Lighthouse In My LIFE by Philmore Wass
Awesome Stories About an Isolated Life on a Maine Island
We all love Maine’s beautiful lighthouses, but few of us know about the isolation and challenges of families of lighthouse keepers on remote Maine islands. So I am very grateful to Philmore Wass for writing his wonderful book, Lighthouse In My LIFE, published by Down East Books.
Phil grew up on Libby Island in Machias Bay, where his dad was the lighthouse keeper from 1919 to 1940. The family was isolated on the island, and Phil grew up without friends, except for an older brother.
Phil’s stories are amazing, entertaining, and unusual. I raced through the book, unable to put it down. And I plan to read it again soon.
At an early age, Phil did everything from shoot ducks to building his own cabin where he and his brother slept. Some of his most amazing stories involve ships which wrecked near his island. One story I will never forget is the time Phil and his brother, at low tide, walked out to a wrecked ship and climbed on board, where they discovered lots of things, including furniture which the family retrieved for their house. They also had many scary times in their boat.
Phil writes, “In spite of these social and educational experiences, Libby Island provided us with some learning opportunities that would enrich all of our lives. Our island environment was a rich learning laboratory, a source of knowledge in such fields as animal husbandry, carpentry, boathandling, weather forecasting – not to mention lighthouse keeping, hunting, and fishing. In addition, we gained a set of values that, with few exceptions, has served us well.”
Phil continued, “I am proud to have been a member of one of these families, and I hope that this book will engender an increased appreciation for the services all light-keeping families rendered over two centuries, not only in maintaining Maine’s light and fog signals but also in directly saving hundreds of lives.”
Phil’s book was published in 1987, and he died in 2015. I can only hope he heard from lots of people who enjoyed his book and he understood how important it is.
Phil’s book gave me a new appreciation for my great grandfather, who was the keeper at the West Quoddy Head lighthouse in Lubec for 30 years in the early 1900s. Lucky for them, their lighthouse was on the mainland, so they were not isolated like Phil’s family.
My favorite West Quoddy story comes from my uncle Phil Searles, who wrote a bunch of stories about growing up in Lubec. Phil was born in the lighthouse and lived there during prohibition, when a sailing ship full of alcohol crashed on the rocks by the lighthouse. But before the coast guard arrived, all the alcohol was gone!
Phil Conkling, Director of The Island Institute, wrote a very good introduction to the book, including this final paragraph: “Libby Island is unusual. Its history is preserved in this book, but dozens of other light stations are slowly slipping into oblivion, their history unrecorded except as lifeless government records of paint used, tons of coal burned, keepers assigned and transferred, and, finally, of buildings demolished…. Surely we could find a way to utilize these still habitable buildings, providing opportunities for interested people to experience today the unique lifeways Philmore Wass describes.”
All of our lighthouses are now automated, making Phil’s book an important historical story. And sadly, all the buildings including Phil’s house on Libby Island, except the lighthouse, have been demolished, making his book even more important.