Port Sanilac lighthouse has new owner
It took Jeff Shook more than a decade, but he finally got his lighthouse.
The Fenton resident and historic preservationist is the new owner of the iconic lighthouse and attached caretaker home in Port Sanilac.
"I've been interested in it for a long time," said Shook, the president of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy. "I had previously spoken with the owners about 10 years ago, and I kept in touch ever since."
Shook paid $855,000, but he has plans to renovate and preserve the light tower while keeping it as historically accurate as possible. He has no idea how much the renovations will cost.
"The lighthouse does need some TLC; it's got some spalling bricks on the outside," he said. "Basically the tower needs to be stripped of all of its paint, all the brick work needs to be looked at, and there's a lot of the putty glazing compound on the windows that have deteriorated."
Luckily, Shook, 43, is probably the best man for the job. Through the non-profit conservancy he founded, Shook has purchased and renovated lighthouses in Muskegon and Alpena, which has been turned over to a local preservationist group.
Lighthouses are in his blood.
Shook says his ancestors Peter and Catherine Shook were the first lighthouse keepers at Point Aux Barques in 1848. Peter Shook died a year later while sailing to Port Huron with a lighthouse inspector. He shipwrecked off the coast from Lexington, just south of Port Sanilac and decades before the federal government determined it was necessary to have a lighthouse there. Catherine Shook took over as lighthouse keeper, at a time when women typically wouldn't have been given the job.
Jeff Shook is passionate about preserving this part of Michigan history and his family's history. As for the Port Sanilac lighthouse, he's bought it for himself and all the renovation money will be coming out of his own pocket.
"The dwelling portion is structurally in good shape," he said. "My family and I are going to use it as a vacation home."
Unlike many lighthouses in Michigan, which are off the beaten path, this one is located in the heart of Port Sanilac, a village of about 620 people along Lake Huron that's located about 80 miles northeast of Detroit.
'Constant living history'
The lighthouse was established in 1886 after crews traveling the shipping lanes along the coast complained that the distance between the Fort Gratiot lighthouse and the Pointe aux Barques lighthouse in Port Hope was too far and had too shallow of water to safely navigate without another light in between.
A keeper took care of the light up until it was automated in 1924.
The beacon has been in use as a navigational aid since then, even though the General Services Administration decommissioned the lighthouse in 1928. That's when Ian Aronsson's grandfather Carl Rosenfield, founder of Carl's Chop House in Detroit, bought the property from the government for $4,000.
Aronsson and her husband Tim Conklin have owned the lighthouse since she inherited it in the 1990s. They used it as a weekend and summer home, taking the time to renovate the attached 2,400-square-foot, three-bedroom, 11/2-bath house. They put the property up for sale a few years ago, trying to get around $1 million for it.
Last year, Conklin told The Detroit News the lighthouse was "a constant living history" for their family. Inside, it was like a time capsule, with family photos and mementos gathered over the years.
"We are very pleased that the Port Sanilac lighthouse has a new owner who shares our passion," the couple said in a message. "We know that Mr. Shook and his family will be excellent caretakers of this historic property."
Now Shook, his wife Lindsay and sons Ryan, 4, and Paxton, 1 , will be making their own memories there. And he's also planning to get the village involved.
Shook says he wants to open up the lighthouse to the public in some way. He says he's going to work with the Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association to try to host tours a few times a year.
One major change that could be coming to the lighthouse is something Shook has no control over.
While the property and buildings are privately owned, the original Fresnel lens inside the lighthouse is owned and maintained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Over the past decade, the Coast Guard has been working to replace the antique lenses at lighthouses around the state with modern LED lights, which are easier to find parts for and to maintain.
Preserving historic lenses
Fresnel lenses are not common anymore, since so many of them were replaced or damaged and removed, says Wayne Kean, an environmental engineer at the Coast Guard's Civil Engineering Unit, based in Cleveland.
"Back when these lenses were first installed in the late 1800s, they had lighthouse keepers and their sole purpose was to care for these lenses and light the lamps," said Kean. "Once we started modernizing the lights, lighthouse keepers were out of a job and maintenance would only happen a couple times a year or when a mariner reported the light was out."
There are just seven Fresnel lenses left intact in Michigan's 115 lighthouses, and the Port Sanilac lighthouse could be the the next to be replaced, he said. The Coast Guard and the state's Historic Preservation Office should soon sign an agreement to install LED lights and move Fresnel lens to the Sanilac County Historic Village and Museum. Although nothing is official, Kean said it would be beneficial because it would prevent the historic lens from deteriorating further.
"If we keep them in there, they continue to deteriorate. It takes away from future generations to look at and enjoy," said Kean. "We've made it our goal to preserve these historic lenses and put them places where can people can enjoy them as works of art."
Shook says he would be disappointed if the Fresnel lens was removed from his lighthouse.
"To me, it's nice to see the lens in the tower still in some limited areas in the state rather than having them 100 percent gone from every tower," he said. "It would be nice to see, on the shoreline of the lake, at least one or two that would still retain the lens just to portray the historic appearance of what a lighthouse should look like."
For now, Shook is focusing on what he can control: the condition of the lighthouse.
He's begun taking measurements and coming up with plans so he can submit them to the state. The lighthouse has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984, so any major renovations need to be approved first. Shook is also looking for any old photos of the lighthouse and any artifacts from the past. He hopes it will better help him preserve the history and tell the story of the lighthouse and the village it serves.
"I guess when you look at things in an overall perspective, a major portion of our country's growth took place because of shipping and marine waterways," said Shook. "These are some of our earliest historic structures. They've been around for a long time, and hopefully they'll be around even longer."
Help preserve history:
Jeff Shook is looking for historic photos and memorabilia, such as lighthouse keeper logs, from the Port Sanilac lighthouse to help him with his renovations and to help tell the story of its importance to the area. Anyone with information is asked to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy and the other lighthouses Shook has helped renovate, visit www.muskegonlights.org and www.alpenalighthouse.org.