LC Van Savage
Go to Live in the 1950s on Burnt Island in Boothbay Harbor, Maine
It was a perfect Maine day, breezy and cool, and we, “my TV crew” and I gathered at the Boothbay Harbor Aquarium (do not miss it—it’s small but simply delightful) so that we could do a day’s shoot at the charming Burnt Island Light. The island and lighthouse are located at the western entrance of Boothbay Harbor. Our show was, and still is called “incredibleMAINE.” It seen at 10:30 AM on Saturday mornings on MPBN. Yes, I am without shame.
Our motor boat showed up just below the aquarium, we donned life jackets and headed off to Burnt Island. There is very little to compare with being on the water on a fabulous Maine summer day, moving toward a beautiful Island named Burnt, so called because of the past practice of burning off all vegetation to keep the land clear for grazing sheep.
We landed, and lugging our heavy camera equipment, all trooped through woods and pastures toward the lighthouse. It was built in 1821, not to warn sailors away from rocks and danger but instead to attract traffic to the harbor. It even gained a fog bell in 1895 which was eventually moved to a metal frame and was rung with an electric striker.
After many trials and errors, the light became final and fixed in 1901, with a rotating beacon consisting of a square box with a lens on each face. This, from all reports, worked perfectly until 1962 when the light house and the keeper’s cottage were all designated as a museum, the last lighthouse in Maine to be converted from kerosene, and that’s where we, the mighty crew of incredibleMAINE came in.
We filmed that remarkable place and it was a day to remember. The buildings on Burnt Island had all been restored to their 1950s condition and in 2003, the Living History Program began, and please, readers of this, don’t miss the chance to get out to Burnt Island to see what they offer. It is a marvelous experience!
There are actors there in the summers, portraying family life at the Burnt Island Lighthouse who are so good at what they do that as an observer, one is simply swept up into the mood and times. Their clothing is straight out of the 50s, hair styles, manner of speaking, the chores they had to perform that no modern child of today could even think of doing, much less tolerate. Their fun and education and daytime activities were all in place and governed by parents, and all had to participate.
To quote directly from the brochure, “the restored buildings serve as a living history museum where interpreters portray a lighthouse family who once called Burnt Island home. The keeper was Joseph Muise, wife Annie and their children who recount their daily activities and share their stories of joy, sorrow, dedication and survival.”
We got to film and watch “The Muise family” in action. Annie showed us how she did the family wash but hauling a huge tub of soapy water outside and scrubbing the clothes on a washboard, rinsing and wringing them all out and hanging them on a line to snap and wave dry in the bright sunlight. Oh what a sight! Annie would talk to all of us observing, and tell us how she managed to live there, how hard but rewarding the work was, how they coped in winters. It was mesmerizing.
All the furnishings throughout the keeper’s home were vintage 1950s, comfortable and simple. Nothing jarring jumped out at the observers, like computers or, heaven help us, iPhones.
The kitchen was exactly like the ones I spent time in growing up, with all the products on view—Rinso White Soap Flakes, remember?—things like that. Putting on a daily meal was a huge chore but they all managed, all helped. No one could ever say “oh, we’re out of bread? I’ll just zip on down to the store and get a loaf. Be back in a jiffy.” No zips, no jiffies, when one is completely encircled by the Atlantic Ocean.
We all got to meet the keeper, in full captain’s costume and that actor was seriously overheated, standing about in his dark blue wool blazer and white pants and captain’s hat in the blazing sun, but he carried it off so well we all got into the spirit of the thing and hammered questions at him, all of which he answered satisfactorily, with good humor and lots of knowledge. Naturally everyone wanted to know how a family lived without plumbing but he explained that they all had adjusted and did well anyway.
The garden on the island gave up food for the family, and they canned and saved and dried and planned. A “Flying Santa” would fly over the island at Christmas and drop presents for the family. Can you imagine the sight of everyone rushing out into the snow in winter garb to gather up their gifts? What a visual! Everyone back then liked the Muises, and Joseph, a famously kind man, would help local fishermen whenever he could. In turn, they willingly supplied him with fresh catches of lobsters and fish.
Joseph Muise took us up into the tower and of course there are no words to describe the glorious views from up there. One could also see the many plans for other educational buildings around the island to encourage future visitors to gather on the island and to learn how it was to live like that 70 odd years ago. Romantic? Beautiful? Yes, but lonely at times, hard work all the time, low pay, invented fun and games, learning to cope in all situations.
I hated our day of filming to end---those actors really brought me back to my childhood and made me and likely the other visitors yearn to have lived that life on Burnt Island, at least for a little while. Back into our life jackets, we stood on the small boat, looking back at the island for the too short 15-minute voyage back to Boothbay Harbor.
Please think about doing this sometime soon, folks. You’ll never forget the experience whether you lived through the 1950s or did not. Your memories will smile when you think back about taking the time to go to Burnt Island on a beautiful summer day in Maine.
2017 Summer Schedule
Beginning July 6th and ending August 24th
Mondays and Thursdays
Departure at 1:45 PM
Return at 4:45 PM
Tickets / prices call:
Balmy Days II Cruises
Private group tours available
For information and fees call:
Click on author's byline for bio and list of other works published by Pencil Stubs Online.