SOUTH FOX ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE Volunteers restoring historic structures

Aug. 27—SOUTH FOX ISLAND — After an hour and a half bouncing across more than 26 nautical miles of Lake Michigan's chop, the landing vessel Bear neared South Fox Island, its two lighthouses visible through the trees.

One, a skeletal steel tower that got its start on the Atlantic coast, had new glass, while the other, a brick two-story building with a light tower attached, was freshly whitewashed.

The windows and fresh coat of whitewash are the fruits of the labor of the Fox Island Lighthouse Association and the volunteers who are fighting the ravages of the years — 156 of them for the original lighthouse.

With the landing craft's ramp down, two couples who were spending the week at the lighthouse disembarked while three others took the last steps to wrap up their week there. That included explaining to association Vice President Catherine Allchin everything they accomplished during their stay.

There was a lot to show: Marty Rosalik showed off a solar panel array that cranks out about 1,100 watts in the midday sun, yet is positioned so most boaters can't see it, nor could someone standing outside the original lighthouse spot it.

Another, much more visible sign of Rosalik's work were some temporary windows installed in the original lighthouse's lantern. He had spent considerable time that week after planning in 2022 working on the badly rusted cast-iron structure, made by Detroit Locomotive Works. It looks better than the state volunteers found it in, with leaves blowing in through the broken windows and forming a layer on the floor that leeched corrosive tannic acid when it got wet.

Rosalik figured there's a ways to go before it's completely restored. "It's probably going to be four, maybe five years," he said.

Association member Cathy Sanders showed off other restoration work inside the original lighthouse: over here some walls coated in paint to trap the old lead paint beneath it, over there some steel repair washers to keep more plaster from flaking off the arrays of wood strips called laths. Big projects need to be approved by the State Historic Preservation Office, since the lighthouse campus has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 2022.

The formula for that whitewash on the outside of the original lighthouse took a lot of research, Allchin said.

"We try to do everything as historical as possible," she said later.

These repairs and the structures they're preserving are the subject of a saga that starts back in 1867, one with several twists and turns along the way. It started when Congress put up $18,000 so the U.S. Lighthouse Service — the agency that oversaw the navigational aids before merging with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939 — could build the "schoolhouse" style brick structure.

That pattern of a keeper's quarters with a gabled roof and attached light tower would be reused at various other Great Lakes lighthouses, association member Kathy Sanders said.

One turn came in 1910, when the U.S. Lighthouse Service added an assistant keeper's house. The fully electrified duplex with indoor plumbing and Art Deco finishes that would look fitting in any big-city home of the same era made the original keeper's quarters look spartan by comparison. It housed the assistant and first assistant keeper and their families, replacing an earlier, smaller home built to house the extra personnel needed to run the fog signal installed in 1895.

In 1934, the agency reassembled that skeletal tower at its new home at the Beaver Island archipelago's southernmost point, Sanders said. In 1968, the U.S. Coast Guard decommissioned the navigational aid 10 years after automating the signal atop the skeleton tower. Modern navigation made the light obsolete.

Another twist came in 1971, when the state bought the lighthouses and grounds then began planning a harbor of refuge there — Allchin said it's a good spot for one, being in the middle of a large gap between other such harbors — it's 16 nautical miles from North Manitou Island's dock, 24 nautical miles from Charlevoix and 29 nautical miles to St. James on Beaver Island.

That never came to pass, although the island's remote location may have spared the two lights, assistant keeper's quarters, workshop, boathouse, fog signal building and boathouse. At one point, the DNR considered demolishing the buildings, but gave up because all the rubble would need to be hauled away, Allchin said.

In 1984, a youth work group boarded up the buildings' windows and doors, the last maintenance done until the association began its work, Allchin said.

She co-founded predecessor group Fox Island Education Association with Brad Boese shortly after her first time on the island. It was 2000, and Allchin was first mate on a fishing charter hired by a man who wanted to do a memorial for his brother.

That man's grandfather, Louis Bourisseau, was the lighthouse's first Indigenous keeper, and he and his brother spent several summers on the island as children.

When the charter reached South Fox, Allchin had a strange experience: For a moment, she was a 9-year-old girl looking west as the sky filled with dark clouds. It passed when someone called her name, but the site of the lighthouse, keeper's house and outbuildings in their dilapidated state stayed with her.

"The whole way back I was like, somebody's got to do something," she said.

So she did. After meeting with Boese, one of the organizers for the youth group that boarded up the station, she ran an ad in the paper asking anyone interested to meet at Leland Library. The group formed that year, and after a name change and becoming a nonprofit in 2006, its members got to work fixing up the lighthouses and buildings with the DNR's blessing. After a number of year-to-year agreements, the DNR granted the association a 25-year lease in 2013.

Using the Bear is expensive — four times the cost of using the association's former boat, Sanders said. The trade-off is it can carry much more to the island than a previous arrangement that involved anchoring that boat a few hundred feet offshore and motoring a dinghy the rest of the way.

Stepping off the Bear that summer weekend were Milan Miklavcic and wife Pam, and Naomi Stadt and boyfriend Pete Koeppen. Both couples are part of a steady flow of volunteers who spend their time giving the station a new life.

Stadt said she and Koeppen love the history of the place and like to help keep it up.

"Pete actually got me involved in coming out here and, from the very first trip, I knew we were going to keep coming back," she said.

Tom McBride, who was leaving the island that day, said he and Rosalik both used to work together for General Motors. Rosalik got involved working on White Shoal Light, which sits in Lake Michigan west of the Straits of Mackinac. McBride always liked lighthouses, so he joined in.

Allchin said, while she and Boese helped start the association, it's the volunteers who keep showing up that make it what it is. The nonprofit has had some luck with those who raise their hands. Rosalik and McBride were able to put their engineering skills to use to wire up the solar array, itself a donation from the St. Helena Lighthouse.

"Everything seems to work out whenever we have a really big project," she said. "The right people seem to show up. It's a miracle, almost."

Visitors tend to show up, too, despite the island's isolation. Allchin said boaters and sea planes will make a stop and, one time, a paddleboarder intent on paddling from North Manitou Island along the entire Beaver Island Archipelago stopped by. Volunteers will show them around the light station.

Sanders said the organization wants to find a way to get more people to see the lighthouse; the DNR has studied building a new dock for several years.

She's not discouraged by the pace of a project that's made so much progress, but still has a ways to go. Rather, she's excited about the burst of progress over the past two years.

McBride agreed.

"I always say with these kind of projects, it's a marathon, not a race, so you've just got to keep plugging along at it," he said.