Woman recalls childhood living in lighthouses

Posted Aug. 27, 2010, at 9:51 p.m.

OWLS HEAD, Maine — Many children move from one house to another during their young lives, but not many move from one lighthouse to another.

Marla Haskins Rogers of Owls Head recalled this week what life was like for her family and herself growing up in New England lighthouses, including the Owls Head Lighthouse.

During a talk Wednesday sponsored by the Mussel Ridge Historical Society at the Owls Head Community Building, Rogers explained how her father first took a job in 1927 at Boston Harbor Light.

Archford “Ted” Vernon Haskins of Lubec took the job to support his then-small family, which included his wife, Betty Haskins, and one child. Marla Haskins Rogers wasn’t born for another 13 years, but she heard stories from her parents about their 10 years living in one of the duplexes on the rocky island.

The drinking water, for instance, was collected as the rain rolled off the roof into the gutters and from the gutters into downspouts leading to the whitewashed basement, she said. But there was one problem.

“They had rats,” Rogers said.

The family couldn’t poison the rats for fear that if they died in the water, the water supply would be contaminated, she said.

To resolve this, Rogers said, “they’d go in the cellar and shoot the rats.”

Everyday tasks took more effort on Boston Harbor Light.

“When my mother had to wash clothes, it was a two-day process,” Rogers said.

Betty Haskins had to collect water bucket by bucket from the basement, heat the water overnight on the stove and then wash the clothes using a washing board and lye soap.

For refrigeration, the family kept a 50-pound ice block in the basement.

Several of her siblings were born during the decade on the island, Rogers said.

To get off the island for food and to bring the children to school, the family shared a boat with the lighthouse keeper and the other assistant keeper. The boat was named Dolittle.

“Because that’s what it did. Little,” Rogers said.

The children would be brought to the mainland on Sunday nights for school and stayed in a boardinghouse. On Friday nights, they would be picked up and brought back to the rocky island — weather permitting. In harsher seasons, sometimes the children would stay on the mainland for three weeks at a time.

“That was hard for my mother,” Rogers said.

While on the mainland, Ted Haskins would pick up “cases and cases of food,” Rogers said. In the winter, canned food was about all the family ate.

“If they had to have corn chowder three nights in a row, that’s what they did.”

The couple once tried to raise rabbits on the tiny rock of an island, but a Lighthouse Service inspector told them to get them off the island, as the rodents were burrowing and disrupting the integrity of the island.

In 1937, Ted Haskins was offered a promotion to lighthouse keeper at Great Point Light in Nantucket, where he worked until 1944. Rogers showed the audience black-and-white pictures from this time of Ted Haskins walking the beach with his rifle, ready to shoot at German submarines.

Since Great Point Light is on land, it wasn’t as isolated as Boston Harbor Light, Rogers said.

“It was a totally different way of living, … It was all sand dunes and beach grass,” she said.

Then the children could get rides to school from their father instead of staying away for weeks at a time. This meant food and clothes were a truck drive away, too.

“They ate good on Nantucket,” Rogers said.

There, her siblings and parents could fish, hunt deer and rabbits, or dig clams.

Then, in 1940, Marla Haskins Rogers was born, the youngest of seven children.

She said growing up in the tight quarters of light keepers’ houses made her family close.

“We all looked out for each other. We were all very close — never fought,” she said. “I never heard my mother and father have a fight. We grew up with a lot of love.”

Ted Haskins and the family moved again in 1944, this time to Sankaty Head Lighthouse, also on Nantucket. Now the village was even closer to their home.

“For the first time, my parents could make friends,” Rogers said.

Rogers could walk to school. After school, she and her siblings would sit on a nearby chicken coop, eating crackers or peeling golf balls for fun. Sometimes they would make cardboard sleds and play on the sand dunes.

Rogers said people are always asking her what the family did to have fun or keep busy in the lighthouses.

“We did all kinds of things,” she said.

They played card games and a lighthouse-themed Monopoly game her father made on a piece of wood.

“We couldn’t afford games, so my father would make games.”

Then, when Rogers was 7, her dad was moved one last time — to Maine. In 1947, the family of nine moved into the Owls Head Lighthouse keeper’s house.

“That’s home to me,” Rogers said. “It was so vastly different.”

With seasonal people and businesses surrounding them, the family had about 18 acres to play on all year. Beaches to the left and right of them — a total of six.

“It was like having a monstrous playground,” she said.

The family didn’t have plumbing or fresh water and shared a “two-seater” outhouse until 1950, she recalled. But the lighthouse signal was electric.

For the first time, the family had a garden, and mother Betty took a part-time job cleaning for a farmer. In return, she got butter, eggs, raw milk and some money.

By 1953, Ted Haskins retired.

Marla Haskins Rogers now lives in a cedar-shingled house in Owls Head and gives talks in the area about her family’s experiences living along the coast. She still visits the Owls Head Lighthouse regularly as a volunteer, where she helps keep the lighthouse tower open for others to crawl into and experience.

Rogers said growing up in lighthouses made her more self-sufficient.

“I’m OK being alone,” she said. “I can be alone for days. Give me a book and I’m happy as a pig in mud.”

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