Record Crowd Hears About Nash Island, Jenny Cirone

By Terry Hussey

A more than capacity crowd turned out at the Milbridge Museum on July 10 to hear Dick Miles of the Friends of Nash Island Lighthouse tell about the history of the light. Miles also showed the video produced by his organization that tells of the life of Jenny Cirone of Addison who grew up on the island, which is located off of Addison and Harrington at the entrance to Pleasant Bay.

Miles said that in the 1830's the waters off Harrington and Addision were a busy highway of ship traffic. Small towns Downeast depended upon the frequent arrival of ships to bring them merchandise and to take their lumber and granite to markets such as Portland and Boston.

He said that in 1837, the United States government purchased four acres of land on Little Nash Island for the purpose of constructing a lighthouse. There was also a keeper's house and barn. It was a wooden tower, which was replaced in 1873 with the current brick structure. At the time of the renovation, it was a state of the art facility, with a fourth order Fresnel lens from France. The tower is 30 feet high, placing the light at 51 feet above sea level. In 1887, a fog bell was added, with a bell house to protect it. The light was automated in 1958, and then it was replaced by an electronic signal off the island. At this time, the Coast Guard was going to blow it up, rather than have it gradually decay and fall down. Wiser heads prevailed, and in the mid 1990's the Maine Lighthouse Commission offered various lighthouses to civic organizations that were qualified to preserve and take care of them.

Saving the Light

The Friends of Nash Island Light incorporated in 1996 as a non-profit organization, and in 1997 they were awarded the light. Miles said that in 1998, the organization began the process of restoring the building. A mason by trade, Miles did much of the work on the tower. "Every year there's more to do," he said. The light must be painted at least every other year.

"We found a window blown out of the tower this spring," he said. "It appeared that, in a winter storm, the sea had crashed over the island and just exploded the window out of the tower."

Funding to preserve the light comes from donations and fund raising efforts, such as the Jenny Cirone first came to Nash Island in January of 1916 at the age of four. She clearly remembers riding out to the island the first time. "We were all seasick," she said. The daughter of John and Ellen Purington, Jenny had one older sister, Mary, and eventually seven brothers. Her father had first worked on one of the lighthouse tender boats, and later served as an assistant keeper at Egg Rock, Great Duck, and Mark Island, before coming to Nash at the head light keeper. He stayed in this position for 19 years, until his retirement in 1935. He raised his family on the island, a childhood that was to mark each of his children indelibly.

"Don't look for your golden years [in old age]" said Jenny. "These were our golden years." Life on the island was an endless stream of adventures, and the Purington children enjoyed every day of it. "We wasn't no angels, I can tell you that," she said. If it was a stream of adventures, it was also surely a steady stream of hard work. The children helped with all of the chores. The light had to be tended, wound, and polished daily. "Didn't I hate that brass cleaning," she said.

The fog bell had to be manually wound every five hours, around the clock. That meant that in bad weather, someone had to get up in the middle of the night to wind the bell. "There was always something to do," said Jenny. "We had to white wash the tower, the barn, and the bell house." In the film, Jenny explains that a bosun's chair was used to paint the tower. "That's just a plank of wood and 2 pairs of ropes," she said. Her father would hoist her up to the top to scrape off the old paint before beginning to apply the new. "I was scared to death," she said. "My father asked me why I didn't get to work and I said, 'I can't. My hands won't let go.'"

Plenty to eat and plenty to do

"We were never looking for food," she said. They had a cow and raised chickens and turkeys. Jenny and her sister each tended 70 lobster traps. In the boat, they "speared big, beautiful, flounder." Jenny related how her father, with two shots, had felled 42 ducks one time. She said they plucked them and cleaned them and put them in an old washtub to freeze. "When we wanted one, we just chipped one out of the ice."

Jenny said that the house was battered by storms, and sometimes they were all quite scared. One time she remembers having to go out into the storm to nail the cellar door shut because the wind was blowing so hard it was blowing the carpet off the floor.

"We played with the sheep as far back as I can remember," said Jenny. The children hitched them up and rode them like horses. The Coast Guard Cutter would leave them seven tons of coal to heat the house and oil for light, and it was their problem to get them from the boat ramp to the house. "We used the sheep to haul coal and lumber to the house," she said

Island Life Today

Today, at age 89, Jenny still tends the sheep on her island, according to Miles. She has gradually been able to buy up all the land that doesn't belong to the government on Big and Little Nash Islands. Her flock of 139 produced 80 little lambs last year, with the help of just one ram.

There is no shelter for the sheep and no water, and still they thrive on the island. They develop thick lustrous coats, full of lanolin. The wool from the sheep is especially prized by spinners, because the fibers are so long and clean.

Each spring Jenny and a few neighbors go out to the island to assist the ewes who are lambing. About a month later, in June, they go back to shear the sheep. The shearing is a real community day, with many young people helping her with the work. It all ends with a grand feast over the dinner table together.

In the film, Jenny tells that in 1947, the government came out to burn the keeper's house down. The light had been automated, and there was no longer a need for a keeper on the island. They set the fires, with no plan to put them out. When Jenny found out about it, she was outraged. She was afraid they would burn up her precious pastureland. She got on the phone and didn't stop calling until she found someone who would listen to her and help with the fires. The Coast Guard ultimately sent three fireboats, and it took three days for them to get the fires out.

Life in a lighthouse-keeping family is a lost tradition, as there are no longer any manned lighthouses in this country. This video preserves an authentic record of this way of life. The film is beautifully made, blending old photos from Jenny's past with beautiful scenes of the island today. The narrative is Jenny's own voice, telling of her golden years on the island. It is a treasure, preserving a vivid snapshot of an island way of living nearly a century ago.