Keepers of the Light

In the summer of 2005, Mom and I took a trip to Michigan. I had never been there before, and we wanted to check out the many lighthouses on the Great Lakes. One of our favorite stops was the Little Sable Light, situated on an isolated sandy beach near Mears. The lighthouse is made of reddish brick and stands 107 feet tall on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. As always, I was interested both in the light itself and in imagining what life for the lighthouse keepers was like, but had no reason to suspect I would one day find a personal connection.

Several years later, researching census records of our Wilson ancestors, I made an unexpected discovery. Hiram James Willson, born in Massena, New York, between 1836 and 1837, was the first cousin twice removed of Carl Ozro Wilson. Sometime between 1850 and 1867 Hiram moved from New York to Michigan, as did a number of Willson relatives. In the 1850 census Hiram can still be found in Louisville, New York, but in 1867 his daughter Gertrude was born in Michigan.

By 1900 Hiram had died, and Gertrude was not found in the census record of her widowed mother, Jennie (Vernon) Willson. Searching more widely, however, I was able to locate her; though Gertrude had married and therefore changed her last name, her birth year and birthdate were correct, as were the birthplaces of her parents. Once Gertrude had been identified, further details became evident. She had married Joseph Arthur Hunter (born March 1857) about 1887, and had given birth to Herbert H. in June 1888 and Pearl G. in July 1890.  Joseph’s occupation in the census record is shown as “lighthouse keeper,” with the family living in Golden Township, Oceana County. A quick Internet search determined that the lighthouse in Oceana County is in fact the Little Sable Light, and further research revealed a listing of the keepers of Little Sable, which includes not only Joseph Hunter but, for a few shorts weeks in 1910, “Mrs. H. G. [Gertrude Helen] Hunter.” 

All in all, it appears that the Hunters were involved with the Little Sable light from 1890-1922, when Joseph retired.  Joseph’s journals from 1916-1922 have been published as well, so (as soon as my copy arrives!) I may have an even fuller understanding of what life at Little Sable was like.

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2 responses to “Keepers of the Light

  1. We never know, do we, what we may find at a later date to make our travel wanderings even more interesting! Just think, you might have been standing right in the middle of the living quarters or your ancestor in the picture we have!! Have you located any interesting Florida connections?

  2. Found your family tree on Ancestry and followed it here. I’m awfully sure we are related (Willson). I descend from Emiline Willson b 6 Aug 1821 Long Sault Island, Massena, St. Lawrence Co., NY. Emiline’s children: Clarindna, Alfred Wilson, Emily M., William H., Hiram H. (my great great grandfather), John A., Allen Dana, Ella “Alice”, Martha, and Sorena G. “Irena”. Same names…..

    I would love to find more about the family and here’s hoping you check you blog frequently. Love your website!

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