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Oct 8, 2019 11:51 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Centenarian Recalls Living At The Montauk Lighthouse As A Girl

Margaret Bock celebrating her 100th birthday on September 24.  COURTESY HENRY OSMERS
Oct 8, 2019 12:12 PM

“Living in a lighthouse was fun for me, but it took some adjustments for us all. We had no amenities — no electricity, no indoor plumbing, no central heat, and the only telephone was a connection to the Coast Guard station 5 miles away,” said Margaret Buckridge Bock, not long after celebrating her 100th birthday on September 24.

Ms. Bock was still a girl when she lived at the Montauk Point Lighthouse from 1930 to 1938, when her father, Thomas Buckridge, was the head keeper there. To get an outside phone line, she said from her current phone in Westbrook, Connecticut, her family had to go through four Coast Guard stations — at Ditch Plains, Hither Hills, Napeague and Georgica. Mr. Buckridge and his wife, Sarah, and their four children, John, Thomas, Elizabeth and Margaret, occupied half of the lighthouse quarters. Their kitchen and dining room were in the basement with a coal range for cooking and heat. There was a pot-bellied stove for heat in the living room in winter. Ms. Bock’s parents’ bedroom and the living room were on the first floor. Ms. Bock and her sister had bedrooms on the third floor, and there was another small bedroom over the front entrance. In the frigid and quiet winter, a thin layer of ice would appear in their water pitchers, Ms. Bock remembered. The other half of the house was divided into apartments for the first assistant to the lighthouse keeper and his family on the second floor and the second assistant and his family on the first floor. In the yard were three attached privies, one for each family, and all of them locked to keep visitors out.

Each keeper worked 12 hours followed by 24 hours off. The keeper on duty was responsible for the light, and the foghorn, if necessary, but all had to pitch in to whitewash the tower each year, and paint the maroon strip every other year. They also had mow the lawn with a hand push mower, in addition to painting and polishing all of the brass on the property.

The light itself, Ms. Bock said, had a Fresnel lens and took half an hour to illuminate. Running on kerosene vapor, it shone from sunset to sunrise every day. The beacon was visible for about 20 miles and flashed every 15 seconds or so. A stationary red range light would go off, as well, if the keepers saw that a ship was in danger of crashing onto Shagwong Reef. Ms. Bock said that the Hurricane of 1938 destroyed that light and it was never replaced.

Before taking the job as the keeper of the Montauk Lighthouse, Mr. Buckridge was familiar with Montauk, having worked as a commercial fisherman for 12 summers on his boat, Jackie. When in Montauk, he often stayed in a cottage constructed of fish packing crates on Fort Pond Bay.

“I had three lighthouse keepers in my family,” Ms. Bock said. The first was her grandfather, John Ninde Buckridge, who lost a leg to infection during the Civil War.

“I have since found out from reading tales of other lighthouse keepers that many Civil War veterans with limbs missing did become lighthouse keepers, a sort of reward for their service to their country,” Ms. Bock said.

Her grandfather took his first lighthouse job at Stepping Stones, located off City Island. It was a two-man station, and he was the assistant keeper with an annual salary of $450.

One of John’s daughters, Minnie, was married in a lighthouse to Ezra Kelsey of Westbrook. Mr. Kelsey was also a lighthouse keeper, stationed at Rockland Lake Lighthouse on the Hudson River and Crown Point Lighthouse on Lake Champlain.

“The third lighthouse keeper was, of course, my father,” Ms. Bock said. He worked at various factories in Essex, Connecticut, and in the summers, before Ms. Bock was born, would take his family to Montauk. At the age of 48, he decided to go into the lighthouse service.

“I assume that it was for the same reasons as his father. He wanted a stable income and something for his retirement years,” Ms. Bock said. In February 1922, Mr. Buckridge took the lighthouse keeper’s examination, and in May, he was assigned to be a keeper at Execution Rocks Lighthouse, off Sands Point, at the west end of Long Island Sound. His starting salary was $780.

In December 1922, Mr. Buckridge was transferred to Race Rock Lighthouse off Fishers Island. During Mr. Buckridge’s time at the Race Rock Lighthouse, Ms. Bock’s mother and she and her siblings lived in a house in Essex. He was able to visit them only two and a half days per month, Ms. Bock said.

She recalls that when she was 6 years old, the Race Rock Lighthouse was sparsely furnished: no curtains, cots with army blankets, chairs at a kitchen table and fishing poles. That was it. The lighthouse keepers ate a lot of fish and canned foods, she said. Sometimes they’d go a week or so before the weather and waters were safe enough to go ashore to get mail and supplies.

On January 1, 1930, Mr. Buckridge was transferred to the Montauk Point Lighthouse, replacing keeper John E. Miller, who was retiring.

“We were happy when my father was given a transfer to Montauk, which was a family station,” Ms. Bock said.

The family’s first trip to Montauk from Essex took all of 12 hours, Ms. Bock recalled, as there were no highways and few bridges in the 1930s. They took a ferry from the Bronx to Flushing, and then made their way to Montauk in a Model T Ford. Ms. Bock said the Montauk light was 168 feet above sea level and that the tower had 137 steps. Other than the families in the lighthouse, their nearest neighbors were a mile or so away, and one of the keepers would drive the 7 miles every day to the village of Montauk to get the mail.

The Montauk elementary school was 7 miles from the lighthouse. East Hampton High School was 22 miles away. Ms. Bock said she was able to participate in high school activities because friends would invite her to stay overnight, as her father was the only driver in their household.

“We did eat a lot of fish,” she said. “Dad was a great fisherman and there were plenty of fish for him to catch.”

For clothes shopping, the Buckridge family went to East Hampton, Sag Harbor and even Riverhead sometimes, 50 miles away, but used Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs frequently.

The Community Church, a Presbyterian church, was the only church in Montauk in the 1930s. It was the center for locals’ social lives, with parties, dances for all ages, social groups, dinners, fairs, shows and more.

“If we needed transportation, there was always someone willing to come get us or bring us home,” Ms. Bock said.

Before she left home to attend nursing school, the lighthouse and its grounds were modernized, she said, with a cement road leading up the hill, and a new highway from the Point to downtown Montauk, which shortened the time it took to get there. Soon after, electricity was introduced, and the light was furnished a 220,000-candlepower bulb with an on-off switch. Central heating came next, and indoor plumbing, too.

In 1939, the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse service, and Mr. Bock was set to retire.

“I’m sure my father had expected to retire from the Montauk Lighthouse,” Ms. Bock said, adding that the Coast Guard discontinued the family quarters after 1939. Ms. Bock’s small bedroom and the first assistant’s apartment were renovated into bathrooms.

Her mother lived with a friend in Amagansett for a while as Mr. Buckridge still continued to work as a lighthouse keeper, but soon moved back to the house they still owned in Essex. Mr. Buckridge later applied for and received a transfer to the Outer Light in Old Saybrook.

Ms. Bock said she has been back to the Montauk Lighthouse only four times since it became a museum. The first visit, with her husband, Bob, and sister, Elizabeth, was to celebrate the takeover of the lighthouse by the Montauk Historical Society in 1970.

“We drove around and stayed overnight in a motel in the village. The second time, Bob and I, my daughter, Ellen, and several friends attended the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the lighthouse,” said Ms. Bock, who was treated to lunch on that occasion.

The next two visits were with her daughter and two friends, and with her granddaughter and her granddaughter’s husband, respectively.

By that time, Ms. Bock said, “we had now discovered how to make it a day trip.”

Gone were the times when it would take an entire day to get to Montauk.

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