North Point Lighthouse History Lives on Through Those Tending It Today
Artists are busy creating along the Milwaukee Museum Mile, as part of Art in the City: Plein Air MKE. The flurry of small brush painting is part of a celebration of the Milwaukee Museum Mile’s fifth anniversary. One of its members is North Point Lighthouse.
John Scripp was one of the volunteers instrumental in breathing new life into the 1888 station.
Scripp says the undertaking added up to $1.6 million.
“Milwaukee County had previously given us an option to lease the property and operate it on a long term basis. That’s shorthand for about 10 tough years of work that culminated with a restoration and public dedication in November of 2007 standing on that porch with a lot of great people,” Scripp says.
He says the plan was to lay museum out like a gallery.
“Like a photo gallery or art gallery because we could put some things on the wall that would bevery interesting,” Scripps says.
But that vision evolved, when volunteers began to dig deeper.
“And heirs and descendants of people who had been here gave us both stories of what went on and in some cases gave us momentoes and artifacts,” Scripp says.
Whitefish Bay resident Mark Kuehn has a family connection. “My uncle lived here from 1959 until 1961,” he says.
Roger Erdmann was one of several U.S. Coast Guard personnel who served at North Point until it closed in 1994.
“My uncle got transferred from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, where he had been the skipper of a ship called the Hornbeam and it was the first ship on the scene of the wreck of the Andrea Doria. So he was a hero,” Kuehn says.
Kuehn was in kindergarten when his uncle and family moved to North Point. “So I used to come and visit my cousins in this house,” he says.
Years passed and North Point lay vacant.
“I would drive by and see it all boarded up and fenced up and I would feel so bad. But one day I saw the sign that said opening soon. So I brought my daughters in one day and I said this was the living room and that was the kitchen,” Kuehn adds, “I guess the rest is history, I’m curator here now.”
Kuehn creates compact, information-packed exhibits.
“I did this one about Honest John Schlosser who was a ship chandler. You know where Soup Brothers is? That was Schlosser’s store. This will eventually swap out and I’m going to do an exhibit about the Kaszubes, the fisher folks of Jones Island,” he says.
Recently Kuehn came upon a set of gems – large leather-bound ledgers from the 1800s in which the keeper kept meticulous daily notes.
Kuehn thought he remembered seeing them laying around the quarters when his uncle and family occupied the space.
He learned when his relatives moved out, the Coast Guard packed up everything in sight and sent it wherever the family landed next.
“I remember my aunt had something on her coffee table in Maine that said something like ledger. My aunt and uncle have both passed away, but I asked my cousin whatever happened to those ledgers. My cousin found them, so I flew out to Maine last August and I flew them back on my lap,” Kuehn says.
May Klisch is North Point’s operations manager. She loves the space and its artifacts, including the ledgers Mark Kuehn resurrected.
“This place has great bones, with beautiful architecture but what gets me is all of the stories, all of the flesh behind it. It’s just a beautiful picture that just keeps getting clearer and bigger,” Klisch says.
Over its entire history, the first lighthouse just north of today’s structure, twelve keepers tended the light.
Klisch’s favorite is Georgia Stebbins who managed the operation from 1874 to 1907.
“For 33 years she kept the light. And they say in her time she climbed the lighthouse 63,800 times – that’s not steps, that’s time. Because from dusk to dawn, every two to four hours, she cleaned the lens and imagine you are a woman wearing these big balloony skirts. In the winter she went outside on the widow’s walk and cleaned off that stuff,” Klisch says.
Stebbins died in July, 1921.
“Two weeks shy of when women could vote. She was a federal government appointee and one of the very few actual female keepers.There were a lot of women in history who kept the light, but it was the husbands who were the keepers, but SHE was the keeper, which to me is extraordinary. So she’s kind of like my hero,” Klisch says.