SOUTH MANITOU ISLAND — Margaret Kelly’s grandpa, James Burdick, used to be keeper of the South Manitou Island lighthouse, a bright beacon that once guided storm-driven ships through the island’s deep harbor. But she never met him.
“He died before I was born, but my mother remembered fondly growing up there,” she said. “She was the oldest of five. She used to talk about her chickens and getting chased by a bull going to school. It sounded romantic, but I’m sure at the time it wasn’t.”
Kelly has visited the island several times a summer for about 30 years. She mows farms and cemeteries, cleans the historic buildings, and spiffs up the South Manitou lighthouse with her sister.
Now she’ll be joined by 25 or so other volunteers in a worker-bee reunion through July 15. The group will include grandchildren and great grandchildren of the island’s lighthouse keepers, some whom regularly volunteer like Kelly.
Volunteers will focus on a restoring a building in the lighthouse complex, painting a one-room school house, and, if time permits, fixing up the visitors’ center.
The idea came from project coordinator Gwen Glatz of the Muskegon area, who is already on the island.
The lighthouse keepers served from 1840 to the early 1940s, including Kelly’s grandpa who took the job from 1908 to 1928. The first lighthouse was built in 1839 to guide ships passing through the six-mile Manitou channel that lies between South and North Manitou islands and the mainland, according to lighthousefriends.com.
Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore officials asked the descendants to write a one-page summary of their family’s ties to the island. The assistant superintendent will visit with them for a day, and families plan to picnic together and swap stories, Kelly said.
Kelly said she plans on going to the top of the lighthouse to clean the light as she did this past spring with her sister. Within the last few years, a replica of the light’s original lens was installed and re-activated through the efforts of the Manitou Island Memorial Society and Manitou Island Transit.
“It’s no longer a necessary navigation tool,” she said. “It’s a solid lens and doesn’t rotate.”
Kelly said she’s heard several stories of lighthouse history. The “saddest story on earth” took place on March 15, 1878, when lighthouse keeper Aaron Sheridan, the first in charge of the current lighthouse, was boating from the mainland to the island with his wife and 10-month-old baby.
“The grandmother and the rest of the family were keeping watch in the lighthouse,” Kelly said. “A storm came up, and they watched as the boat flipped over … it almost took an almost act of Congress, but they were finally able to put up memorials for the Sheridans.”