The Big Sable Point Lighthouse has kept watch on Lake Michigan’s shoreline for over 150 years. Almost 10 miles north of Ludington, the lighthouse keeper position was congressionally awarded to Alanzo Hyde in 1867 for his efforts in enlisting men for the United States during the Civil War. The lighthouse changed hands many times; but by 1971, just a little over 100 years later, it had been abandoned by the Coast Guard and left in complete disarray. Waves, sand and other elements left nothing but a skeleton of a once significant landmark.
Seven local citizens, seeing the value of the historical structure, banded together to preserve Big Sable’s presence.
“They took it upon themselves to go out and sandbag and work weekends and fend off the water from the tower and that was the beginning of the Sable Points Lighthouse Keepers Association (SPLKA),” says Peter Manting, executive director of the SPLKA.
The group continues its work to this day, with 750 members actively participating to keep the lighthouse open. Those who volunteer throughout the year, summer being the busiest time, live at the lighthouse community-style. During their stay, groups share four bedrooms, a common kitchen, and two living areas. Many of them return year after year. Since many groups have grown close over the years, they often share the same volunteer week. The association continues to grow with many new members getting involved every year.
The lighthouse is on the national register of historic structures, which means the group must abide by certain code for any restoration. Materials and restoration methods must follow governmental guidelines. The association has used local grants, like those from Great Lakes Energy’s People Fund to purchase supplies for restoration efforts. One of the projects was refurbishing of Big Sable’s 40 original doors. Covered in 12-24 coats of paint, the doors had to be stripped to their original wood. Volunteers brought them back to their original luster. A People Fund grant also helped with the printing of a 32-page activity book for children, to encourage the next generation’s interest.
Like any historical structure, the Big Sable Point Lighthouse is known for its ghost stories. ““Henry, who was a keeper in the late 50s and early 60s, supposedly likes to play jokes on any new keepers,” Manting chuckles. Volunteers have reported pounding on the wall, fire alarms sounding, the scent of cigar smoke in the hall, and an apparition of a person in a red and white striped shirt. It’s also common for a volunteer to walk into the kitchen and be overwhelmed by the aroma of fresh bread being baked, only to discover nothing in the oven.
It is no tall tale that the Big Sable Point Lighthouse continues to benefit the Ludington community. It is a destination spot for tourists bringing almost 20,000 visitors to the area who then also support the local community. Big Sable iconic structure is used as logos and in promotional materials by local politicians and business, and its image captured by thousands of professional and amateur photographers.
On May 1, 2018, SPLKA was honored with the 2018 Governor’s award for Historic Preservation of the Big Sable Point Lighthouse and its other three lighthouses. Manting reflects that “SPLKA is so grateful for grant funds provided by organizations like the Great Lakes People’s Fund as these funds will help ensure that that the Big Sable and other lighthouses will be preserved for another 150 years.”