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The lives of lighthouse keepers in Door County

Amanda Magnus

Wisconsin Public Radio

When Ed Miller retired from a 33-year career as an electrical engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, he was eager to return to his roots.

That’s what led the Milwaukee native to settle on 110 acres in Door County's Baileys Harbor. It was the same area where his great-grandfather had farmed in the 1860s. In his new home, Miller rediscovered a childhood interest: Lighthouses.

While growing up on Milwaukee’s east side, he and his friends would ride their bikes to Lake Park, where Miller was fascinated by the North Point Lighthouse.

"It was really impressive and little did I know then that lighthouses would become a big part of my life," Miller wrote in an email. "I never would have thought I would be a lighthouse keeper."

But, he is. Miller is a reenactor who portrays the daily lives of two lighthouse keepers in Door County.  He acts out the lives of Henry Gattie at the Baileys Harbor Range Lights and William Duclon at Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in Peninsula State Park in Door County. He’s also the chair of The Ridges Lighthouse Committee.

Lighthouse keepers are often portrayed as solitary people, living alone on an island with a giant beacon to maintain. But in Door County, they were historically an integral part of the community, partially because of the small distance between towns in the area.

One of the men Miller portrays at functions and for tours, Henry Gattie, served from 1896 to 1923, a total of 27 years, which was as long as all the previous keepers' years of service combined, according to Miller. 

The primary responsibility of the keepers was to keep the light burning all night long. They were also responsible for cleaning the windows and keeping the lens of the lights shining.

"They were very active social places, very much unlike a keeper that would have lived out on an island, people visited all the time," Miller said.

A few years ago, Miller coordinated a full restoration at the lower range light at the Baileys Harbor Range Lights. He thought it would be fun to have someone appear in a uniform for the Lighthouse Service, so he got a reproduction of a United States Lighthouse Service uniform and took on the gig himself.

The Coast Guard decommissioned the lights at the Baileys Harbor Range Lights in 1969. A few years ago, after the restoration of the lower range lights, Miller asked the Coast Guard if they could keep the lights on all the time. The Coast Guard told them they could be a private aid to navigation and The Ridges Lighthouse Committee has kept the light on ever since.

They’re back on the lighthouse list in the navigation charts and the legacy of the men Miller portrays lives on.

"People still tend to use those lighthouses, to know where they are," he said.

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