Burnt Island Living History Tour
Lighthouses have long been beacons of fascination for people in the communities in which they stand, and for visitors. Maine has 65 historic lighthouses, 59 of which are still active, more than any other state in the U.S.
Of all the lighthouses in Maine, only one offers a living history tour – on Burnt Island; it is the only such tour of a lighthouse station on the east coast. The tours began on June 30, 2003, with a script written by Elaine Jones, education director of the Department of Marine Resources and Burnt Island’s keeper since 1998.
Today, as in 2003, child and adult interpreters portray the family members of lighthouse keeper Joseph Muise who served from 1936 to 1951. They portray Joseph, his wife Annie and their three daughters, Adele, Prudy and Ann. After disembarking from the Novelty, the boat that transports tour visitors to the island, everyone gathers on the outdoor benches where a docent, usually Jones, talks about how the tour came about and why she chose the year 1950 for the tour and the time period on which the original restoration of the island was based.
Visitors are then separated into three groups, each beginning the tour at one of the locations – the house, the oil house, boathouse, and the tower where interpreters, who stay in character throughout the tour, share stories about life on the island and the responsibilities each family member had.
At the house, visitors meet Annie/Mama and eldest daughter Adele. On the July 20, 2017 tour, Annie was portrayed by Penny Pollard and Adele by Della Hahn. At the boathouse, there are two visiting cousins, Bill and Linda, played that day by Ronan and Maeve Cullina. At the tower, dressed in uniform, visitors hear Joseph’s background and what his job entailed. Joseph was portrayed by Jack Bauman on this tour.
Not long after walking up the slightly winding path, the tower comes into view, then the house, gardens, and … two little girls dressed in 1950’s attire who are playing croquet.
On July 20, Boothbay Region Elementary School third graders Sophia Mansfield, as Prudy, and Gabby Crowell, as Ann, were making their debut – and were an absolute delight. In fact, all of the children on this tour make quite an impression on visitors, not only due to the volume of dialogue they have memorized, but because they truly become the “characters” they are portraying.
Mansfield and Crowell needed no coaching when it came to conveying sibling competitiveness and teasing. For example, after taking the group to the oil house, the girls get into it by trying to prove which one of them is the biggest scaredy cat. And when the subject turns to being afraid of the water ...
Prudy: “And besides, mama says I have the spirit of the ocean in me cos I was born on a boat.”
Ann - “Oh you love this story. You tell it to everyone you meet.”
Prudy: “That’s because it’s good!” Then turning to the audience begins “You see …”
Ann and Prudy talk about their favorite holiday, living on the mainland, Boothbay Harbor, during the school year and about their father.
If you can take your eyes off these two kids, steal a quick glance around at the others in your group – reactions run from big smiles to dropped jaws. These two girls and their fellow interpreters are truly awesome.
Ann and Prudy will take you up to meet their mother, Annie, who is washing clothes outside the house with an old hand wringer washer. After a few moments, Annie, suspecting everyone isn’t really there to watch her wash clothes, invites them inside the house where her daughter, Adele, is mixing up molasses cookie dough.
The mother and daughter talk about everything from cooking to what it’s like living on an island. There are some fun bits involving paper dolls of 1950s film stars, what the family did for entertainment, sewing, and the communications and office area.
Down at the boathouse, another group of visitors are with the cousins learning about the maintenance needed for the boathouse peapod – the small rowboat used by the family to get back and forth to Boothbay Harbor. “Bill” and “Linda” describe how the boat is cranked up and down the slip into the water and share memories of when their cousin Willard (the Muises’ son), over-greased the rails … Bill starts laughing about it before finishing the story … and so did the tour group.
Keeper Joseph at the lighthouse shares some of his background and how he came to be a lighthouse keeper, anecdotes about the light stations that preceded Burnt Island, facts about the tower, a bit of maritime history and, finally, tells the groups what to expect as they climb stairs, including a spiral staircase, to the lantern room.
After all of the visitors have been to all three tour areas they are welcome to explore the island, participate in a scavenger hunt, or hang out with “the family.” Some of the kids on the tour were learning croquet with Ann and Prudy, or washing clothes with Bill and Linda using the old hand wringer washer.
Two women on the tour from South Paris, Maine, had planned the trip a month in advance. Grace Coulombe said, “The kids are so adorable. Most of the kids I know wouldn’t be comfortable giving presentations like this.”
Christine Buntley of Virginia Beach, Virginia was very much impressed with the experience: “ Oh my word – those kids! Everybody was very informative and they really kept in character – even in the house afterward!”
On the boat ride back to Pier 8, another visitor said, “It’s a lot of fun. And those kids ...”
The tours end with a farewell with Jones where it all began, on the benches, for some fun Burnt Island ghost stories.
The three-hour tours are offered on Mondays and Thursdays in July and August. For more about the Burnt Island Living History Tour, visit www.keepersofburntislandlight.com