One of St. Simons Island’s most prominent and enduring historical landmarks is more than just a monument to the past.
That would be the St. Simons Lighthouse, which continues to this day to shine a beacon of guiding light to incoming merchant vessels seeking the Port of Brunswick from around the world. The light atop the 104-foot tower has shined through the same 7-foot-tall crystal lens for going on 148 years now. It is a Coast Guard designated Aid to Navigation, just as it was when the structure was completed in 1872.
While continuing to serve its same purpose here in the 21st Century, a rich vein of island history still calls out to us on each of the 129 winding steps to the top. Perhaps one of the lighthouse’s more colorful tales is that of Isaac and Dora Peckham, the husband-and-wife team who kept the light burning from 1883 to 1893.
Much of what we know about the Peckhams comes from reports by R.J. Massey, the island correspondent for the Brunswick Advertiser and Appeal from 1880-86. Massey wrote often and with great admiration about the Peckhams, from Dora’s uncanny marksmanship to Issac’s green thumb — not to mention the immaculate and clockwork professionalism with which they kept their lighthouse.
Thanks to some painstaking research by island resident Linda Olsen, we now have compelling bios on the two to fill in the brief fanciful anecdotes chronicled by the Advertiser and Appeal’s correspondent. You may remember Linda as the friendly and helpful former barista at the island Starbucks. She also is a member of the Coastal Georgia Historical Society, which operates the intriguing museum at the St. Simons Lighthouse.
Now retired from Starbucks and with more free time to dive into her passion for all things historical, Linda happily answered a call from the society to conduct further research on the Peckhams. Linda was kind of enough to give me a sneak peak of the presentation she will give to the Coastal Georgia Genealogical Society on Feb. 6 at the lighthouse museum.
Isaac Lester (I.L.) Peckham was born in Connecticut in 1837. By the age of 15, Linda’s research indicates, young Isaac was likely orphaned and “bound out to learn a trade.” Her research indicated Isaac was apprenticed to carpenter Leonard Winship of Farmington, Conn. Isaac likely made it to Georgia as a hired hand for another Farmington contractor, Timothy Porter, who went down to Macon to build churches.
His apprenticeship ended, Isaac apparently decided to trade in steady work for adventure. In December of 1856 he joined the Florida Mounted Volunteers during the Second Seminole Indian War. Records indicate Isaac lost a mount to an alligator in the somewhat futile military campaign to oust the Seminoles from their swampy domain.
Isaac was in Brunswick shortly after the Civil War broke out in 1861. He joined the Confederate army and was later a cavalryman at the Confederate victory at Olustee, the only Civil War battle fought on Florida soil. He also was on hand during the battle for Atlanta.
Marianne Isadora Lasserre was born in Brunswick in 1846, records show. Her father was a sea captain and her mother was an immigrant to Florida from the Spanish island of Menorca.
Meanwhile, the 1870 census shows Isaac was living on Little Cumberland Island, farming and raising dairy cows on 15 acres. Isaac’s neighbor and good friend is Joseph Lasserre, who was Dora’s older, beloved brother.
Issac and Dora were married in 1877 during a ceremony at brother Joseph’s house. By then, Issac was the assistant lighthouse keeper on Little Cumberland Island. Is was a position he would keep for seven years, until accepting the offer to become the head lighthouse keeper on St. Simons Island. He was hired in that position Jan. 1, 1883; Dora was hired as his assistant in May of that year. Isaac earned $600 quarterly, while Dora earned $450 quarterly. Good money back then.
Keeping the kerosene wick continuously lit and the chain wound constantly to rotate the lens was full time work for the Peckhams.
But the two were more than up to the task, earning a reputation as the best lighthouse keeping duo in the Division of Lighthouse Service’s 6th District, according to newspaper accounts.
“Mr. I.L. Peckham and his good wife still maintain the first rank as being among the best officers in (the 6th District),” Massey reported after a visit to the lighthouse from the district superintendent.
However, their extracurricular activities were often the talk of the island back its wild days as a thriving timber mill community. First off there is the plucky Isadora, a deadeye with a rifle who also knew her way around the kitchen. Isadora could hit anything on the wing. And, apparently, she had a recipe for everything with feathers, according to the Brunswick Advertiser and Appeal.
“The best shot on the island killed a young blue heron last week about six feet high on the beach almost in front of the St. Simons Light,” the Aug. 16, 1884 Advertiser and Appeal reported. “Mrs. P ... utilized the bird in the dinner pot, making a most delicious chicken pie out of him.”
For his part, Isaac had a green thumb and a knack for growing blue ribbon-worthy vegetables of alarming proportions. “What a pity we cannot save the mammoth radish presented to us by our friend, Mr. I.L. Peckham of St. Simons Light, till Col. D.T. Dunn’s eighth annual fair at Brunswick comes off next month,” the paper reported in May of ‘84, referring to Issac’s nearly 3-pound radish.
Together, they once took down a 10-foot alligator on the beach, skinning its hide and extracting its killer teeth to use as adornments. “Mr. P has decapitated his gatorship and buried his head with a view to save his teeth, and had the body nicely skinned with a view to stuffing and mounting the same.”
The couple retired in Dec. of 1893 to land they had acquired years earlier on the north end, where Isaac planned to pursue his love of farming. “The Peckhams had grown tired of government work and will move to their country home on North St. Simons,” The Savannah Morning News reported.
Four years later, while working under a hot July sun, Issac was “stricken with paralysis while working in his cotton patch on the island Saturday afteroon,” The Macon Telegraph reported. He died on July 26, 1897.
Isaac is buried in Christ Church’s cemetery.
Dora moved to Camden County, then to Fernandina Beach to be near a sister. She received Indian War and Confederate Widows pensions in the 20th Century and drove a Ford. Dora died Aug. 3, 1931 and is buried in Bosque Bellow Cemetery in Fernandina.
This is but a snippet of the information Linda discovered in her research. To learn more, check out her presentation at 6 p.m. on Feb. 6. I hope to be there myself.