Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2017

Lighthouse Keeper Nathan Reed and His Wife Raised 16 Children on Island Lighthouses

By Timothy Harrison

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Lighthouse Keeper Capt. Nathan Adam Reed. (Photo ...

“I don’t think that it would hurt anyone to live on an island. Out on an island you get away from the hustle and bustle. You are not trying to keep up with the rest of the world, which is going too fast.” So said Dalton Reed in a 1978 interview with high school student Robyn Haas of Ellsworth, Maine. If Dalton Reed were around today, 38 years after this interview, he probably would not like today’s hustle and bustle. And, even more importantly, he would have a sad heart, seeing the destruction of so many buildings at the island lighthouses where his father Capt. Nathan A. Reed had once raised a large family and served his country so faithfully.

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Great Duck Island Lighthouse Station as it ...

Dalton Reed was one of the sixteen children of Emma and Nathan Adam Reed, who served at Maine’s Great Duck Island Lighthouse as the 2nd assistant keeper from 1902 to 1909, and then as 1st assistant keeper from 1909 to December of 1911 when he was transferred to become the head keeper at Nash Island Lighthouse off the coast of Addison, Maine.

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Lighthouse keeper Capt. Nathan Adam Reed on the ...

Nathan A Reed, who was born on September 25, 1857 in West Tremont, Maine, was no stranger to the sea. He was just a young boy when he secured his first job on ship, something that was quite common in those days. He learned fast, and by the age of 19 he had was officially a captain. Well known around the area, he kept getting better offers and commanded the schooners Abraham Richardson, Montezuma, Union, Lavinia Bell, and the C.B. Clark.

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The assistant keeper’s house at Maine’s Great ...

At the age of 18, before he got his first captain’s job, Nathan A. Reed met and married 17-year-old Emma Almira Mitchell, and within a year the couple had their first child. Fifteen more children would be born to the couple over the next 24 years.

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Vintage aerial image of Great Duck Island. Beyond ...

By 1902, Capt. Reed decided that he was spending too much time away from his growing family and applied for a job with the United States Lighthouse Service. He got the exact job that he had wanted, being appointed as a 2nd assistant keeper at Great Duck Island Lighthouse, which could be seen from the shore of the family home in Tremont.

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Capt. Nathan A. Reed hauling the boat up to the ...

Naturally, the Reed children thought this would be more of an adventure than a move. But the move to the island dramatically changed their lives. However, Capt. and Mrs. Reed were not about to take their children to the mainland every day for school. Getting on and off the island, even in good weather, could often be a challenge. When the Reeds arrived at Great Duck Island, the head keeper was William F. Stanley and the 1st assistant keeper was Joseph M. Gray.

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The boat ramp at Great Duck Island Lighthouse as ...

The New School

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Assistant lighthouse keeper Nathan A. Reed and ...

Because of Reed’s large family and four other children who were living on the island, Capt. Reed insisted that the State of Maine provide for a formal education for the children on the island. An old storage building was remodeled and turned into a schoolhouse. To keep it warm, a wood burning pot-belly stove was installed. Nathan Reed’s son, Dalton Reed, recalled that it was just like any other one-room schoolhouse that could be found in many small communities. “We had desks, chairs, and blackboards.”

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Some of the children of Nathan and Emma Reed in ...

Dalton Reed recalled how he and his brother were the school janitors, and they were required to keep the schoolhouse clean. It was also Dalton’s job to get to the schoolhouse early and start the fire to warm the place up.

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At what appears to be a family cook-out at Great ...

Two of the teachers who boarded with them for two terms were Maude Morse and Violet Golf. At one time there were 18 kids being taught, until some of them finished school. Rena Reed, the 6th of the Reed children, graduated from the Eastern Maine Normal School and returned home to Great Duck Island Lighthouse with her teacher’s license to officially teach school for her siblings and other island children.

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Rena Reed, 6th of the Reed children at Great Duck ...

Life at the Light

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The old fog horns at Great Duck Island Lighthouse ...

The Reed family lived in one of the three large keepers’ homes that once stood on the island, a home that always had to be spotless in case of a surprise visit by the lighthouse inspector. This was a project that must have been very difficult with 16 children and even more difficult when the teachers boarded with them.

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The three homes at Great Duck Island Lighthouse: ...

But Dalton Reed said that the teachers would often spend the evening playing checkers with him, and he loved to play checkers, especially in the cold winter evenings when the sun set early and the snow would blow and wind would howl. Naturally there was also a large selection of other board games. In the early days there wasn’t even a radio at the light station. But the family did have an old photograph which got plenty of use. And then there was the pump organ that Nathan Reed had somehow gotten out to the island. Keeper Reed would often play the organ and the girls would sing songs from their selection of sheet music. Amazingly, that pump organ and old phonograph are still in the possession of family members.

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Great Duck Island Light Station as it appears ...
Photo by: D. W. Smith

Living on the island in the summer months was fairly easy. The children kept busy with an entire island as their playground, and there were the frequent visits by relatives and local fishermen. However, the girls often had to do most of the house work. Mildred Reed, the 10th child, recalled doing the laundry, cooking, needlework, and cleaning. However, the arrival of lighthouse tender with supplies and the travelling library always created a certain amount of excitement.

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The spiral staircase in the light tower at Great ...

A Near Drowning

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Nash Island Lighthouse where Capt. Nathan Reed ...

Mildred Reed recalled the time that her brother Edmund, who couldn’t swim, fell off a boat into the water. Capt. Reed immediately jumped into the icy water to save the boy, which was quite remarkable in itself, because Capt. Reed also did not know how to swim. Mildred Reed’s granddaughter, Nancy Wilmot, wrote in later years that Mildred never forgot that they discovered that a patch of clothing over her father’s heart was still dry under his coat. Apparently Capt. Reed had gotten the boy out of the water so fast that he never got completely wet.

The Ghosts Were Real

Dalton Reed recalled one scary experience when he and his brother we playing hide and seek in the darkened kitchen on a blustery cold, windy, and snowy winter night, when they suddenly heard strange noises outside. He said, “We went to the window and looked out and saw these white forms moving on government property near the wooden fence. I tell you, we struck out quick. We told our father that something white was coming through the gate and they were making an awful noise. About the time our father got to the door, those ghosts rapped at the door. “

It turns out that it was two fishermen whose boat had broken down and they had rowed to shore in a small boat. The men were covered head to toe with ice from the blowing spray. The noise that the boys had originally heard was the fishermen walking with frozen oil skins. The men stayed with them for two days until the weather cleared when someone came out looking for them and took them home.

Food

The family always had plenty of food. The government supplied some, but it was not nearly enough for the large family. Capt. Reed would purchase 12 to 14 barrels of flour every fall; they were hauled out to the island and stored in the basement of the assistant keeper’s house. It was usually enough to get them through the winter months. Capt. Reed also stocked up on crackers, cereal, and molasses for the large family. Dalton Reed said that meat was a rarity, but they always ate plenty of fresh fish and lobster.

Christmas

Christmastime was always a special time for the Reed family, especially with so many children. They always had a fresh cut Christmas tree that was decorated with hand-made ornaments and popcorn strung together with string. One year Dalton got a jack knife which became his prized possession. Another time one of the other keepers gave the boys toy boats. But most of the time the children received candy, apples, and a few presents, mostly clothing, and “we would be satisfied, not the same things that kids expect today.”

Mother Did It All

Dalton Reed said that his mother seemed to know everything and did it all. She was the family seamstress, laundry person, cook, confidant, and family doctor. In fact, none of the children ever saw a doctor; Mrs. Reed had her own remedies for every ailment.

Changes and the End

As the children grew older and some had started to move out on their own, Capt. Nathan Reed applied for and received a promotion. In December of 1911 he became the head keeper at the Nash Island Lighthouse off the coast of South Addison, Maine. Nash Island Lighthouse was a much smaller light station than Great Duck Island, and there would not be any assistants to help him. But he had his wife and family members, and the keeper’s house was a decent size. However, they were not at Nash Island very long.

Three months after their arrival at Nash Island lighthouse, Nathan Reed became ill and was forced to leave the island. He died a short time thereafter, at the young age of 55, and thus ended his short but very active ten year career in the United States Lighthouse Service. He was buried in the Hillrest Cemetery in West Tremont, Maine, a community where his wife and family continued to live.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2017 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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