By Bob Trapani, Jr.
For many, Thanksgiving is often at, or near the top of the holiday list. A time when we wrap a couple of generations of deep-rooted family love and the ‘ties that bind’ around a dinner table where the great taste of a carefully prepared meal sweetens the memory.
This could be especially true back in the day at a lighthouse when keepers and their families occupied the structures – a time when a simpler life was predicated much more on enjoying family love, friendships, stories and humor to enrich the lives of others.
Harry Spencer, Jr. of Lewes, Delaware, recalls growing up as a teenager at Liston Range Front Light on the Delaware River in the 1930s and how special holidays like Thanksgiving were to his family.
Spencer, who is 89 years young today, notes, “Holidays were always celebrated in some manner, and dad was always very thoughtful about Thanksgiving and the fact that we should give thanks for things like having the family together, a solid roof over our heads and the ability to exist as a family on a lightkeeper’s modest income with six people living in the home.”
The spirit of thanksgiving and the focus on the more important things in life fostered a lasting appreciation for family and friends with Harry, Sr. his wife Sophia and their children, but it was Sophia’s amazing cooking that added the ‘spice of life’ to holiday occasions.
“Not bragging, but I really thought my mother was the best cook as compared to other family members when we would visit them during the holidays,” said Spencer.
As with all finely prepared meals, time and skill are necessary, especially before the days of prepackaged meats, vegetables and desserts.
In the 1930s at a semi-remote lighthouse, one didn’t just go to the store for the fixings and trimmings needed to transform a holiday like Thanksgiving into a feast whose aroma was second only to its delightful taste.
It took days, weeks and even months of preparation to ensure that all the staples were to the family’s liking, starting with the centerpiece of any Thanksgiving meal – the turkey.
For Harry, Jr. and his sisters, helping feed and take care of the livestock, which included chickens, turkeys, pigs – and even pheasant one year, might have been a less-than-fun household chore, but it also was a vital investment of time into helping to make sure there was always enough food on the table year-round.
“We raised our own turkeys; normally four to six at time,” said Spencer, “and naturally one of those became the centerpiece for the dining room table at Thanksgiving. Prior to electricity being introduced to the lighthouse, the turkey was cooked in mom’s cast iron stove, which was heated by coal.”
Incidentally, the coal stove served as the only heat source for the lighthouse, with a flue pipe providing what little heat made it up to the second level of the building where the bedrooms were.
“We also raised our own potatoes and any other vegetable we had for dinner, and there was ample supplies of everything. My mother canned many of the vegetables we grew at the light station, which were then readily available from the cold storage room in the basement on holidays and throughout the year.”
“The biscuit dough was prepared the night before, but never cooked until dinnertime, and of course you couldn’t have a Thanksgiving dinner without the pumpkin, which we also raised in the rather over-sized garden that my father maintained.”
“Speaking of pumpkins, we would go to the farmer nearby and collect some corn stalks, and along with some extra pumpkins we had, decorate the porch of the lighthouse.”
The preparation of meals and the subsequent cleanup that followed after dinner was accomplished with a team effort. The Spencer children were tasked with certain responsibilities and were expected to carry them out regardless of whether it was a holiday or not.
Spencer recalls, “I had two sisters at home during my teenage years at the light station, and of course, they were a great help to mom in preparing the meal, but primarily the cleanup detail.”
“As a youngster, I was tasked with disposing of the garbage. I would place some out for the chickens, and the rest I would dig a hole and bury it in the garden.”
Liston Range Front Light is a beautiful structure built in the traditional, central hall-type, Victorian foursquare, and lavishly adorned with chestnut woodwork throughout the home, which no doubt added a unique architectural and festive touch for visitors to the lighthouse during the holidays.
The building’s four rooms on the first floor – kitchen, dining room, living room and keeper’s office, were perfect for milling around with friends and family, and three of the four rooms offered an unspoiled view of the Delaware River in the 1930s.
“After dinner there was a gathering of the family present in the living room,” said Spencer, “which was when the usual conversations covering a variety of topics existed, and of course, many compliments as well to my mom for the delicious dinner she had prepared.”
“Generally speaking, besides the family living at Liston Range Front Light, there was also usually one or more of mother’s sisters in attendance, and depending on their schedules, my other two sisters who were not living at home at that time.”
Spencer went on to note, “My one sister, Laura, was very good at the piano, and during the time after dinner, she would play the piano, and also initiated the need for everyone to join in the singing. If you didn’t know the words to a song, you just hummed along.”
No matter how much joy and fun a holiday like Thanksgiving would bring to the Spencer family and their friends, keeper Harry, Sr., always kept an eye on the clock, for as the sun would begin its evening descent in the sky, he knew it would soon be time to make sure the light’s beacon was beaming bright.
Ships traversing the Delaware River relied heavily (and still do to this day) on the lights of the Liston Range, which is the longest navigable range in the United States, spanning nearly 20 nautical miles from just above Ship John Shoal Lighthouse in Delaware Bay to Liston Point on the river.
“Of course the purpose of the lighthouse was to serve as an aid to navigation for ships traveling the Delaware River and Bay,” said Spencer, “so that responsibility was very essential. Regardless if it was a holiday, the duty was handled fully as it was on any other day.”
“As Dad would say, ‘first things first.’”
So just before sunset, keeper Spencer, who was often accompanied by his son Harry, Jr., would take a break from the fun happening on the first floor of the lighthouse and make the trip up to the sentinel’s lantern, which shone a light down river 50 feet above the water.
“Prior to the electrification of the station, it took some time to place the light in ready operation,” said Spencer. “Since the early days of my young life, I remember we had to carry kerosene to the lantern room.”
As keeper Spencer would prepare the light for operation, his son would pull up a small stool at the foot of the base, which supported the fourth order Fresnel range lens and begin winding the beacon’s clockworks.
“I would wind the weights of the clockwork mechanism to the top,” recalls Spencer, “which were required to operate the Venetian blind-type shutters that were situated in front of the Fresnel lens. The shutters, by using an opening and closing motion, provided the ‘flashing’ characteristic for the range front light. The range rear light, which was some three miles in distance behind the front light, was a fixed beacon.”
Once the nightly preparations were carried out and keeper Spencer was satisfied with the brilliance of his light, the keeper and his son would depart the lantern on the fourth level of the lighthouse and rejoin family and friends celebrating the holiday on the first floor.
Though Harry, Jr. spent his first 22 years living in a lighthouse, having been born at Liston Range Rear Light in 1920 while his dad was keeper at that station, it was his teenage years where the memories of growing up at a lighthouse are most vivid.
In looking back on holidays like Thanksgiving at Liston Range Front Light, Spencer sums the experience up by saying, “I believe our blessings were the visits by members of the family, and the joy of sharing those times together with our family and friends.”
As it was during the Spencer’s time at Liston Range Front Light during the 1930s, Thanksgiving is a time to reflect upon, appreciate and be thankful for those special people in our lives.
In light of this, the words of keeper Harry Spencer, Sr. should still ring true for all of us today when it comes to our family and friends – “First things first.”
Happy Thanksgiving and keep the lights shining!
Posted: November 2009