Thanksgiving at The Rock
I was thinking how very different Thanksgiving 2020 feels compared to holidays in years gone by, and how – in some strange way, it mirrors aspects of many a Thanksgiving Day at offshore lighthouses like Matinicus Rock from a century ago.
Circumstances are different, but the challenges confronted by those who tended the far-flung lights spawned relatable physical and emotional hurdles. Instead of coping with the need to prevent the further spread of a virus by limiting the size of gatherings or deciding it is better to celebrate with family and friends virtually, yesteryear’s offshore lighthouse families were forced to cope with undeniable factors that posed a similar sense of isolation – and even disappointment.
The reasons were many, and included the fact that loved ones and friends often times could not be in attendance for the holidays due to being land-locked by family, career, schooling and medical health obligations. And of course, ever-changing weather conditions and the vagaries of the sea played no small part in all of this. No family plan – regardless of its extent and depth, could stand up to the sea when the deep was running unabated.
Before we draw on some parallels between the challenges of yesteryear and today, what do you say we take a quick walk down lighthouse memory lane some one hundred years ago?
At Matinicus Rock Light Station in the 1920s, the desired celebrations by the lighthouse families on Thanksgiving Day were regularly dealt a number of obstacles that could not be removed, no matter the effort, and yet the festivities seemed to always shine bright through it all.
Matinicus Rock – part of the Matinicus Isle Plantation, is a rugged 32-acre island in the Gulf of Maine that is subject to the unbridled fury of fierce storms each year. The 1891 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board paints a forsaken image of the island. According to the report, “There is neither tree nor shrub, and hardly a blade of grass on the rock. The surface is rough and irregular and resembles a confused pile of loose stone. Portions of the rock are frequently swept over by waves which move the huge boulders into new positions.”
The Rock, as it is affectionately referred to by many over the years, is located 23 miles southeast of Rockland. Matinicus Island is the closet inhabited island, which is about five miles northwest of Matinicus Rock. During the days when the light station was staffed, keepers and family members would journey over to Matinicus Island for supplies and their mail. However, there were many times – especially during the winter, when it was not possible to reach the nearby island due to wind and rough seas.
In looking back through history, Matinicus Rock Light Station’s Head Keeper Frank O. Hilt and his wife Adora Hilt appear to have served as the chief correspondents to the Rockland Courier-Gazette during the 1920s. The couple (and others) would send periodic letters with updates from The Rock, which very much interested those on the mainland.
A recap of Thanksgiving was almost always included in one of the post-holiday letters, though as one might expect, mention of challenges were interspersed amidst the celebratory recollections. For instance, in 1920, the days leading up to Thanksgiving Day no doubt contained a bit of anxiety for the small group who occupied this windswept outpost.
On Tuesday, November 23, 1920, a severe storm swept over Matinicus Rock, sending sea spray completely over the top of the lighthouse – some 90-plus feet above sea level. In addition, assistant keeper Arthur J. Beal was not feeling well during this time, “suffering from a severe attack of rheumatism” as it was recorded.
According to a letter that appeared in the November 30, 1920 edition of the Rockland Courier-Gazette, “The Rock people had their Thanksgiving dinner with Keeper Hilt and the evening was enjoyably spent in playing pool.”
Speaking of playing pool, one can only imagine how tough it must have been to safely land a pool table (purchased by Keeper Hilt) at a place like Matinicus Rock, but that is exactly what the keepers accomplished. Where there is a will, there is way! Correspondence noted that the pool table “Adds greatly to the pleasures of The Rock, as there are some crack players here.”
Thanksgiving Day on November 24, 1921 featured an intense snowstorm that raged on throughout the day and into the evening at Matinicus Rock. However, the weather did not prevent the hardy lighthouse families from carrying out their duties and still finding time to celebrate the holiday in fine fashion.
Evidently, the entire month of November this year posed challenges to the keepers when it came to picking up their mail and supplies at Matinicus Island. It was noted that only a few trips were able to be made during the month. Imagine trying to plan a big dinner without knowing whether the necessary (or available) items could be obtained?
In The Rock’s December 3, 1921 letter to the Rockland Courier-Gazette, the correspondent stated, “Thanksgiving Day, the large family met with Keeper and Mrs. A. J. Beal and enjoyed a dinner consisting of native fowl, and all the fixings and pies. There was enough for all to partake of a lunch in the evening by adding ice cream. Not bad considering there are 14 in this family, but Arthur says he wouldn’t want to feed them every day.”
The “native fowl” referred to was something other than turkey, for on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Keeper Hilt was able to get over to Matinicus Island for the station’s mail, and upon his return; he presented a boxed surprise to the group. According to the letter, “When opened it disclosed a turkey, never too late for the Rock.” It was further noted, “Sunday the family gathered for another feed. It had been a few years (since the last turkey dinner). Guess the fellow that sent the bird didn’t know it would be such a treat. All join in thanking him and asking, ‘Why didn’t he come along with the gift?’ We certainly enjoy company.”
Two years later in 1923, the weather once again proved menacing for the occupants on Matinicus Rock. For a period of nearly two weeks from November 21 through December 2, everyone at the light station must have felt like a prisoner – for they were unable to launch a boat from the slip this entire time due to rough seas.
Thanksgiving Day fell on November 29 in 1923, so if holiday staples had not been obtained well in advance, the lighthouse families had no choice but to do without. And as it turned out, the dinner was indeed devoid of some of the most important items and trimmings.
In a letter printed in the December 6, 1923 edition of the Rockland Courier-Gazette, The Rock’s correspondent posed the following question:
“Did any of you ever get storm-bound on a Rock for one or two or even three weeks at a time and then some morning awaken to find the sea gone and the water quiet, if not, you can’t understand the happiness coming to those living the life. Not half is ever told.”
Despite missing key staples for the dinner, you would have never known it based on the statements contained within the recap of festivities. The spirited letter noted that the children enjoyed the Thanksgiving holiday and that on “Thanksgiving Day the family got together for a jolly good time – feasting, singing and being alive for the occasion.”
The correspondence concluded, stating, “In the evening came a real party celebrating two birthdays that were near at hand – those of Mrs. A. J. Sevens and Miss Mary S. Peabody. Lunch was served and then the ladies pushed away their chairs and sat down on the floor while the girls received gifts and greetings. The tables for dinner and lunch were well laden with good things and a glance would never tell that the cooks were out of some of the most important stores.”
The week of Thanksgiving in 1925 was not met with a snowstorm, but rather a surprising sudden change in temperatures for those dwelling far out at sea on Matinicus Rock. A bone-chilling air mass moved in over the Gulf of Maine on Monday, November 23, 1925, which caused Arctic sea smoke to dance upon the warmer waters – something the light station residents were not expecting.
Recollections of Thanksgiving Day appeared in a letter to the Rockland Courier-Gazette on December 8, 1925. According to the letter, “Thanksgiving we were all present at roll call when Mrs. Hilt sounded the gong at 12 sharp, and all gathered around the dining table loaded down with goodies prepared by the housewives. Quite needless to say it was a jolly party for the remainder of the day and evening. Everyone joined in playing games and the phonograph wasn’t idle.”
During the following year in 1926, more cold weather settled in over The Rock by the end of Thanksgiving week. Correspondence at the time noted, “Jack Frost appeared on the windows…and there was ice in our little ponds.”
As for the holiday itself a couple of days earlier, temperatures were not yet quite at the freezing point, and thankfully for those at the light station, the air waves were perfect for radio reception, which proved to be an important aspect from an entertainment perspective on this Thanksgiving Day.
A December 2, 1926 letter to the Rockland Courier-Gazette stated, “Thanksgiving Day was a little cooler but not cold enough to freeze. We hardly ever miss getting ice enough to enable us having ice cream for this occasion. The picnic dinner was a great success. Places were laid for 12. The get-together this year was with the Hilt family. The dinner gong was sounded at 12 sharp, and the feast was on. The afternoon was pleasantly spent and at 5:30 supper was served. Radio music came in strong at this time and with O’Leary’s Minstrels made the event jolly.”
As always, Thanksgiving Day at Matinicus Rock in 1927 contained the same exuberant spirit for the holiday – just a little less in volume. During most holidays, there was anywhere between twelve to fifteen people in the group that comprised the keepers and their family members. This year, only seven people were on hand to take part in the festivities.
Despite the unusually small group, Adora Hilt did not spare any effort to make this day special for those Rock-bound. In a December 1, 1927 letter published in the Rockland Courier-Gazette, the correspondent recalled, “There were the usual smiling faces, everyone appearing happy and thankful – and why not, with a feast set before us. A real chicken dinner with all the trimmings. We just plunged in but there was enough and to spare, and as usual supper was served afterwards.”
Even though it was disappointing for those on Matinicus Rock to have only seven people in attendance for Thanksgiving Day, the small crowd chose to look at the bright side by stating the following: “Better days are coming. We are counting on more for December 25 – the next big day.”
The Thanksgiving holiday in 1928 would be the last one celebrated by head Keeper Frank O. Hilt, his wife Adora and their son Willard at Matinicus Rock. The following summer in 1929 saw the Hilt family accept a transfer to the much more desirable Portland Head Light on the mainland.
It was not noted whether the Hilt family and the other lighthouse families serving with them had foreknowledge of the upcoming transfer, but one gets a sense there may possibly have been an inkling amidst the group. For words like “celebrated to full extent” and “every detail was taken in by the whole crew” were used in a recap of events. Regardless, it is safe to say that their last Thanksgiving together as a group was fully absorbed and memorable.
In a letter published on December 4, 1928 in the Rockland Courier-Gazette, the correspondent wrote, “Thanksgiving Day was celebrated to full extent with Mrs. F.O. Hilt and Mrs. A.J. Beal as hostesses. When the curtain went up the scene was laid in the dining room at the home of Mrs. Hilt and the picture was great, grand and good – all one could wish at this festive season.”
The letter went on to say, “Every detail was taken in by the whole crew aboard the Rock, and by the way, just at present we are short-handed for a few days. At the noon hour the music started with a Forks Trot and for an hour both music and picture continued, then grew faint and fainter and finally drifted away and the curtain closed on another memorable occasion.”
As I ponder the aforementioned memories of Thanksgiving Day at Matinicus Rock, it becomes apparent that those who came before us would indeed have had a sense of what we are all coping with during the 2020 Thanksgiving holiday. Maybe even more than we can imagine when you consider that the Spanish Flu was wreaking havoc around the world just a few years earlier in 1918.
Our “stay at home” recommendations in place today are similar in many ways to a keeper’s bygone responsibility, where – under no circumstances, was he or she to leave their light unattended. This naturally meant that offshore keepers and their immediate families living with them were forced into accepting a sense of profound isolation during the holidays – and at a time of year when it is more keenly felt. Admittedly, this requirement was in the line of duty rather than for a public health emergency, but conceptually, there are many parallels for us to draw upon.
One of those parallels is smaller groups making sure those around them enjoy a festive and joyous holiday regardless of the size of their gathering. Another is found in the positive attitude of the keepers and their families. They worked hard to encourage each other and stayed buoyed by the notion that no storm, lack of traditional holiday staples or inability to leave their light station was going to dampen their merriment.
Was it easy? Unfortunately, no. Did some need the support of others? Yes, absolutely. But that is what family and friends do – stick together and help each other through less than desirable circumstances. I love what the lighthouse families of Matinicus Rock Light said during the set of challenges they faced together in 1927 – “Better days are coming.”
I would like to leave all of you with those words – and an extra helping of heartfelt Happy Thanksgiving wishes!