2019-02-08 / Community

A Window on the Past

Running down to the base
By Sharon English Josephson
South Portland Historical Society


The US Lighthouse Service Tender Hibiscus. The Hibiscus was once a common sight in Portland Harbor. (Courtesy photo) The US Lighthouse Service Tender Hibiscus. The Hibiscus was once a common sight in Portland Harbor. (Courtesy photo) “Now Barbara, don’t you cut through that piggery.”

That was the repeated warning from her mother and grandmother to the little girl with the blond Dutch cut. The piggery down beyond the foot of the hill was already gone when I was a little girl, so its supposed menace was hard for me to picture. But in the early 1930s, staying clear of the piggery seemed to be the only condition imposed on my mother when she was a little girl running nimbly from the Ocean View Avenue home down to the U.S. Lighthouse Service base a mile or more away on the South Portland waterfront.

Her father was master of the U. S. Lighthouse Service Tender Hibiscus, a 190’ coalfired steam vessel based on the South Portland side of Portland Harbor. Captain Faulkingham and his civilian crew were responsible for tending to the lighthouses and buoys and other aids to navigation from New Hampshire’s border with Massachusetts all the way east to the Canadian border at Calais.

From the second floor of the family home atop the hill at Ocean View Avenue, young Barbara could see northeastward the half mile to Casco Bay, and across the water to Peaks Island and the nearby Lighthouse Service buoy depot out on Little Diamond Island. She could usually spot the Hibiscus heading across the bay, in toward sparkplug-shaped Spring Point Ledge Light, free-standing off the shore back then, long before its breakwater was built. And she knew that if she ran fast enough, she could get down to the Base on Portland Harbor to be right there when her beloved father brought the Hibiscus in to the Lighthouse Service dock. But of course, she mustn’t cut through the piggery.

I, too, lived in that Ocean View Avenue house when I was little, and even before I started nursery school I knew at least part of the route down to the base – although by then the Lighthouse Service had become part of the Coast Guard, and my Gramp Faulkingham had retired from the Coast Guard when I was 2. I knew that the first part of the route was down the long, steep Ocean View Avenue hill toward the forbidden piggery. Mumma told of winters coasting on the hill on her Flexible Flyer, and sometimes she’d have enough momentum to slip the sled through the dooryard of the farthest house and down into the field by the piggery. I could never get the lovely old varnished Flexible Flyer to coast quite that far, and anyhow, a hedge now blocked that last stretch. I’ve noted in recent years that the mighty hill on Ocean View Avenue has somehow become shorter and gentler than I remember it.

Mumma never actually confessed to me that she had ever cut through the piggery on her way to the base, but she did allow that she knew all the shortcuts along the way, so she didn’t have to follow actual streets, zigzagging down and over, down and over, to reach the two-story creamcolor masonry building with the neat lawn and the flanking blue spruce trees and the long, broad wharf.

Sometimes Barbara, an only child, rode down to the base with her father in his black Pontiac with the chrome-trimmed running boards and whitewall tires, and spent the day aboard the Hibiscus, or even out on Little Diamond Island while the tender took on a load of refurbished navigation buoys. The island that housed the Lighthouse Service buoy depot was barely a half mile long. It was dotted with summer cottages and clusters of sun-warmed spruce and laced with pathways. Barbara had the run of the island as long as she returned to the vessel when its steam whistle blew. She told of one occasion when she hadn’t heard the summons, and her father hadn’t noticed until the Hibiscus was almost back to its South Portland dock that his little daughter wasn’t back aboard. I could imagine her devastation at being the cause of such a commotion. No reprimand would have been needed.

Infractions at home were an entirely different matter. When she was small, a frequent threat from her mother or grandmother was, “Barbara, you behave or I’ll give you to the rag man.” But the rag man, who frequently drove his cart through the neighborhood, singing out for discarded cloth, had a lovely big horse. Barbara would be sad that an adult was angry with her, but the thought of going off with the friendly man and the beautiful, patient horse certainly had its appeal. One summer day her mother found a newly reprimanded Barbara sitting on the front steps, a carrot in hand, waiting contentedly for the rag man to come for her.

I don’t know if there was a particular punishment threatened if little Barbara were to be caught cutting through the forbidden piggery, but I do know that for a number of years she managed to run the mile or more from home to the base in time to greet her father as he brought the Hibiscus in against the dock. Whatever the shortcuts, her arrival at the base was a joy for both of them, and a story I never tired of hearing.

Sharon English Josephson is a member of South Portland Historical Society.

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