Key West Lighthouse, FL, where Barbara Mabrity served as keeper for 32 years. Photo courtesy The Lighthouse People
They followed their husbands, the lighthouse keepers, to each lighthouse they were assigned, often not knowing what awaited them. For some who came from families of lighthouse keepers, the lifestyle was familiar. But for many, the role required a transition from living among civilization to being apart from it.
They were the wives of the keepers. These women cared for their husbands, their homes and their children. At lighthouses where there was only one keeper, the wife served as his assistant, sometimes officially, but often unofficially. Whenever the keeper had to leave the station to run errands, the wife had to maintain the light in his absence. If the keeper became ill, the wife was the one who stayed up all night to keep the light burning, as well as, care for her sick husband.
This duty was added to her regular duties of cleaning, cooking, laundry and caring for the children. She was the teacher, the nurse, and the gardener. And when the lighthouse inspector arrived, her house was expected to be white-glove spotless, like the lighthouse. He would go through the keeper’s house, running his hand along tops of doors and cabinets to make sure there was no dust in the dwelling, and take note of anything else out of place or considered unclean.
Before telephone lines connected the lighthouses to the rest of the world, the only contact to remote stations was by mail delivered on the lighthouse supply boat, and the regularity of the boat depended on the weather and the time of year. It could be a lonely existence for women without the companionship of friends or extended family.