Sand Island: Girls Just Wanna Have Fun

Part Two


Sand Island Lighthouse


On Sand Island's northern tip stands a lighthouse considered by many to be the most beautiful of the eight Apostle Island beacons. The Gothic brownstone lighthouse had been a comfortable home for its keeper and his family for some four decades, but when the shipping season opened in 1921, the building sat empty. The keeper was gone, replaced by an automated acetylene lamp that turned on and off with the sun's rays.

Gertrude Wellisch decided that this empty lighthouse would make a fine summer home.

It took her several years of trying, pulling all the strings she could reach, writing her senator, navigating the Department of Commerce bureaucracy. In 1925, Gert signed her name to paper. The 29-year-old schoolteacher had a lease on the Sand Island lighthouse, for $25 a year, plus upkeep.

That "upkeep" part was the challenge. Exposed to the full fury of Lake Superior's storms, the lighthouse demanded constant work. Photos from Gert's lighthouse years bear this out: While there's still plenty of play time, many of the shots show maintenance projects under way. Gert handled much of the work on her own, but friends and her brother Bun pitched in as well. Her German Shepherd, Sandy, was always ready with companionship and his own brand of assistance. He rarely left Gert's side, even when she climbed out on the lighthouse roof to scrub windows or paint.


Up On The Roof

Gert and Sandy on the lighthouse roof

While Sandy's contribution is hard to measure, there's no question of the value that Gert's hard work has had for posterity. Had the lighthouse remained vacant, it would almost certainly have succumbed to the elements. As Gert herself put it, "My living there has kept the place from becoming a ruin."

Beside their human interest, the lighthouse photos in Gert's album are precious to historians. They give a look at buildings no longer standing and an open landscape that contrasts sharply with today's heavily wooded scene. Most exciting to lighthouse buffs is the only known image of the Fresnel lens that once beamed from the tower. Removed in 1933, the elaborate optic long ago vanished without a trace.

Gert spent 18 summers at the lighthouse, but as the 1930s drew to a close, the government raised the rent past the point that a teacher's salary could bear. Determined to preserve her connection to the island, she bought a parcel at East Bay, 2 miles to the south. The latest photos in the album show construction of a cottage on the tract, sometime around 1942.

The builder was a local carpenter named Clyde Nylen, well-known in the region as an exceptionally gifted artisan. We don't know whether the design was his or Gert's, but one thing is for sure, the cottage that Nylen built is a tiny gem. Every element combines to give a sense of proportion and grace, while a floor-to-ceiling window in the living room opens the space to the outdoors in way that would command attention in a house twice its size. Gert called her cottage Plenty Charm, an apt name.


Gertrude Wellisch

Plenty Charm under construction

With the construction of Plenty Charm, Gert set her anchor for good on Sand Island. She fit well into the tightly-knit East Bay community; the Norwegian fishing families accepted the spinster schoolteacher without question. Gert's personality made it easy. One summer she brought a Model A Ford out to the island and parked it by the dock, leaving the key in the ignition. Anybody needs to haul stuff around, she announced, go ahead and use my car.

The children of East Bay were fond of Gert, who hired them to do chores and paid them well. Ever the schoolteacher, she worried about their education out on the remote island. Before she'd pay them for their work, she'd pull a book from her shelf and have each child read a chapter or two.

The three homes that Gert Wellisch loved still stand on Sand Island. Now owned by the National Park Service, each home still bears her imprint and those of the others who cherished and maintained these buildings in their turn: the Chapple family and the Hulings family, who cared for the lighthouse for several decades after Gert, and the Peters family who still look after the West Bay Lodge.

And Plenty Charm? When Gert died in 1966, she left the cottage to her companion, a teacher like herself. The National Park Service purchased it in the 1970s, using Plenty Charm as a ranger station for a while, then more recently as a base for the park's "Artist In Residence" program. Today the schoolteacher's cottage stands empty and her Model A rusts away in the woods, sinking further into the mud every spring, but the spirit of a strong woman named Gertrude Wellisch will never leave Sand Island.


Keeper Gert

Keeper Gert, at her lighthouse.



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