Papa Was a Lighthouse Keeper

Many of Door County’s best publications are chapbooks, short booklets written as memoirs. Papa Was a Lighthouse Keeper (2004) is one such gem. It tells the story of Chambers Island Lighthouse Keeper Sam O. Hanson (August 3, 1872 – December 15, 1942). Rich in detail of a bygone era, it alludes to the ways a particular man provided for and loved his children in the context of the early twentieth century.

Baptismal record of Samuel Olaus Hanson, signed by Ephraim Moravian Church Pastor J.J. Groenfeldt. It reads in part, “18 August [1872]. Samuel Olaus son of Anders Hanson and Petrine nee Haagesen, born in Ephraim, 3 August 1872.” Photo courtesy of the Ephraim Moravian Church.
Sam Hanson was born on a farm near Ephraim and christened at the Ephraim Moravian Church.  On December 19, 1903, he married Mary Tostenson from Liberty Grove. Together they had four children.

Papa Was a Lighthouse Keeper is told through the eyes of Sam Hanson’s daughter Doris, the mother of author Karen Anderson Henry. At the time of the story, Sam Hanson was working as Chambers Island’s Assistant Keeper. He was appointed in 1909, at age 37. Within five years, Sam’s wife died. Their two sons worked on the mainland during the summer, but the daughters continued to spend summers on Chambers Island. Jens J. Rollefson, head Lighthouse Keeper, helped with the girls. Rollefson, a gruff but caring red-bearded bachelor who had been a teacher in Norway, appears through out the book.

The Door County Democrat reported that Mary Tostenson Hanson had died at the People’s Hospital in Sturgeon Bay on October 30, 1914. Click here to read the article, scroll down to the end of the issue, page 10. “The death of Mrs. Hanson was entirely unexpected, coming like a bolt from a clear sky. She had been operated upon for appendicitis a couple of weeks before and was apparently getting along nicely.” She passed away suddenly, “the cause given as a blood vessel bursting in the head.” Sam Hanson was left to raise four children, the oldest ten and the youngest just three years old.

Organdy is a fine, thin cotton fabric usually having a durable crisp finish. Today, it is mostly used as an underlining in bridal gowns. Photo: Vintage 1950s white organdy dress with embroidered eyeleting. rubylane.com

Just sixty-four pages with large type, Papa Was a Lighthouse Keeper is a perfect “read-aloud” for children, and a good choice for fluent readers, too. It depicts one summer on Chambers Island, as experienced by Doris and her big sister Sadie. Most chapters – Going Fishing, Wash Day, and Passing Ships – have a light and breezy feel.  Doris describes how her father Sam applied cool compresses and taught his girls “how to line their stockings with newspapers to insulate them from the stings of the deer flies.” She remembers catching night crawlers for fishing, and hanging wet towels and clothing on wash day after Sam scrubbed items on the washboard using a “big yellow bar of soap.”  The lighthouse inspector visited Chambers Island, too. Before he arrived, Doris and Sadie polished all the brass fittings. The day the inspector arrived, their father insisted they wear their “Sunday organdy dresses” but had them put the dresses on over checkered gingham dresses they already had on. “Papa didn’t have much fashion sense,” remembered Doris.

Steve Kargas’ book KEEPERS OF THE LIGHTS tells of the Hanson family’s tragedies (pp. 272-274). In 1921, at age 15, Sam’s son Arnold died of a ruptured appendix. A year later, at age 18, son Clifford broke through the ice in April and died of exposure. An historical sign at Eagle Bluff Lighthouse describes how the keeper at Eagle Bluff saw the boy plunge through while walking across the ice from Chambers to Fish Creek, but could not summon help in time. A tree limb had knocked out Eagle Bluff Lighthouse’s telephone line.

A few chapters in Papa Was a Lighthouse Keeper hint at more challenging experiences. Child Labor, for example, introduces Doris’ older brothers, who were hired out after their mother died. Arnold worked for a local man building a tourist business and Clifford at a farm. Father Sam’s reaction to finding one of the boys in difficult circumstances reveals much about his efforts to protect his children as best he could.

In her post note (page 63), author Karen Henry Anderson  writes, “You might think that my mother, Doris would have emotional problems, after living as a foster child, in multiple homes, with many different families … I believe that as difficult as life was for the family, it was the love of her Papa that sustained her throughout her life … She did know that every summer she would be going to be with her Papa, at the sanctuary of the lighthouse. She knew the love of her father.”

Sam O. Hanson is buried in Ellison Bay Cemetery.

Papa Was a Lighthouse Keeper is available at local libraries and at on-line bookstores like Amazon.

Submitted by Kathleen Harris, EHF Educator.

1 thought on “Papa Was a Lighthouse Keeper”

  1. I just ordered two copies for my grandchildren. They might catch their grandmother’s fascination with lighthouses and the lives of those who lived in them.

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