From the Sand Island Lighthouse, some can visualize what it was like for keeper Emmanuel Luick to watch as the steamer Sevona broke up in a storm, killing seven people.
The story of Luick's helplessness as he watched the destruction of the Sevona on Sept. 2, 1905 is a mainstay of the lore around the six light stations of the Apostle Islands of Lake Superior. While some only need to stand where Luick stood to catch the drama of that moment, there is one method guaranteed to give even the most stone-hearted the sense of the turmoil that gripped Lueck for years after he watched the death struggle of the Sevona.
That is a ticket to see Keeper of the Light, a musical and dramatic celebration of the lighthouses, keepers and keepers' families in the Apostle Islands presented yearly at the Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua (LSBTC) just outside Bayfield. It's one of several house shows about local, regional and state history put on at the 750-seat tent theater, in an eclectic May 28-to-Sept. 11 season this year featuring 75 different shows, including nationally-recognized performers like Merle Haggard, Garrison Keillor, Greg Brown and Gordon Lightfoot.
Again this year, from July 21-25, "Keeper" will allow those watching under the tent to eavesdrop, as Luick gets a visit from a Detroit News reporter, not long before he's to transfer to the Grand Marais Light in Minnesota in 1921. Asked to offer some memories of his 29 years on Sand Island, Luick begins to tell the tale of that night in September 1905, 15 years before the reporter's visit. From then, the viewer is taken in. He sees as the Sevona gets caught in a storm, and the passengers leave, and seven crew members drown in their raft.
The scene is one of many in the musical play, crafted by Warren Nelson, producer, artistic director and resident writer for Big Top Chautauqua. Nelson researched it with Betty Ferris, the other half of the Nelson-Ferris Concert Company.
While the only way to see the whole production this year is to come to Big Top Chautauqua at the end of July, there are other ways to get a taste. There is a tape and CD of much of the musical parts. In addition, it's hard for the visitor to avoid hearing music from it, since it's played in shops in downtown Bayfield. Also, the Blue Canvas Orchestra, featuring Big Top Chautauqua players, will appear at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 9 to play Lake Superior songs and tell lighthouse lore, with special slides from projectionist Betty Ferris. That performance will be in conjunction with the Fourth Annual Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration Sept. 8-29.
The tent theater first put on "Keeper of the Light" in 1989, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. It's captivated audiences ever since.
"It's one of our most important shows,'' said Carolyn Sneed, executive director of LSBTC, and one of the founders back in 1986. "The audience has been growing for it every year."
The story of Keeper of the Light actually starts in 1976, when Nelson wrote and produced a historical illustrated musical called "A Martin County Hornpiece," using songs, poetry, old photographs and narratives to tell the story of his hometown, Fairmount, Minn. In that, Nelson worked with several of the people still associated with Big Top Chautauqua, including Ferris.
The success of that play led to a commission for the Nelson-Ferris Concert Company to research and produce "Souvenir Views," a centennial musical about Washburn, a town just down the road from Bayfield. Another commission to produce "Riding the Wind," a musical about Bayfield followed. In 1986, Nelson's dream of a tent theater in the spirit of the old traveling tent chautauquas became a reality, in Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua.
Other illuminated musical histories followed. Then, Big Top Chautauqua was asked to produce something to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, in 1989.
"With Bayfield having been chosen, it was just a natural that we should do a musical about the history (of lighthouses),'' said Phillip Anich, operations manager for LSBTC, and a singer and player in Keeper of the Light.
To do his research, Nelson referred to libraries, history books, old journals and oral histories with elders who live in the area and who were lighthouse keepers or lived with lighthouse keepers.
"I am a freshwater man," Nelson said. He got interested in lighthouses "because of the lights on the Apostle Islands, and really, this show woke me up to lighthouses."
Nelson said there's several things he enjoys about this production, including the darkness that balances the light, and the fear of the lake and the beacon.
"A fair amount of material actually came from the journals of the keepers themselves," Anich said.
For the lighthouse enthusiast, Nelson notes several things that would make the production appealing.
Those include the "very real portraits of those who lived on the lights, and the frightening part of why lighthouses were needed," Nelson said, mentioning shipwrecks like the one on the Sevona.
Nelson also mentions there is an unromantic side he portrayed.
Although the play tells about a young girl who fell in love with life at a real place with a storybook name like Raspberry Island, it also offers an unromanticized view of life at another place called Devils Island. In the most fanciful view of lighthouses, everyone loved life at lighthouses. In truth, Nelson's portrayal of a keeper on Devils Island whose wife hated his work shows how many reacted.
That keeper with the wife who hates life on Devils Island is portrayed by Anich.
"We've put that in as really a slice of reality," Anich said. "It certainly was a hard existence for a lot of people."
There have been a fair amount of people in audiences who actually were children of keepers, Anich said. "We've had direct links of people who remember that. They get very nostalgic."
It helps that such a production is put on a short boat ride from six lighthouses, said Nicole Wilde, marketing director for Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua.
"We have many visitors who come here specifically for the lighthouses," Wilde said. "This really digs a little deeper...Here's some real stories that really happened."
Among those telling the story is Geoff Ehrendreich, who this year is the narrator and a player in Keeper for the fourth year in a row.
"I never thought about the regimen of the light work. Wake up early in the morning and scrub the place from top to bottom," Ehrendreich said.
"It's always been well received. A lot of people, they come up and they do the lighthouse tours," Ehrendreich said. "It's a nice way to start or wind down the lighthouse experience."
Those interested in finding out more about Keeper of the Light or Lake Superior Big Top Chautauqua may call 1-888-244-8368, write to P.O. Box 455, Washburn, WI. 54891 or go online to www.bigtop.org.
Information about the Fourth Annual Apostle Islands Lighthouse Celebration is available by calling 1-800-779-4487, writing to Keeper of the Light, P.O. Box 990, 19 Front St., Bayfield, WI; 54814 or online at www.apostleisland.com.
This story appeared in the
July 1999 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 © 1995-2018 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.