Originally published in the Historic Nantucket, Vol 39, no. 2 (Summer 1991), p. 20-22
The Gilbreth "Bug-lights"
by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.
I've always wanted to know the history of our two Nantucket bug-lights (light-houses). They're in the yard of our summer house on the extension of Hulbert Avenue, behind the Jetties Beach tennis courts.
So, hoping to get someone else to do the research, I suggested to officials of the Nantucket Historical Association that it might be a good idea to find a volunteer to do an article on them. They agreed—but I should have known better! They found me.
I'm sorry to report that I've discovered very little about the "ancient history" of the bug-lights—except that they were unquestionably built in 1838 and that the first lighthouse keeper was Peleg Easton. I wish I could report more. Maybe some readers can help.
However, since I am somewhat of a Nantucket relic, having been born in 1911 and having been a summer resident since 1921, I can at least throw some light on the more recent history of the lighthouses. Also, along with my almost-too-numerous-to-mention siblings, I'm Nantucket's No. 1 expert on the "development"—and fortunately lack of same—of our little neighborhood, which includes "Mic," "Cyc,"and "Bike."
First, for some solid documentation: I had envisaged pouring through many musty-dusty pages of old newspapers to find out when the "towers"—as we always called them—were built. But, thank goodness, the late and venerable Harry B. Turner, onetime owner and editor of the Inquirer and Mirror, had already done that for me, back about 1918. Bless him!
His Nantucket Argument Settlers says: "Eighteen thirty-eight-the 'bug-light' beacons (were) established ... on Cliff Beach. The first keeper, Peleg Easton."
As for more modem history, a picture in 106 Views of Nantucket, published in 1911 by J.R. Robinson, shows the larger bug-light exactly where it was constructed, near the bottom of what is now designated as Cobblestone Hill, and not far from the intersect! on of Jefferson Avenue and Bathing Beach Road.
I first saw our towers as a ten-year-old boy in 1921, when my father bought a small lot containing a lighthouse keeper's tool house and the smaller bug-light. The deed, in my mother's name and dated July 25, 1921, says the property was acquired from the estate of Ellenwood B. Coleman for (sigh!) $1,840. The deed also says that Ellenwood B. Coleman obtained the property "from the United States" July 31, 1912. So it is plain that the bug-lights hadn't been in use for at least nine years.
The surroundings in 1921 were bleak sand dunes and sharp, pointed beach grass, murderous to a boy's city-tender bare feet. Since there were very few shrubs and no large sand dunes to block the view, we could see the water on a vista of about 180 degrees. The beaches and dunes have built up through the years. I imagine that back in Peleg's day the towers were almost on the water, and this is borne out by Argument Settlers, which says they were built "on" Cliff Beach.
Today we are blessed with sweet-smelling wild roses, lush bayberry bushes, wild sweet peas, tiger lilies, and numerous conifer—thriving cheek by jowl, so to speak, in solid abundance where the naked sand and cruel grass used to be. But even so, how we loved it then! And still do! And always will!
To digress for a story about a Nantucket lady of a couple of generations ago: I had just struck it rich, after graduating from college in 1933, by landing a job on the New York Herald Tribune for $18 a week!
Also, through the years, had been fearful that our magnificent isolation on Nantucket—surrounded by an empty square block (which even now contains only one house besides ours) would soon be ruined by developers.
So I looked up the names of the owners and phoned one of them, who turned out to be the elderly lady. I asked her if the property adjoining ours was for sale.
"No," she said.
Still worried about development, inquired politely ("please ma'am") what she planned to do with the property. (Stupid question.)
"Why," she snorted indignantly as only aged female New Englanders can snort, "keep it!" (Click!)
In 1921, when my father bought our small lot, the larger of the bug-lights was almost due south of the smaller. Their purpose, of course, was directional. When a navigator saw one light above the other, he had a reliable guide in entering the Nantucket channel. There is today on Brant Point a pair of such range finders—only, alas, they resemble something ticky-tacky built with a child's erector set.
When we moved in for our first summer, there was (and still is) a small one-room brick building painted white with a dark-gray slate roof, situated halfway between the towers. There's a similar oilhouse adjacent to many lighthouses, including the one at Brant Point that (horrors!) now has a roof of mahogany colored composition shingles. Neither the little slate-roofed building nor the larger tower was on our newly acquired property.
The only residence near our place was to the northwest, across what eventually became known as Pawguvet Lane. It was a two-story wooden structure that had been built for the lighthouse keeper, but was then owned by Philip R. Whitney, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and his wife Helen, both talented artists. To digress again: Not too many years after we Gilbreths, with eleven children and two servants, expanded the toolhouse and arrived on the scene, the Whitneys were good enough friends of ours to deny this—but, in retrospect, that's probably exactly why they decided to pull up stakes, literally, and move their house to 11 Easton Street.
Regarding the aforementioned Pawguvet Lane, don't make the mistake of thinking it was named for an Indian tribe. Fred Platt lived behind us on the Cliff, in a big house called Seven Doors. Mr. Pratt generously built three Nantucket cottages for two of his daughters and his stepson. The names of the families involved were Gross, Rowland, and Labaree. So what did the three families name the street where two of their new houses were? Well, "Pa gave it," and, thus, Pawguvet. Remember, you read it here first!
At the time we moved into the enlarged toolhouse, our dad also acquired the taller tower. I'm not sure whether the acquisition was part of the original transaction in the form of lagniappe, as they say in New Orleans, or whether he paid a little something extra. It's not in the deed.
In any event, an unforgettable sight for your chronicler, then a deliriously excited, freckle-faced tyke of ten, was that of a group of Nantucket men with a horse and a ship's capstan, moving the larger lighthouse to its current location, close aboard and just abaft our present cottage, The Shoe, built in 1952. We took the name of our house from the original toolhouse cottage that it replaced. Dad named the original place The Shoe to tease Mother, whom he compared to the old lady with more than enough children who resided in one.
The horse that provided the muscle to move the taller tower was blindfolded so that it wouldn't get dizzy as he walked around the capstan. The tower, jacked up and placed on rounded logs, was pulled at the rate of about thirty feet an hour. This was a ticklish job, fraught with considerable danger to all hands and the horse, and was performed bravely and successfully.
My parents, as you may recall if you read the books or saw the movies of Cheaper by the Dozen or Belles on Their Toes (advt.), were pioneers in motion study and scientific management. They introduced into the scientific vocabulary the words "micromotion" and"cyclegraph." Also, two cartoon figures of the day were called Mike and Ike ("They look alike"). So, my father, who dearly loved to name things, called the smaller tower "Mic," and the larger "Cyc." They are so designated now, with signs over the doors. (Subsequently, the brick oilhouse, which didn't belong to us but where we nevertheless stored our bicycles, became, of course, "Bike.")
The Shoe was so small that we used the bug-lights as dormitories. What a thrill to have one's own lighthouse!—although the winds sometimes howled frighteningly at night as they swirled around the rounded structure. And one summer a red-winged blackbird started singing every dawn from a vent at the top of Cyc, and the acoustics, in the hollow cone, sounded like a pipe-organ in full spate. When the summer of 1921 was over and we told our classmates in Montclair, New Jersey, about sleeping in our own lighthouse, they didn't believe us.
So much—and probably way too much for the Gilbreths of early days.
Today the lighthouses are in impeccable condition, although admittedly Cyc is not in situ, as the preservationists like to put it. We have lovingly preserved them, but I can't overstress how well the structures were built and how amazingly sound they are today. In the seventy years we've had them, not a single shingle has needed to be replaced on the sides of either structure.
Admittedly, bug-lights don't have quite the slim silhouette or the romantic connotations of full-fledged lighthouses. And, to our amusement, some "trippers"
have actually inquired as to whether Mic and Cyc are silos! Little do they know, or can they envisage, the hundreds and hundreds of ships' pilots who, for almost three-quarters of a century, welcomed with a prayer of thanksgiving the sight of the two range lights, one above the other, giving them directions to steer safely into our harbor.
But if the bug-lights look a little "stumpy" from the outside, the insides are a delight that few visitors or Nantucketers of this generation have seen. A really stunning, hand-sawn (of course) circular staircase replete with winding handrails, is a genuine work of art; it goes from the first floor all the way to the top of each structure. Some silo! What would we build today in similar structures, steel ladders? At the top floor of each structure there is a built-in cabinet with a brass plate for a lantern, next to the window.
Cyc, the bigger, is about thirty-five feet tall. Despite my advanced years, I climbed to the top of the tower and measured it. Where was Rapunzel when I needed her!
The stairs don't creak, the original plaster is still intact, and structurally the lighthouses are just about as they were when Peleg Easton first climbed the stairs (with whale oil, I assume) carrying a lighted torch (another assumption).
I've added a vestibule to Cyc like the one that used to be on the old Great Point Lighthouse. It contains a tiny kitchen and a bathroom with shower. The downstairs of the lighthouse itself is big enough for a sofabed, small dining room table, bureau, and chairs. There's another bed on the second floor landing. On the third floor, where the light used to be, there are a spectacular view, a desk where I sometimes work, and a large space to hang suits and dresses. All in all, it's a nifty, private guest lighthouse, where those aging but still numerous Gilbreth siblings from "off" are always—well, usually—welcome.
Dan and Jack have their own houses on the island and helped with this article. Sad to relate, Bill, who owned a house in Madaket, died recently, but his family continues to represent us Gilbreths here. Bob, who taught school on Nantucket for several years and at one time owned the Anchor Inn on Centre Street, is a regular visitor to the island. He now lives in New Hampshire and is a member of the State Legislature. The other surviving siblings, whom many Nantucketers and summer visitors may remember, are Ernestine (Carey), Lill (Johnson), Fred and Jane (Heppes). Incidentally, Bob and Jane are real Nantucketers—both born on the island.
I hope all this is not too personal. So if anyone thinks I rate F as a historian, I agree. I guess that, being untrained and eighty years old, I fall into the category of Dr. Johnson's female preachers and dogs who walk on their hind legs. If you recall, the not-too-good and definitely chauvinist doctor observed that, of course, they didn't do the job well, but the wonder was that they did it at all!
And one last thought: My mother, who besides being one of the first women engineers, loved to write poetry. She composed a verse that started: "Oh Nantucket by the sea ...Where my spirit longs to be."
Mine too, Mother.
Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr., is the coauthor of Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes. He has also written numerous other books, including Innside Nantucket and Of Whales and Women. He is a lifetime newspaperman, and retired vice-president and assistant publisher of a Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper.