Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Birthday of the First Lady of Light

Today, June 4th, is the birth date of Constance Scovill Small (1901-2005). She was a great friend and resource for my books and articles about lighthouse life. I glibly referred to her as my #1 living lighthouse relic! The photo above was taken June 1, 2001 on the occasion of her 100th birthday celebration in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I was holding a picture of Connie and me taken in the 1980s when I conducted the first of several interviews with her at her home in Portsmouth, Maine. She commented that we both looked much younger in the photo! We met numerous times thereafter for interviews and visits, and she kept up a lively letter correspondence with me until she was unable to wield a pen. She remained bright-eyed and lucid almost to the end of her life.

Connie was born in 1901 and spent much of her life on lighthouses. Her husband, Elson Small, was assigned to several lighthouses in Maine and New Hampshire. The photo below, of Connie feeding her chickens, is one of my favorites. (I love chickens and have a flock of my own.) The photo was taken in 1945 on Dochet Island, Maine. It's a great shot, with the lighthouse in the background. Connie and Elson had other livestock at this station, including a cow named Blossom who appeared with Elson in a PR photo for the Coast Guard when that entity took over management of the nation's lighthouses. Elson was shown in 1946 milking Blossom--a hint to would-be lightkeepers that life on a Coast Guard lighthouse was bucolic and pleasant. Another year the Smalls witnessed the cutting of the national Christmas tree on Dochet Island.

Connie told me life on lighthouses was anything but easy. She loved it, but it was very hard work. The worst assignment for the couple was Seguin Island Lighthouse at the mouth of the Kennebec River, Maine. Though only a mile from shore, it was isolated--bitterly cold in winter, damp all year, plagued by summer fog, and overrun with snakes and rodents. Connie big fluffy cat was a good rodent and snake catcher. Connie was afraid of snakes, and one day the cat brought one in the house and plopped it on the floor. "He was just giving me a gift," she said. She used a broom to sweep the disabled reptile out the door and gave her cat a thank-you pat on the back. Connie told me the keeper's house on Seguin Island was heated with coal and often in very cold winters the coal supply would run out before the lighthouse tender brought more coal. Connie would go down to the beach at the landing area and dig in the sand to see if she could find any coal that might have spilled in previous deliveries. She gathered driftwood too, to fuel the kitchen woodstove. The image below  of Seguin Island Lighthouse is from an old postcard.

Connie enjoyed working side-by-side with her husband for the many years they served on lighthouses. When I asked her about marital bliss, she admitted that being together 24/7 was challenging sometimes. She told me that when she and Elson had a disagreement, they would pause, take each other's hands, and remember how many things they agreed upon and cherished about each other. Elson would say, "Come on now, let's get to work. We have a lot to do." There was no going home to her mother or other escape. "We simply knew we had to get along, every day."

So many of the genuine people of the lighthouse service are gone, and others will go soon. Connie, thankfully, recorded her memories in a book called The Lightkeeper's Wife. It was published by Down East Books. Amazon has a link to it http://www.amazon.com/Lighthouse-Keepers-Connie-Scovill-Small/dp/089101098X/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1370367499&sr=1-7&keywords=the+lightkeepers+wife. It's a good read--the real thing from a gone-but-not-forgotten Down Easter of hardy stock. Happy Birthday, Connie!

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