Life as a Docent at Wisconsin's Pottawatomie Lighthouse: A First Hand Account
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Life as a Docent at Wisconsin's Pottawatomie Lighthouse: A First Hand Account

Melanie Donnelly and four girl friend-daughters of the South decided to lend their Charleston South Carolina, historic district docent-guide experience to the Pottawatomie Lighthouse on scenic Rock Island, Wisconsin for a week.

Editor: Melanie, how did you hear about the resident docent program at Rock Island's Pottawatomie Lighthouse?
I am a summer resident on Washington Island, a seven-minute ferry ride away. My family and I have often gone camping on Rock Island, and having become a Friend of the Lighthouse Renovation Project, I knew that it was open to the public and docents were needed.

Editor: I understand that you and several of your friends volunteer in Charleston's historic homes and gardens tours. How did this experience help you as a docent at a lighthouse?
Living in historic Charleston SC, I enjoy interacting with tourists. I take part in many docent training programs and have several years of docent experience in sharing Charleston's treasures. So, I thought I would be able to share and inspire enthusiasm in others about the history of this Door County, Wisconsin landmark.

Editor: What does one pack for a week at a restored lighthouse?
That's a great question!  Although the lighthouse kitchen is stocked with cooking and eating utensils, we needed to bring enough food and clothing to last a week. There is no store on Rock Island where we could replenish supplies. We sat down together and planned all our meals, three per day, with the consideration that one of us needed to be on a gluten-free diet.  We ate very well I might add!

Editor: Were the living accommodations typical of the mid-1800s right down to the utilities and bathroom facilities?
Absolutely! The lighthouse, having been restored to its original condition, has no electricity or running water. The only modern convenience is a fridge and range-operated by propane gas. We pumped water from a well and used a lovely outhouse. There was a shower rigged up in a private area behind the house, and we used camping lanterns to guide our way once the sun went down. Not for the faint of heart I might add! We each had our own bedroom and a very comfy bed.

Editor: What was a typical day at the lighthouse?
Well, we woke early and had our breakfast, put every morsel of food away and made sure our personal belongings were stowed out of sight.  We were open for tours from 10am-4pm.  As there were four of us, we were able to split time on duty: while two were at the lighthouse, the other two were free to explore the island, hike, swim, read or just relax in the sun.  When 4 o'clock, came we all were free until 10am the next day.  Our chores included cleaning the outhouse as well as sweeping, mopping and dusting the lighthouse. Many hands make light work, and I must say we all pitched in with these chores, so it really was easy.

Editor: How versed in the history of the lighthouse and the keepers did you become? Were visitors interested?
We were given a guidebook for the Pottawatomie Lighthouse which had an outline of material for us to use as a guide for the different rooms. There was also a detailed history of the lighthouse and the many keepers and their families who occupied it from 1836 until 1946 that we studied and shared with our visitors.

Editor:  Were visitors interested?
Absolutely! For me one of the most gratifying things about being a docent was to see the enthusiasm and interest from the families, especially the children, when they listened with rapt attention to our descriptions and anecdotes.

Editor:  Did you have much downtime? What did you do?
As I mentioned, we were open for tours 10am-4pm.  And as I mentioned, we each had some free time during the day, and the evenings were wonderful! We sat outside under the stars with our glass of wine talking like school girls. We brought Scrabble and played by the light of our lanterns -- a new experience, but fun!

Editor:  What was the funniest experience of your stay?
Funny you should ask!  One evening after having sat outside till quite late, we tried to open the front door to the lighthouse to go to bed only to find we were locked out. Panic ensued. Luckily we were able to boost our smallest person through the only window that wasn't locked. We laughed at the idea of spending the entire night outside!

Editor: Any advice for folks thinking about volunteering their time as docent lighthouse keepers? 
Sure! Just be willing to live without your modern conveniences for a few days, and above all bring along your sense of humor! This is not for someone who can't live without daily cell phone updates or a hairdryer. There is a Park Ranger available for emergencies, however.

About The Author:
Over the years, Melanie Donnelly has been a volunteer docent for multiple historical organizations. She splits her time between Charleston, South Carolina and Washington Island, Wisconsin where she manages and owns
Wisconsin Cottage Rentals.

Additional Background Information about Pottawatomie Lighthouse:
The Pottawatomie Lighthouse sits on a high bluff at the northern tip of Rock Island and dates from 1836 -- before Wisconsin became a state. It was the first of many lighthouses erected at key points along Wisconsin's Great Lakes shorelines where ships risked crashing into rocky points or running aground. Ship owners petitioned the U.S. government to set aside the land for a much-needed light on Rock Island. The original 1836 structure was demolished in the late 1850s and the current lighthouse was first lit in 1858. The lamp produced a steady white light visible for 14 nautical miles. In 1979, the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
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