Taking a trip and searching for your roots can be the experience of a lifetime. That's just what Betty Thomas of Powell did -- and then she recorded her adventure on several typewritten pages in 2009.
I had the opportunity to read her story when she shared it with friends in the Powell Liberty Historical Society.
Many local residents know Betty Thomas because they were her customers at the Country Carryout on North Liberty Street. In 1985, after operating a carryout in an old gas station during the previous 10 years, Betty bought land for parking and had a new carryout built. In 1995, at age 70, she retired from a successful business. For those who don't know Betty, let me say her formal name is Mary E. Thomas.
Betty's search began nearly 15 years ago. She had been told by her mother that her grandfather was a lighthouse-keeper on Baker's Island off the coast of Salem, Mass. Her grandfather had a short-term job while he was attending MIT. In 1899, he delivered Betty's father while he and his wife resided on the island. He was already a graduate physician, Betty says, who went on to earn a civil engineering degree and was involved in designing bridges and stadiums.
Betty's father died at a fairly young age, but she was able to obtain her father's birth certificate from the city clerk in Salem. There were inconsistencies in the first and middle names between the birth certificate and the names she had been told by relatives. Betty believes she understands them, but said she would like to do more research.
In October 2003, Betty and her son, Geary, started on her quest to visit Baker's Island. They had lots of fun in Boston and towns such as Salem and Gloucester, and took time to visit historic sites, which Betty found fascinating. However, no one they asked knew where Baker's Island was. Hard to imagine, since a lighthouse was built there in 1798.
After many stops at gift shops, they finally found a book with a map that showed the island. Perhaps a bookstore would have had navigation charts of the waters, but these were people from landlocked Ohio who likely did not consider that possibility.
After enjoying a whale-watching trip and heading back to Boston, Betty urged her son to pull into the lot of a closed golf clubhouse. They met an elderly woman who confirmed that Baker's Island was behind Great Misery Island and not visible from shore. Finally, they were so close, but the ferry to the island stopped running for the season two days before Betty and her son arrived. Things therefore came to a temporary end at that point.
In 2009, Betty posted a message on a website concerned with real estate on Baker's Island. She wrote, "I would love to visit this lighthouse just once before I die, but I don't know how to get permission to do this." Four months later, she received a message from a man who indicated he had a friend with a home on the island and would be happy to arrange a visit. Just over four months after that contact, Betty and her daughter, Nancy, were met by this kind man at Logan International Airport.
I won't go into the details of all the people she met. Suffice it to say, the caretaker at a mansion above the ocean had several people from the island waiting to meet Betty and her daughter and took them via motorboat about three or four miles out to the island. I need to make it clear that this is a private island. Boat owners tie up at buoys because there is not room at the pier for all of the residents. Someone is always watching to be sure others don't try to land there.
In her story, Betty writes, "My first sight of the lighthouse was breathtaking. It was so big and tall and white. I hugged it, thinking about my dad." She learned that the U.S. government owns the lighthouse, so they could not enter. Today, it is automated by solar panels. Returning to the mainland, the women were treated to views of Great Misery and Little Misery islands.
Last year, Betty had a visit from the kind man who answered her post. He is an inventor and had business in Lewis Center.
I hope this encourages you to do a little personal investigating of your family history. Plan a trip to an area that might help you do that. Perhaps you will be as fortunate as Betty Thomas was.
If you would like to read Betty's short story, she encourages you to visit the society's Martin-Perry House. Call 614-848-6210. Betty loves adventures, and you'll be able to read how she was "queen for a day" and given a book about the island signed by her new acquaintances. This was a thrill of a lifetime for Betty.
Carole Wilhelm is a member of the Powell-Liberty Historical Society.