Photographs courtesy of James Harkenrider from the family album
Alone on a beach on the eastern side of Lake Michigan, the light tower of the old Little Sable Point Light Station appears out-of-place, almost surreal.
Save for the top, the conical brick tower in some ways resembles a brick smokestack from a long-abandoned factory.
But soon it becomes obvious that there is more to the spire, and that something is missing. The catwalk, windows and roof reveal it was a beacon for mariners, with a history worth knowing. But dwellings and other buildings long since have disappeared, robbing the light of the grandeur of lights to the north, at Big Sable Point and Point Betsie.
Nonetheless, a sweet heritage remains at the graceful 107-foot-tall structure. A fledgling preservation group is taking the first steps toward showing the world all of the glory of the structure. There are still people nearby who remember fondly the last keeper who tended a lamp at the lighthouse, before it was automated in the mid-1950’s. Family members who live in places as far apart as Michigan, Tennessee and California preserve the memory of Keeper Henry “Hank” Vavrina.
Located about halfway between the Michigan-Indiana border and the Straits of Mackinac, it’s a popular attraction in the Silver Lake State Park. It’s also the focus of attention of “The Lighthouse Seekers,” a local organization that has discussed setting up a gift shop, information center, and perhaps a boardwalk to promote interest.
“I love it. I’ve lived here all my life,” said Maureen Wiegand, president of the Lighthouse Seekers.
“When we were kids, we used to complain because we didn’t have anybody else to play with,” said James Harkenrider of Ten Mile, Tennessee, one of two stepsons of Vavrina. Looking back at his experiences, he said he now realizes their value.
Now 60, Harkenrider and his wife Francie own an interest in a marina and a restaurant on the Tennessee River near Ten Mile, Tennessee.
The name of the eatery? The Lighthouse Restaurant.
Harkenrider’s mother married Vavrina in the late 1940s. He was a boy at the time of the marriage and a teenager when his stepfather was transferred to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse after Little Sable was automated in 1954. Jim and his natural brother Jerry live in Ten Mile, Tenn., not far from their mother, who is 85. Their two stepsisters were Vavrina’s two natural daughters, Shirley, who died in August 1999, and Henrietta, who passed away in October 1992.
James Harkenrider has vivid memories of sweeping the sand from the tower’s circular steps, of life without electricity or inside plumbing and of the heavy storms that blew off the lake in wintertime.
“The most my stepfather ever made was about $4,500 a year and on that they raised their family,” Harkenrider said. “We never considered ourselves poor and always had plenty to eat.”
North of the light, at the Mason County Historical Society in Ludington, Michigan, yellowing newspaper clippings in a file folder reveal more about the life Harkenrider and his family lived and offer hints of the light’s former glory.
“Lake Michigan waves are now almost lapping the very base of the Little Point Sable Lighthouse, one of the oldest and the most westerly on the Michigan shoreline,” began an article in the Sunday magazine of The Grand Rapids (Michigan) Herald on Aug. 31, 1952.
The article, written by Herald staff writer K.C. Clapp, is one of many sources that refer to the light as “Little Point Sable.” In fact, Thomas Tag, the author of a book called Little Sable Point Light Station, said the official records from 1910 gave it the same name as his book.
“I like it because of its setting, nestled among the dunes, and because of its natural brick color. It is one of the most picturesque lighthouses on the Great Lakes,” Tag said.
Whatever the name, the 49-year-old article from the Grand Rapids Herald said the tower reared itself “against the sky above a bleak wasteland of sand, twisted trees, choke cherry bushes and giant junipers.” It contended that the light was one of the few, if not the only, remaining lighthouses that used oil to power the beam of the beacon. “Even the brass mechanism in the lens pedestal, which is wound up daily like a clock, is the original equipment installed more than 75 years ago.”
Photos accompanying the article, clearly showed the tower was painted white, covering the red brick appearance it shows today. Because white was more visible than red from the lake in the daytime, the grueling routine of keepers and their assistants was made harder by the regular task of painting and repainting. Sandblasting in the 1970s brought the tower back to its natural color.
Other pictures with the article include the three-story keeper’s dwelling and Vavrina, wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap, examining the light and clockwork mechanism.
“As tanned and weather-beaten as the driftwood that strews the foreshortened beach in front of the lighthouse, Vavrina has grown to love the relative loneliness of his post,” the article said.
Although some wouldn’t like the isolation of the post, Vavrina told the Herald reporter his life wasn’t dull or monotonous.
“It might be for the children, but they get into school every day during the regular terms,” he said. He drove his eldest daughter Shirley 12-1/2 miles into Hart, where she attended high school. He drove his younger daughter Henrietta and his two stepsons four miles to the Wilson School, a one-room elementary school.
Vavrina told the reporter he didn’t find his station isolated and cold during the winter. “We’ve been snowbound only a few times. In fact, I’ve made it with youngsters into their schools when parents from other sections of the country could not get in. To me, it seems that the winters are more temperate here at Little Point Sable than they are farther inland.”
The Grand Rapids Herald article reported that the Vavrinas maintained a flock of fowl that provided a plentiful supply of chickens for frying. There also was a lot of small game and deer in the woodlands around the lighthouse.
“In fact, I don’t know why I go farther north for a buck every fall. I’ve seen lots of six and eight-pointers right around here,” Vavrina said.
Talk of Vavrina brings back memories for Wiegand. “He was a nice old man,” said Wiegand.
As a child, Wiegand lived about four or five miles from the lighthouse, and went to the Wilson School with Vavrina’s stepsons. Today, she sells crafts in the Village Store in nearby Mears, including lighthouse photos she has taken.
Wiegand regrets that she never was in the light keeper’s dwelling, and that it was torn down in 1954, the same year it was automated. “I’m sorry it’s gone,” Wiegand said.
The automation of the light ended 80 years of service at Little Sable Point. According to information provided by the Silver Lake State Park, the history of the light began in 1870, when the Lighthouse Board discussed the need for a light in the area, to fill a darkened gap in an area that was seeing an increasing amount of lake commerce.
After $35,000 was appropriated for the project in 1872, construction began in April 1873. The light was put into service in 1874, with James Davenport serving as the first keeper.
The light from the third order Fresnel lens was visible 19 miles out on the lake. The first light was illuminated with three wicks, one of which was 3-1/2 inches in diameter. That was replaced in 1918, by an incandescent oil vapor lamp that also used kerosene.
The article noted that the clockwork operated to produce a five-second flash every 30 seconds.
“The lens is meticulously polished by Vavrina and his assistant, as are the glass prisms,” said the article, telling of a process well known to lighthouse devotees.
Besides muscles that became sore from the work of polishing, Harkenrider noted that a key element that brought out that shine was Brasso metal polish, a product that is still available today to anyone wanting a bring the shine back to a dull piece of pewter, brass, chrome, copper or stainless steel.
“He (Vavrina) didn’t usually do it. He’d have his first assistant do it,” Harkenrider said.
Lenses were cleaned with alcohol on a soft cloth or T-shirt.
Vavrina shared duty with his assistant, often on a 24-hour-on, 24-hour-off basis. Whoever was on watch generally had to walk up to the top three times. He had to light the lamp and wind the clockwork mechanism before sundown, wind it again at midnight and extinguish it at dawn. Keepers also had to bring kerosene with them, in containers Harkenrider estimated held two or three gallons.
A regular duty was painting the lighthouse every two years on a scaffold. To make the job easier, Vavrina bought a paint sprayer.
In 1954, an underground electric line reached the station, making it unnecessary to staff the light. Vavrina was transferred to the Big Sable Point Lighthouse north of Ludington, Michigan. The buildings were torn down, leaving the tower alone. “Bids were let and the highest bidder got the contract and tore down the building,” Harkenrider said. “As I recall the beautiful hardwood floors and the bricks were what the bidders were after.”
Today, the third order Fresnel lens remains at the light. Though the tower itself is closed, the grounds are open.
One of those who were unhappy with the decision to destroy the dwellings and other buildings was Harkenrider’s mother, Elizabeth Cousineau. “I thought it was awful,” said Cousineau, 85, who now resides in Tennessee near her sons.
“It was real lonesome out there. We didn’t have any electricity,” said Cousineau, who remarried and was widowed again after Vavrina’s death in 1976. Once a week, there were tours, which sometimes attracted as many as 100 people, she said.
Stories like that have kept the charm of lighthouse living alive for various generations that followed Vavrina. Among them are Henrietta’s children, Kathy Best, who lives about 45 minutes away from the light, in Fruitport, Michigan; and Mike Nielson, who lives in Hart, Michigan, a short drive from the tower.
Now 45, Best remembers spending weekends at the Big Sable Point Lighthouse when she was 3, 4 and 5, and has memories of listening to the foghorn.
Best doesn’t remember many of the stories her grandfather told her about life at the lighthouse. But she does recall tales of how he didn’t have indoor plumbing, and had to use the outhouse in the wintertime.
Best also tells how her grandfather was an eyewitness when the pulpwood carrier Novadoc went down on Nov. 11, 1940. Vavrina was assistant keeper at the time, and viewed it with William Krumwell, who was keeper.
Best also notes how Vavrina became keeper. After he served in the Navy in World War II, he took a civil service test and was one of three people, out of several hundred who took the test in the Chicago area, who passed. This was in spite of the fact that he only had a sixth grade education.
“Being widowed with two young daughters, this seemed the perfect job,” Best said.
Among Best’s possessions is her grandfather’s lighthouse uniform. It is on display at the White River Light Station Museum near Whitehall, Michigan.
Such items stir the memory of people like Harkenrider. He recalls listening closely to a battery-powered radio, to hear the likes of Buster Brown, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and The Shadow.
“We had an old fashioned hand pump in the kitchen for water,” Harkenrider said. “Heat in the winter was provided by an old upright coal stove in the living room that burned anthracite hard coal. . . . Mom heated a couple of bricks up and wrapped them in towels to put in bed with us.”
Beachcombing was always an adventure, Harkenrider said.
“I remember one time my brother and I found a bottle with a note in it and we wrote to the address and it was some lady in Chicago that had been on a yacht out on the lake and she sent us a dollar by return mail,” Harkenrider said. “Don’t you know we made every effort to find another one, but never did.”
Summertime’s were long and lazy, spent in the fashion of Huck Finn.
“One summer, we found this old raft and anchored it out between the first and second sand bar. We’d spend days swimming around that old raft and would take sandwiches and such out there,” he said.
As much enjoyment as the beach brought, it also was a source of headaches.
“Sand was everywhere. It was a very fine sand that was a light yellow in color,” Harkenrider said.
“Many times, us kids had to sweep the steps in the tower from top to bottom to clean the sand away,” he said. “It was kind of like living in the middle of the Sahara Desert, if you know what I mean.”
Editor’s comments: We wish to thank James Harkenrider for sharing many, many family photographs with us, more than we could publish here. However, we made duplicates of all of them for our lighthouse archives. We are sure some of them will be used with later stories in Lighthouse Digest about Little Sable Point Light or Big Sable Light.
This story appeared in the
March 2001 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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