Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2015

Forgotten Notables in Maritime History

By Timothy Harrison


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The three men shown strolling on the lawn in Kennebunkport, Maine in this 1925 photograph, for the most part, are American notables who have been largely forgotten in the pages of time. But these three men, who were summer neighbors in this southern Maine tourist town, were good friends who could never have imagined that someone might write about their role in different aspects of maritime history 85 years after this photo was taken.

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Maine’s Seguin Island Lighthouse from where ...

It was a letter, transcribed and given to me by author John Kotzain, that was written by Connie Small (1901-2005), wife of lighthouse keeper Elson Small, and mailed from Maine’s Seguin Island Lighthouse on December 1, 1926 to Mr. L.S. Shaw at the Detroit Free Press that originally peeked my initial interest in Atwater Kent. That interest led me to discovering the photograph of the three men together, which led to this story.

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This 1925 magazine advertisement for Atwater Kent ...

On the far left is Kenneth Roberts (1885-1957) who was a noted journalist for the Saturday Evening Post from 1919 to 1928 and then a respected author of historical novels. He became a novelist at the suggestion of his friend Booth Tarkington, who edited most of Roberts’ novels for him. Some of Roberts’ great works included Arundel in 1929, Northwest Passage in 1937, and Oliver Wiswell in 1947. In the 1920s, in something that is all too familiar in the news of today, Roberts became a leading voice for stricter immigration laws and even testified before a Congressional committee on the subject, where he stated that if America doesn’t keep out the queer alien mongrelized people, her crop of citizens will eventually be dwarfed and mongrelized in turn.

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The Nottingham Galley was shipwrecked on Boon ...

The man on the far right was Newton “Booth” Tarkington (1869-1946) who, like Roberts, was also a famous American novelist best known for his novels The Magnificent Ambersons and Alice Adams. Tarkington is one of only three novelists to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction more than once. Although Tarkington maintained a home in Indianapolis, he spent much of his later life in his Kennebunkport home Seawood, and, with his schooner Regina, was a widely respected sailor. It was Tarkington who convinced his friend Kenneth Roberts to leave the Saturday Evening Post to write novels.

The man in the middle of the photo is Arthur Atwater Kent (1873-1949), a man who never used his first name, preferring instead his middle name of Atwater. From the back of his father’s garage in Worcester, Massachusetts he started a successful business, Kent Electric Manufacturing Company, and later the Atwater Kent Manufacturing Works where one of his inventions was the Uni-Sparker Ignition system which became the industry standard. Over the years his business ventures grew, and by 1926 his Atwater Kent Radio Company, with its 32-acres of manufacturing buildings and 12,000 employees, was the largest producer of radios in the county. In 1929 the company reached its peak when it produced one million radio sets.

In 1937 Kent helped organize and pay for the restoration of the Betsy Ross House, and in 1938 he helped found the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia by purchasing the original home of the Franklin Institute.

From 1925 to 1934 Mr. Kent sponsored the Atwater Kent Radio Hour, which featured a live orchestra and numerous live performances by stars of the Metropolitan Opera. From 1930 to 1931 it was the third most listened to program on the radio after the radio programs Amos ‘n’ Andy and Rudy Vallee.

Atwater Kent loved Maine, where he maintained two homes, one in Bar Harbor and the other in Kennebunkport, both having been purchased from the Vanderbilts. His Bar Harbor home, Sonogee, known for its marble staircase and vaulted ceiling, still stands today. In his retirement he built a 32-room mansion that today is the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles, California.

Now that I’ve given you a brief biographical sketch of these men, you may wonder what their ties are to maritime history.

Well, the true lighthouse aficionados probably immediately recognized Kenneth Roberts name as the author of Boon Island, which is a historical novel about the 1710 shipwreck of the Nottingham Galley off the coast of southern Maine, in which the survivors resorted to cannibalism to survive before they were rescued from the rocky outcropping. After that, it was reported that local fishermen left barrels of provisions on the island for the benefit of shipwrecked sailors, which would have been a “boon” to those men and thus the name of the island. In 1799 the first lighthouse was established on Boon Island.

Boon Tarkington kept his schooner the Regina moored next his boat house that he named “The Floats,” which he also used as his studio. Tarkington’s tie to maritime history is that his extensively renovated studio is now home to the Kennebunkport Maritime Museum.

In her 1926 letter to the Detroit Free Press, Connie Small wrote to them trying to impress upon them about the marvelous spiritual work that Rev. W.H. Law, was providing to the families of the lighthouse keepers and crews of life saving stations. Rev. Law was known as the ‘Sky Pilot’ to these people, which basically meant he was a minister bringing the word of God to them.

In her letter, Connie Small referred to the letters and religious publications that Rev. Law sent to lighthouse keepers, including Law’s publication The Message.

She also wrote about his many visits to the lighthouse and life-saving crews that he often made with great risk to his personal well-being.

She wrote, “This reading was so effective that I began to think seriously of religion and finally becoming a Christian.” She went on to write, “Who can tell but what the generosity of the Atwater Kent Radio Company in placing 200 radio sets in lonely lighthouses on the New England coast was prompted by Mr. Kent’s reading interesting accounts of Rev. Law’s useful and unique welfare work that appeared in many of the leading newspapers and magazines in the United States . . . .”

So, now you know what Atwater Kent’s tie to lighthouse history was. Thanks to Atwater’s Kent’s generosity, many remote stations where lighthouses keepers did not have a radio that they could afford, now had one.

However, it might be questionable if Atwater Kent donated the radios because of Rev. Law’s writings, because in 1923 Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover was the first to appeal for radios for lighthouse keepers when he wrote, “I don’t know of any class of shut-ins who are more entitled to such aid. The government does not pay them any too well, and the instruments they can hardly afford are in many cases their only means of keeping in touch with the outside world.”

History indicates that some radios were shipped by the public after Hoover’s appeal, but the numbers were small, mainly because of the size of the radios of the time and their expense. This changed a year or so later when Atwater Kent came out with several models of small table top radios, which would have been easy to deliver to lighthouse keepers, even those who lived on remote islands.

But Connie Small was convinced it was because of Rev. Law’s work and writings that led to Atwater Kent’s decision to donate the 200 radios when she wrote, “I am not the only one who has this opinion or lingering suspicion.” And, we know today from Connie’s Small’s book, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife, and from her lectures and writings over the years that she was generally correct in her assumptions in matters like this.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 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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