Tuesday, March 25, 2014

The Shipwreck Coast, 'Girl' and a Lamp

Some years ago my husband and son took me camping in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We first stayed at Tahquamenon Falls campground, and loved the area so much, including Whitefish Point, we decided to return the next year and rent a cabin in Paradise for a week.

Every day we went to Whitefish Point. We visited the lighthouse, viewed the museum, walked the shore, and watched the freighters roll by. Every evening after supper my son and I walked along the shore near the cabin and watched the ducks return to their roosting place.

After our trip my father-in-law remarked that his mother had stayed with the light keeper's family one winter at Whitefish Point! My husband had never heard this story before.

Loretta Valdora Bellinger Bekofske was born in 1896 in Tawas, Michigan to Canadian parents, Jacob Hazen Bellinger (1855-1906) and Jennie Ecker (1862-1906). Jacob's brother John Wesley Bellinger married Jennie's sister Margaret Ecker. The sibling sets immigrated to Michigan together.

Shortly after giving birth to her ninth child, Val's mother died. My father-in-law said her family had to be split up as her father could not care for them all. By 1908 he had married again, to Carrie Farnsworth. Carrie had two young sons from her first marriage. One of Jacob's sons and a daughter also married in 1908, and another was married by 1910. Val was one of the older children still at home. 

The family story was that the light keeper at Whitefish Point needed someone to care for his child after the death of her mother. And Val was sent to Lake Superior to be a nanny.

Several years after learning about Val's time at Whitefish Point I was shown a box of papers and photographs from Val's estate. I was allowed to keep what I wanted, and the rest was disposed of. Included in these papers were two old photo postcards. One I knew right off was important; the other was a mystery to solve.

Dated September, 1913 and sent to “Vall” Bekofske of Port Huron, the photo post card shows Val with a group of children. It is signed by Alicia, Cass, Stewart and Stan. The card reminds Val of fun times together.

The other photograph shows a man in snow shoes and was signed Capt. Jas. Scott, dated September 6, 1911, and was sent to Miss Valdora Bellinger, Crips, Vermillion Light Saving Station, Mich.

enhanced version

Why had my father-in-law said his mother was at Whitefish Point? Clearly she was at Crisps, Vermillion. Where ever that was. So I started researching anew.

The first five life saving stations in Michigan included Whitefish Point, Vermillion Point which was 10 miles west of Whitefish Point; Crisp's Point which was 16 miles further west of Whitefish Point; the Two-Hearted River (which is the setting for the Ernest Hemingway story of that name); Deer Park; and Grand Marias. They stretch along a beautiful, but deadly, shore.

The Shipwreck Coast of Michigan's Lake Superior coastline is best known for the November 1975 storm that destroyed the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, immortalized in song by Gordon Lightfoot in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” The Fitz went down about 17 miles northeast of Crisp's Point light saving station.

Vermillion Life Saving Crew
Situated in one of the most inaccessible areas along Lake Superior, Saving Station #10 was built in 1875. It is known as Crisp's Point after Christopher Crisp who arrived as keeper in 1878 and served until 1890. James Scott served as life saving station keeper from May 1904 until 1915.

The 1910 Luce, McMillian census shows James Scott, aged 42 and single, serving as keeper of the light saving station. He had five surfmen boarding with him.

By 1904 a lighthouse was also built and John Smith served as the first lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse had a 4th order Fresnel lens with a red light that could be seen 15 miles out. According to the Crisp Point Light Historical Society's website, "Originally this site contained a lifesaving station and quarters, a two family brick light keeper's house with basement, a brick fog signal building, an oil house, two frame barns, a boat house and landing, a tramway, a lighthouse tower, and a brick service room entrance building. "

Vermillion Point Light Saving Station
Once considered the most isolated life saving station, Vermilion Point was also one of the first, built in 1847; the current building dates to 1876.

James A. Carpenter was the lighthouse keeper from October 1900 until 1915.

The 1900 Michigan census shows James A. Carpenter was born July, 1855 in New York State. The 1910 Michigan census shows James was widowed and living with his daughter Catherine, aged 2, and a sister-in-law. The 1920 census shows James living in Tawas, Michigan with daughter Catherine, age 12, and wife Anna. He was a bookkeeper.

The Whitefish Township 1910 census shows there was an active lumber camp and several light saving station keepers with their surfmen. Wives and children made a school teacher a necessity. The teacher was 20 years old.

By February, 1913 Val had married Gustav Bekofske, a German nationalist who had immigrated from Volyhnia, now a part of the Ukraine. They moved from Port Huron, Michigan to Flint, and then to a farm in Lapeer. Gust had tuberculosis, as did their eldest son, and Gust died when my father-in-law was 13 years old. Val and the boys returned to Flint where Val went to work in a GM factory, the only female on the floor. The men would call “Hey, girl” when they needed her. And after that she was called Girl by everyone, including her son. Val participated in the famous GM sit-down strike.  Val died in September, 1988 in Flint, Michigan.

But my story is not over.

Some years ago my dad came home from the flea market with a big brass oil lamp. It read 4th Order. I went online and discovered it was part of a 4th order Fresnel light...the kind originally used at Crisp's Point. This part held the kerosene, but is missing the wick and a glass chimney. It would have set inside the Fresnel lens.

This lamp has an Aladdin burner. Aladdin was founded in 1908. Lamps like this date back to the 1880s; the burner may be original, dating the lamp to after 1908, or it may be a replacement, in which case the lamp may be older.

4th order lights were once common around the Great Lakes. Today Tawas Point lighthouse still has a fourth order light. Tawas, where Valdora was born!

Tawas lighthouse

No comments:

Post a Comment