughters were boarded with friends and relatives ashore during the school year and visited with their parents at vacation time. Sometimes, bad weather prevented their visits, particularly during winter vacations. Mrs. Fletcher said that a number of Christmases were spent with the girls ashore on the mainland because the weather was too bad for them to get out to the Rock.

Two assistant lighthouse keepers and their wives lived on Matinicus Rock with the Fletchers. The men's workday consisted of a 'normal' eight-hour workday performing the necessary maintenance on the light and the station. The men would also stand watches on the light and the radio beacon throughout the day and night. Each man stood two four-hour watches a day. Some of these watches fall during the normal workday; so, the men would be free from their other work to stand the watch. Each man would stand the same watch at night that he stood during the day. For example, if Mr. Fletcher stood the four to eight watch in the early morning, he would also stand the four to eight that same evening. The watch rotation was changed each week so that the men all took turns standing each a different watch.

In a 1942 logbook of the Matinicus Rock Light Station, one of the watch standers penciled this poem about the keeper,

Roscoe Fletcher.

On this lookout –

Four on and eight off I stand

Much rather would I be

Playing poker with winning hands

The foghorns blow –

They're driving me nuts

Yet old Fletcher says up the tower

And no ifs, ands or buts.

Their duties on watch consisted of insuring that the light burned brightly and that the fog signal sounded properly. They also had to make sure that the radio beacon sent its signal properly and on time. While Abbie Burgess lived on Matinicus Rock the light towers had many small whale oil lamps in them. By the time Roscoe Fletcher was keeper there, the smaller lamps had been replaced with one larger one that burned kerosene. The kerosene was burned under pressure. The keepers would pressurize the system by pumping it up by hand. Mr. Fletcher reports the light's visibility to be 12-16 miles while he was there.

Today, probably due to increased light intensity, the light can be seen for 23 nautical miles on a clear night.

During the summer months, the Fletchers often had boatloads of visitors. In the winter months, the weather prevented people from visiting. The only visitor during the winter would be the Coast Guard vessel used for provisioning. During World War II, the only visitors allowed on the Rock were Audubon Society members. These people had Navy Department headquarters permission to visit Matinicus Rock to study the birds there. There are many different types of birds on Matinicus Rock, but the most unusual is the puffin. The puffin is a black and white bird with a large brightly colored beak and bright red feet. Puffins prefer islands and cliffs near cold water. The only sites that they occupy on the east coast of the United States are Matinicus Rock and Machias Seal Island.

Occasional trips to Rockland and Matinicus Island provided the necessary food and supplies for the families on Matinicus Rock. Before going to Matinicus Island for provisions, Roscoe Fletcher would often radio ahead with a list of the things he needed so that they would be ready for him when he arrived. He would then be able to load the supplies aboard his boat and return quickly to his lighthouse. This was necessary because rapid weather changes could make landing a boat on Matinicus Rock nearly impossible. The landing site on the Rock offers little protection. The boat operators often had to wait for a large wave to carry their boats onto the ways. A power winch was available for Mr. Fletcher to haul his boat up with after landing.

Water for the families was collected during rainstorms. The rain would run down the roof, into the gutters, and down gutter pipes into cisterns in the basement. Cisterns are large, open tanks. Occasionally, large waves would enter the basement of the house and the cisterns and spoil the whole supply of drinking water. The cisterns would then have to be cleaned and a Coast Guard supply ship would have to bring a fresh supply of drinking water.

Lighthouse keepers have traditionally been given permission to fish in their spare time to supplement their incomes. Roscoe Fletcher fished for cod and haddock from Matinicus Rock, and he fished about 80 lobster traps, which he hauled by hand. He also shot ducks during the hunting season to add to the menu.

The Fletchers saw the Rock “buried” on several occasions. That is, they saw the waves completely cover the Rock. The granite house and towers were strong, however, and able to stand the washing.

In the 1930's, there was no electricity on Matinicus Rock except the batteries used to run the radios. That meant that there was no refrigeration, and of course, no entertainment that required electricity.

The Fletchers entertained themselves playing musical instruments and writing letters to family and friends ashore.

Dorothy Fletcher enjoyed her years on the lighthouse. She said that she made no special preparations for moving to the lighthouse, but some of the things she had to do might seem special to us. For example, her laundry was done by boiling the clothes with detergent on a coal-fired stove.

She enjoyed playing her violin and piano and writing letters. Mrs. Fletcher often arose at night with her husband and joined him during his watch, “Just to torment him.”

Mrs. Fletcher especially enjoyed those times when her daughters were home with the family. Summers became one long family celebration as the parents and children were reunited. Members of the family were sometimes lonely, but the Fletchers felt that their experiences with the lighthouse were good for their family. The girls grew up with a great appreciation for family life.

In November of 1939, Roscoe Fletcher fell from a staging on the lighthouse tower to the rock surface below. He suffered with an injured back until August of 1940 when he was able to see a doctor. He was told that he had flat feet and corrective shoes were prescribed. In 1945, Mr. Fletcher reinjured the apparently broken back when he capsized his boat trying to make a landing on the Rock. He was sent to the Portland Marine Hospital and retired from the Coast Guard there because of his back injuries.

Editor's Note:

Missing Filmed Interview Still a Mystery

This story was originally published by the University of Maine College of Education and Maine New-Hampshire Sea Grant in 1977-1978. The publication called Northern New England Marine Education Project was a result of work sponsored by NOAA Office of Sea Grant, Department of Commerce. This published interview was a condensed version of a recorded interview.

The program also produced a film and slide show with 70 slides, all of which were produced by Harry Dresser, Jr., Lester Picker, John Butzow, Victor DiSilvestro, and Steven Kilfoyle. Over the years we have made several attempts to locate the slide show and the film. They are an important part of our nation's lighthouse history that we would like to see preserved for future generations. If any of our readers can help locate the film or the slide show, we'd appreciate hearing from you.

Contact Tim Harrison, Editor, Lighthouse Digest, P.O. Box 250, East Machias, ME 04630 or by e-mail at Editor@LighthouseDigest.com

This story appeared in the October 2004 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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