By Karen Scanlon
Today, Santa is hard-pressed to find a suitable lofty entry at the lighthouse dwellings on Point Loma. Fireplaces that once warmed every room have been removed. But in the glory days of government-appointed keepers, chimneys a-plenty rose through the rooftops.
Kids living at Point Loma Light Station in the 1930s and ‘40s didn’t realize, at the time, that they were special. That some 60 years later we’d find them and paste their narratives in the annals of lighthouse history. Though the keepers themselves have long since passed, the rich Christmas memories of their adult children survive.
“It was wonderful growing up at the lighthouse,” recalled Florida resident, Lexie Johnson Johnson (she had also married a Johnson). Her father, Milford, served as keeper at Point Loma from 1931 to 1952.
“My mother was a great cook and our little old dining room really groaned with all the food and people. During the war, no matter how many were invited to our house, my dad would always go to the U.S.O. and bring at least two servicemen home for Christmas dinner.”
There were times when everything on the table came from Milford’s garden, “except sugar, salt, and pepper,” Lexie says. He raised pigs in a large enclosure on the lighthouse grounds. “So there was always a ham on Christmas.” A good-sized fresh tree was decorated in the front room and a yule log burned in the fireplace.
Lexie loved walking in the fog, which often prevailed at Christmas time, “Though I never fell off the cliff.” Quiet as it might have seemed, the blaring fog signal was part of life at the lighthouse.
Fifty yards uphill from Lexie’s home was the head keeper’s dwelling where the Dudley family lived. Joan Dudley Eayrs of Oregon and older sister Pat Dudley Goulart of El Cajon also spent childhoods at the lighthouse. Their father, James Eliot Dudley, was appointed keeper in 1938 and stayed until mid-1950. Dudley’s three children were born during his tenure at Point Loma.
“We always had a big tree,” Joan says, “often standing in the corner of the sunporch. As we got older, Pat and I did the decorating; we learned to hang that tinsel piece by piece.”
There were 105 individual panes of glass in the sunporch windows. Joan and Pat both tell of having made mixtures of water and Bon-Ami (a cleaning powder) for snowdrifts in the corners of each pane. “But whoever made the snow, also got the job of cleaning it off,” Joan says.
“I don’t really think the ships at sea could see any of the snow on the panes,” Pat laughs.
Pat also remembers decorations at Marston’s Department Store, and celebrating with their Ballast Point Lighthouse neighbors, the Pozanac and Franke families. “There was eggnog and old-fashioned fruit cake. Homemade plum pudding with flamed brandy sauce. A huge turkey, grown in Dad’s chicken yard. Fried parsnips from the garden, rutabagas and cranberry sauce. Often we had lobster from our own rocks.” All cooking was done over the cast iron stove in the lighthouse kitchen, lighted by match to kindling and newspaper.
“Dad always shopped for us himself,” both sisters happily recall. Salaries for lightkeepers were meager. “Our parents were frugal and we were given what was necessary, with a few toys for fun.” On Christmas morning, gifts at the Dudley dwelling were handed out one by one, for the lasting pleasure of all.
These daughters of two Point Loma lighthouse keepers knew no other way of life, but that the sea surrounded them. “Christmas for us was probably much like it was for everybody else,” Joan says.
There were no Christmas lights on the lighthouse tower or outside anywhere. Lexie notes, “I don’t think that was listed as acceptable in the strict rules of lighthouse keeping.”