Digest>Archives> March 2007

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Maine Seacoast Mission

By Jim Claflin


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Mark Island Lighthouse, Maine

We recently purchased a 1939 advertisement for a little known organization called the Maine Seacoast Mission. In the ad, the mission was soliciting funds for the replacement of the Mission’s aging yacht Sunbeam. A bit of research reveals that the Mission was closely tied with the Maine lighthouse keepers and has lent itself to a number of accounts and even a full length book on the subject over the years.

The Maine Sea Coast Mission was founded in 1905 by two brothers, who were also pastors — Angus and Alexander MacDonald. Since that time the Mission that they founded has been ministering to the needs of isolated communities and families on the islands and headlands of Maine. The ministers took the first Mission boat, a sloop called Hope, to isolated island communities providing spiritual support where there were no churches, bringing books and learning opportunities, and always sharing in the spirit of giving and joy with Christmas surprises. As one might expect, the light keepers and their families lived an isolated existence and visits by the Mission were a welcome addition to their lives.

Within the far-flung parish of the Mission were at one time

fifty-two lighthouses, twelve Coast Guard Stations and a lightship. In addition to ministering to the spiritual needs of the keepers and men, Mission personnel aided in providing an education to the keeper’s children, carried the sick to the mainland when required, and assisted in taking supplies to those in need.

There have been five boats between the Hope and the Sunbeam V over the one hundred years since their founding. Following the Hope, there was an engine-powered cruising yacht called Morning Star, only slightly larger than the Hope. Later the Sunbeam I served the Mission for a number of years. The 1939 advertisement that I mentioned requested donations for the Sunbeam II, launched in 1927. Today, the fifth boat by that name continues to carry on the tradition. The Sunbeam V, launched in 1995 is 75 feet long and 21 feet in beam with a 7 foot draft. The boat cruises under a 250 horsepower

single-screw diesel engine that can cruise at 10 knots. Sunbeam V often serves as the ice breaker, helping to clear harbors and protect the boats moored there from ice damage.

In 1940 a wonderful account of the work of the Mission was written by Edwin Valentine Mitchell. This book has always been a real “sleeper”, as the title obscures its rich lighthouse family content. Entitled Anchor to Windward (New York. 1940. 270p. DJ), the author accompanied the crew of the Mission steamer Sunbeam on a number of voyages to visit offshore light stations and communities. As you might expect, many of the visits were to remote light stations where families longed for news of the day and for new faces with which to visit. Within the pages one can learn where the lighthouse keepers go on their vacations, what their favorite reading was, about their hobbies and much more.

One of the many lighthouse visits that the author recounts is his visit in the Sunbeam to Mark Island Light Station, probably in 1939. The author writes: “...I could see the light keeper, Alva Robinson... as he came down from the lighthouse in his rubber boots onto the rocks at the best landing place... A small black-and-tan dog nearly went mad with excitement as we neared the shore. Without any passing motor cars to bark at, he barks at passing boats, running along the rocks in vain pursuit of them...The keeper caught the bow of the skiff and there was a scramble to get out. I was a

fraction of a second late. With the bow in the air, a wave which must have come all the way from Baffin’s Land broke over the stern, drenching me and the magazines...”

“The dog cut circles around us as we trudged up to the kitchen door of the lighthouse, where we were cordially welcomed by Mrs. Robinson and Miss Rachel Robinson, who seemed pleased with the magazines despite their damp condition. The pots and pans in the kitchen shone, and the floors in the house were like mirrors. I had the feeling that here was a perfectly kept light station.”

“The three members of the Robinson family are the only persons on the island, and I think we were the first visitors in five or six months. Mr. Robinson said that he managed to get ashore for mail and supplies about once a week, but I gathered that Mrs. Robinson and her daughter, a girl of perhaps seventeen, had not been to the mainland for several months. Mrs. Robinson said that she and Rachel crocheted and made quilts and went to bed early. They had been at the lighthouse four years. Before that they were at Matinicus Rock for six years... I gained the impression that while Matinicus Rock is an offshore light it was less lonely for the Robinsons because of the other families stationed there.”

Easy to read, the book contains a wealth of information about offshore life of the keepers and others in the area.

Another telling piece on the subject is a manuscript that I call Reading For Lightkeepers. (October 1883). Other companies and individuals were interested in the welfare of the keepers and their families as well. One such was Messrs. W. S. Jordan & Company, who had the contract for supplying the lighthouses with oil. Mr. Jordan made it a practice to include with the loads of provisions, a selection of books, pamphlets, papers and picture books for the children at the station. After being thoroughly enjoyed by the keeper and his family, the lot would be passed along from one station to another. The manuscript included 18 small pages from a hand-written log kept by Mr. Jordan, recording packages sent to various Maine light stations. Particularly interesting are comments made by the keepers who received the packages, including excerpts from thank-you letters received. The listing also includes also a listing by date of the keepers and stations who received packages from January 1880 until September 1883. (We have poor but readable copies of this account available for $5 postpaid if interested.)

The scope of the services provided by the Mission has grown considerably over the last 100 years, but today the mission remains essentially the same. Heavy, bitterly cold winds still blow steadily along the coast in the winter, and long periods of cold weather causes ice to build up in the bays and harbors, threatening small boats at anchor and sometimes cutting off travel to and from island communities. Sunbeam V still helps to break ice in harbors along the coast, saving towns and fishermen from costly damage to their boats and piers.

At Christmas, over 3,000 people in coastal and island communities receive gifts from the Mission. While children are especially remembered at this special time of year, parents, nursing home residents, shut-ins, and prisoners are not forgotten either.

The Mission still serves 2,789 people on eight different islands. From their web site, they note that “far fewer people live on the islands today than a hundred years ago when the Mission was founded. A significant reason for the decrease in island populations is the lack of industry and jobs. Most island communities rely solely on lobster fishing for the survival of their economy. The Mission, therefore, while serving a smaller group of people, none-the-less helps to meet the vital needs of struggling communities.” For the last 30 years, the faces of the Mission to many have been David and Betty Allen, the husband-and-wife team that has helped to run the Sunbeam, V. Having captained her since 1971, they are now retiring. Although no one can truly replace them, the Mission will surely find another pair to take on their duties. Today as in 1905, Bar Harbor, Maine still serves as the Mission’s home.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects?

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the

U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the March 2007 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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