Michigan offers lighthouse enthusiasts a working vacation

Georgienne Hammer's time as a volunteer living and working at a local lighthouse wasn't exactly what she expected.

Week-long stays at the Grand Traverse Lighthouse in Northport over the last three years allowed Hammer to share her passion for lighthouses through public tours and small maintenance projects.

But it was the connection she made with the area's maritime history that took her by surprise and kept her coming back.

"I definitely got more out of it than I thought I would. You think about what other lighthouse keepers' lives were like back when these buildings were built," she said. "It just made you more appreciative of not only what they did, but also our lives today compared to what they had to deal with."

Hammer is one of numerous history buffs from across the country who've been drawn to Leelanau County by the unique lighthouse-keepers program since it started five years ago, a successful venture Peninsula Township officials hope to duplicate at Mission Point Lighthouse this summer.

Since January, the township has coordinated with lighthouse officials across the bay to solicit volunteers to work at the 19th century structure when it opens to the public for the first time in May, said Fred Stoye, chairman of the township park board.

"There are very few places in Michigan that allow you to live in a lighthouse," said Grand Traverse Lighthouse director Stef Staley, who's accepting applications for the Mission Point program.

"I think the biggest benefit is the fact that people get to help us restore and preserve the lighthouse and surrounding property."

Located on M-37 at the tip of Old Mission Peninsula, the lighthouse was built in 1870, and its first keeper, Jerome M. Pratt, guided boat traffic into Grand Traverse Bay by a kerosene lamp atop the 30-foot building.

The Mission Point Lighthouse functioned until 1933, when the U.S. Coast Guard switched to electric, self-timed beacons, Stoye said.

Township maintenance director Grant Blackmer last week prepared rooms in the two-story home for a series of historic displays designed to give visitors a glimpse of lighthouse life at the turn of the century. Guests also will be allowed to climb the steep, narrow stairway to the glass tower that once housed the original navigational lamp, Blackmer said.

"We are anticipating a really busy summer because ... it's always been a private residence. It will be interesting to see what comes of it," he said.

Volunteers will be charged an $800-per-month program fee to live in the rear section of the historic home's ground floor. The township hopes those funds, along with admissions fees for visitors, will be the first step toward a self-supporting park system.