Seguin Island Lighthouse, Maine (Geri Lynn Smith/shutterstock.com).
Irving T. Sparrow Jr. is a private, humble man—but when his daughter, Michele Messick, asked him about his life growing up in a series of lighthouses, he spoke with passion and enthusiasm.
Irving’s father was a lighthouse tender for the U.S. Coast Guard. “My father joined the Coast Guard at the start of World War II when he was just 17 years old,” says Irving. “He was on a buoy tender and the Coast Guard transferred him to tend a lighthouse.”
The only photo of Irving Sr. and Irving Jr. at one of the lighthouses they lived on.
Irving grew up in lighthouses in Maine and Massachusetts. He says the best part of growing up in a lighthouse was the freedom to explore a beautiful island all by himself. “I could go fishing any time I wanted and could just explore freely all by myself,” says Irving. Though some of Irving’s childhood memories are now hazy, he still recalls many of the experiences and adventures of childhood at a lighthouse.
Seguin Island Lighthouse
Seguin Island, Maine
Irving doesn’t have any memories from his time at Seguin Island Lighthouse. “What I do know is that I took my first boat ride here in 1946 when I was just three days old.”
Nubble Lighthouse in Winter with Snow, Cape Neddick, York Maine (Denise LeBlanc/shutterstock.com).
Cape Neddick “The Nubble” Lighthouse
The two-story home on the rocky island just off Cape Neddick was small, with a humble kitchen and living room. Back then, they had a radio, but no television. “My mother, Gloria, tended to the inside of the lighthouse and my father took care of the outside,” Irving says. “Whenever the lighthouse needed painting, my mother would hang out on the boson chair and help my father paint the exterior.”
Irving Sr. and Gloria Sparrow
Irving’s parents enjoyed living in lighthouses because they just enjoyed being together. “My mother learned how to live the life of a lighthouse keeper’s wife,” Irving explains. “She had to prepare to have enough groceries for periods of time because of the uncertainty of being able to travel back and forth to the mainland. My father would row her across and go back. One time my mother ran out of eggs and had to use seagull eggs to make my father’s birthday cake.”
Though it was very early in his life, Irving has some interesting memories from his time at The Nubble. “One day, when I was about 4 or 5 years old, I took all of my clothes off, walked down the rocks, and saluted a Captain who was coming in to inspect the lighthouse,” Irving says. “My parents told this story often and found it humorous.”
Left to right: Lightkeeper Irving Thompson Sparrow Sr. The Sparrow family. Orelia and Irving Jr. bundled up. Orelia and Irving Jr. at the beach. The family dog, Lassie.
Another time, Irving and his sister Orelia thought it would be fun to remove the light from the lighthouse and hide from their father. “When it was time for him to turn the light on, he knew we had done it,” says Irving. “We hid in the tall grass and he was hollering for us. I chickened out, told him what we had done and squealed on my sister. She got punished. Seeking revenge, the next day, my sister took my clothes off and rolled me in poison ivy.” Both Irving and Orelia often reminisced about the incident.
News story about Orelia attending school. The Nubble, York, Maine, Postcard, 1904. Edmund Noble, correspondent, 1853–1937. (Library of Congress)
Every so often, during the summer, Irving’s family would collect the driftwood that washed ashore and have a huge bonfire. “We would cook hot dogs and roast marshmallows,” Irving remembers. “It was good old-fashioned family time.”
Weather often played a role in Irving’s clearest childhood memories. One time, Irving recalls a particularly bad morning of snow, when the snow drifted up beside the door. “My dad went to put the flag up and he started shoveling snow into the house so he could get out to the flagpole,” explains Irving. “My mother was upset because the floors were varnished, but he had the flag up by 8 a.m.!” Another time, a hurricane struck the lighthouse and the waves reached so high they broke the second-floor windows. “I wasn’t scared, just upset because we couldn’t go outside.”
Cape Neddick Light dock (Scott Ray). Sunrise at Nubble Lighthouse (mikechen1123/shutterstock.com)
Irving’s first days of school began while living at Cape Neddick. His father would row him and his sister Orelia to the mainland each day to catch the bus. On a particularly rough morning at sea, Orelia fell out of the boat on the way to the mainland. After this, Irving’s father took both of his kids out of school and sent Orelia to live with her grandparents on the eastern shore of Virginia. “My sister was my only playmate and my best friend. When she left, I was all by myself.” Years later, a ski lift was installed between the mainland so schoolchildren could cross safely.
Eastern Point Lighthouse, Gloucester, Massachusetts (Patrick Messier/shutterstock.com).
Eastern Point Lighthouse
Irving and his sister were reunited when the family transferred to Eastern Point Lighthouse. “This was a unique lighthouse because it was a two-family lighthouse; I believe the only one of its kind,” Irving says. Both families were responsible for tending to the light and to the radio beacon, as well. Luckily for Irving and Orelia, the other family that lived there had lots of children, and they played together often. One stormy night, Irving’s father and his fellow lighthouse keeper, Chuck, saw people on the breakwater in distress. “My father and Chuck jumped in and saved a man.”
Eastern Point Light, Gloucester, Massachusetts, postcard, circa 1930–1945 (Boston Public Library).
One unique memory of Irving’s is Christmas time at the Gloucester Lighthouse. “Each Christmas, the ‘Flying Santa’ Edward R. Snow would fly to all the lighthouses and drop Christmas packages to kids and adults,” Irving remembers.
Though Irving says his childhood was sometimes lonely, he also says he had a lot of fun, both with his sister and with his friends. He says Orelia loved the lighthouses even more after she grew up, and has since given lectures on how lighthouses work and what it’s like to live in them. Irving says he never found anything spectacular washed up on the beach after a storm while living at a lighthouse. He says “We would find mostly lobster buoys. The most interesting things I ever found were on the Chesapeake Bay near my grandparents’ house.”
Irving eventually joined the Coast Guard, but says he never had the desire to be a lighthouse keeper. He enjoyed being at sea and needed the extra pay to support his family. “I would get an extra dollar a day when I was away from my family. Fifty years ago, that was a lot of money. People in the military weren’t paid enough. They still aren’t.” Irving retired from the Coast Guard in 1960 with a lifetime of memories along the sea.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Volume 38 September/October 2023.
All photos courtesy of Michele Messick, Irving Sparrow Jr., and Orelia Sparrow Dann except as marked.