Exhibit, book signing celebrate female lighthouse keeper history

PRESQUE ISLE Michigan once led the country as the state with the greatest number of lighthouses, and they’re still a central part of its mystique and colorful countryside. What even the region’s lighthouse enthusiasts might not know is the rich history of female lighthouse keepers in the area.

The New Presque Isle Lighthouse at 4500 E. Grand Lake Road in Presque Isle currently celebrates this unique facet of maritime history with an exhibit called Ladies of the Lights. The exhibit features stirring stories of dedication and courage about Michigan women who served in the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

In conjunction with this exhibit, which is on display now through July 30, a special author event is planned for Saturday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the lighthouse museum. Patricia Majher, editor of Michigan History magazine, curated the original exhibit and became so intrigued by the subject matter that in 2009 she wrote a book with the same title, “Ladies of the Lights.”

Majher will have copies of her book available for sale and signing on Saturday. She previously served as assistant director of the Michigan Women’s Historical Center and Hall of Fame in Lansing. In addition, Majher has been writing both advertising and editorial copy for almost 30 years and has been a frequent contributor to Michigan newspapers and magazines.

Among those who are recognized in the current exhibit are Mary and Anna Garrity, who share the distinction of being the only mother-daughter keepers in Michigan maritime history. Mary was appointed first assistant keeper of the 1870 Presque Isle Lighthouse in 1871. Her annual salary was $400.

Mary served in that position until it was abolished on Oct. 1, 1882. She not only assisted her husband, lighthouse keeper Patrick Garrity, but also raised six children in the lighthouse. Four of the Garrity children went on to become lighthouse keepers. The family watched over the Presque Isle Lights for 75 years.

Anna’s daughter, Mary, was appointed keeper of the Presque Isle Range Lights on May 1, 1903, when she was only 31 years old. She served before, during and after World War I. From 1923 to 1926 she managed a male assistant, a rare privilege for women at that time.

Anna had not one but two lights to keep burning. She would have to walk from the rear Range Light to the front Range Light on a walkway made of wooden boards. These board would get very slippery when wet. To keep an eye on the front Range Light at night she would sit in a rocking chair on the front porch of the rear Range Light.

Anna’s sister Kate, like Anna, never married. On May 1, 1901, she displayed the first storm warning flags from the 75-foot tower located 500 feet east northeast of the 1870 lighthouse. Kate also had the responsibility of being the housekeeper for her brother, Tom Garrity.

Kate also was the one who went hunting for deer in the fall so that they would have food on the table. Brother and sister retired from service at the 1870 Presque Isle Lighthouse on Feb. 1, 1935.

The exhibit and Saturday’s book signing is sponsored by the Presque Isle Township Museum Society. For more information, call 595-9917.