Following World War II, the US Coast Guard sought to automate as many US lighthouses as they could. Ponce Inlet Lighthouse followed many other US beacons by becoming fully automated in 1952. In 1970, a new light mounted on a pole at the New Smyrna Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Station, across the inlet was lit. Its lighting signaled more than a just the normal official Notice To Mariners to be aware that a beacon was slightly relocated. It was the end of an era.
Lack of maintenance once provided by former resident keepers, serious vandalism, plus the harsh climate soon took a toll on the former pristine station. Finally, in 1971, the property was listed as surplus, in order to encourage adoption by municipal, county or state agencies. It was hoped that formal listing would put such properties across the nation to be put to better use. The ownership of the lighthouse station was deeded by the US Coast Guard to the Town of Ponce Inlet in June of 1972.
Three weeks later a group of town residents, volunteers all, concerned by the deteriorating condition of the once proud and spotless decommissioned station, formed a preservation association to assume administration and maintenance of the property. For fifteen years, those unpaid volunteers worked hard to preserve and support the lighthouse station and put it on the path to make it what it is now: A National Historic Landmark. It is a great tribute to them that the lighthouse is now also a world-wide recognized leader in historic, nautical and navigational restoration and preservation. As a world traveler in search of lighthouses to visit, learn about, and photograph, I can attest to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse’s preservation story being admired and studied across the United States, and even as far away as large and even small European countries like Estonia. One of Jackie and my European lighthouse “inspection” adventures was to Latvia and Estonia. Visiting the Kopu Lighthouse on the Baltic Sea, the third oldest continuingly operating light in the world, I encountered an Estonian docent who knew of the famous tall, red brick tower south of Daytona Beach. He cited knowledge of our help and research in assisting restoration of other lighthouse’s Fresnel lenses. They also knew a great deal about our Daytona Bike Weeks, too!
Those Ponce Inlet volunteer saints from years ago did a lot the heavy lifting. Today, we have professionals to do that. We have a much-admired curatorial department, an experienced administrative staff, and a highly skilled maintenance team.
WHAT SETS US APART AS VOLUNTEERS
Our blog today is really about the enjoyment and pleasures of volunteering here at the lighthouse, and well as working with a dedicated group of other docents. We are also unique for museum and other kinds of volunteering in that we, at PILH, have the option of choosing what time, day, and choice of activity we wish to pursue. Yes, you read that right. No fine print.
Here’s how that works: A weekly schedule of activities is published by the program’s manager, and PILH volunteers choose the day, time, and type of activity to volunteer for, or not. You are not tied to a schedule of Mondays and Thursdays, unless that is your choice. If you don’t like or have a feel for a certain type of activity, you are not required to do it. Just don’t sign up for it. No ugly looks or demerits involved. We don’t have the time or inclination for that.
We’re here to volunteer, teach, interact with visitors, and learn from each other. And, if you become interested in something lighthouse related, or a skill that you know little or nothing about, trust me, somebody, usually another volunteer or dedicated staff member, is going to share with you what and how you need to be effective. Just ask. That’s how we roll.
Another reality is that the PILH volunteer corps members are actually fun and interesting people. Some have been volunteering at the lighthouse for many years, but they are not “overbearingly conscious” of that, if you know what I mean. They will help you to get over the bumps, and even share their bump experiences. Cliché alert: they are like a family. However, it’s true.
School groups are a big part of our activities and volunteer opportunities. Coincidentally, the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse Preservation Association’s present active volunteer corps, at the time of this writing, has just about finished another “school” year of assistance to roughly 2500 Volusia County public and private school students who either visited the lighthouse, or we, as volunteers, went to their classrooms or schools. This service is free of charge to elementary and high school students and is part of the PILH Mission Statement.
As an aside, the traditional “school field trip” is not our model. For instance, this year, school tours were a combination of volunteer docent pre-visits to the classroom, monitoring and leading tours of kids while they are visiting the lighthouse, doing a lighthouse activity during their stay, and finally giving students reinforcement take-home (to their classroom) packages which become part of tomorrow’s follow-up in class-lesson.
Here’s another change about our philosophy with school group tours: As parades of 21st century technology-savvy kids come off the buses, their tour is not just the rudiments of 19th Century navigational aids and how they worked. That has a place, for sure. Just as important, our students are introduced by our volunteer docents to real-life examples of how our resident keepers and their families lived, thrived, persevered, and served mariners some one-hundred thirty-five years ago. The lighthouse keeper’s dedication to duty and responsibility is a life-lesson in and of itself, and not just for kids. The opportunity for making comparisons of then-and-now life-styles, and the prospect of using history as a prelude to the present and even the future, is what history is supposed to be all about anyway.
Until a hundred years ago with radio beacon triangulation, all nautical navigation was visual. Captains hugged the coast looking for lighthouses to help or warn their navigation. They read a chart to see how much water depth they had to plot a course, or used a compass and stars to cross the ocean. Today, most navigators use a GPS device. A week ago, one of our docents asked a group of sixth-graders after they had climbed the tower, had a tour, and visited our Lens Museum, to think about the future of navigation. “Today, GPS is getting us from place to place on land and sea,” said the docent. “What do you think will be the next way to navigate?” I was impressed.
Our volunteer-docents aren’t just tour guides for school groups. More than half of our activities are geared to adults and families. While we offer a wonderful extension of classroom lessons in history, science, engineering, math, art, and even home economics, today’s museum visitors, young and old, are looking for a more complete experience. Our many outreach programs and presentations are a dynamic extension of our on-site experience. Our many “special days” like the recent “Florida Lighthouse Day” or “Thursday’s at the Tower,” or “Museum at Night,” feature our volunteers conducting workshops, programs and demonstrations for all visitors, and widen the scope. Check out our Facebook page and ponceinlet.org and you’ll see examples galore.
To continue staffing our involvements and encounters, and our on-site and outreach programs, we need your help. Become a volunteer at the PILH! We promise, it really isn’t a lot of rote learning, and dates and hard work. The majority of our volunteer training is shadowing our experienced docents while they do the traditional “tours,” and accompany and collaborate with them as they prepare and perform on those special days.
Get in touch with Programs Director Zach Hopple at 386-761-1821 Ex.18 or email email@example.com