Oliver Brooks: One of New England’s Most Experienced and Talented Keepers (Part 1)
Connecticut’s second oldest lighthouse, Faulkner’s Island Lighthouse was built in 1802, due to the many shipwrecks that occurred around the island. Even with the lighthouse established, although the light saved many, there were still many shipwrecks occurring over the years. It was located about 4 miles from the main shoreline, and was within one mile distance from a tiny island known as Bruce Island.
Keeper Oliver Brooks was known to be one of the most experienced, colorful, and and talented keepers in New England. He played the violin, studied ornithology and taxidermy, and conducted experiments with sound and light. He often practiced his taxidermy skills on many unfortunate birds that would be attracted to the reflecting beacon, collide into the lighthouse lantern and die. The keeper’s house became a kind of a natural history museum and regional attraction for visitors to enjoy. As a taxidermist he had plenty of local birds and migrating birds that suffered fatal crashes into the lantern windows. His collection included eagles, cormorants, ducks, a seal, a fox, an ox, and a rare great snowy owl from the arctic. The story goes that when he shot the owl in the neck area, it was so maimed, that he found a rooster’s head and used part of it to fill what was missing on the owl’s head and shoulders. One of his daughters reportedly also shot a number of birds to add to the collection.
He was an avid farmer on the island with plenty of barnyard farm animals including a mule, cows, and chickens. Many times the animals would try to escape and attempt to swim or fly from the island where he had to retrieve them back to the barn. Local fisherman and lobsterman would sometimes find one of the cows trying to swim and direct them back to the island for the keeper. He also made a living as a large-scale fisherman and lobsterman and sold his catch to the locals on the mainland, or for visitors coming to the island. The family ate lobster as a main stay almost daily.
The entire Brooks family enjoyed playing musical instruments and would treat visitors to concerts at the lighthouse. Brooks himself enjoyed playing the violin. His oldest daughter studied marine botany and painted using watercolors. Brooks also had a huge dog named Old Tige that he taught to sing after his daughter would play the flute. It was written that the dog’s voice was not in long drown howls or short barks, but a wonderful something in between. His wife and both daughters appreciated artwork and were painters themselves.
Brooks was also an excellent communicator using the sun reflected into a mirror-like device known as a heliograph. In broad daylight he could communicate with friends on hilltops on the mainland up to 15 miles away. Years later the heliograph was used from the mainland to communicate with him when Lincoln was assassinated.
Captain Brooks also owned nearby Bruce Island, about a mile away, where he would row out to hunt with Old Tide. It was his other getaway, if he had the opportunity from Faulkner’s Island.
He was an expert at handling small boats in all kinds of weather and was known for his extraordinary skills, especially in helping with rescue efforts. The boat he used from Faulkner’s Island was an 18-foot skiff with a sail and long oars.
Oliver N. Brooks served as keeper at Faulkner’s island lighthouse from 1851 to 1882. Nearly one hundred vessels were wrecked in the vicinity during his tenure, due to the extreme weather conditions surrounding the island, not from the lighthouse itself or the lighthouse keeper. He is credited with assisting in 71 of these events, whether the vessels were destroyed or partially wrecked. Two of his most famous rescues involve the wreck of the Moses F Webb and years later the E. A. Woodward (These rescue stories will be posted in the next blog –June 2016).
Today the lighthouse is being gradually protected and saved by the Faulkner’s Light Brigade organization. They were able to restore much of the lighthouse in 1999, with restoration efforts continuing. Faulkner’s Island is part of the Stewart B McKinney Wildlife Refuge. It has become a protected bird sanctuary so visitors are not allowed, except in the early fall, usually around August, where there is an annual open house for the public to explore the grounds and lighthouse, promoted with transportation provided by the Faulkner’s Light Brigade out of Guilford Harbor. It is a great opportunity to not only visit the tower, but to also learn about the protected birds there from the naturalists who work there.
For more information or to donate for restoration efforts, contact the Faulkner’s Light Brigade, P.O. Box 199, Guilford, Connecticut 06437.
Phone: (203) 453-8400
Faulkner’s Light Brigade Website
Enjoy the tour this summer!
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