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Keeper's son recalls life at Cape Romain
Sunday, May 21, 1995  —  Charleston Post and Courier

The honeysuckle blossoms weave in and out of the thick brambles that line a once-clear path to the Cape Romain Lighthouse. All's quiet except for the calls of red-wing blackbirds and some swallows which circle the black and white octagon that they have claimed as home.

In this centuries-old struggle of man versus nature, nature creeps ahead on Lighthouse Island.

Gone is the light, obsolete in today's modern world of navigational aids. Gone are the light keeper's cottages and the quaint, white-picket fence - civilization's defiant stance against an often hostile sea.

Covered up is the grave with its small cross that marks the resting place of a lighthouse keeper's wife, supposedly murdered with a butcher's knife, if you believe the stories.

Fred Wichmann does because his father, August Fredrich Wichmann, served as Cape Romain's lighthouse keeper for 21 years. Wichmann, a local real estate agent, remembers seeing the faint blood stains on the wooden floor of the keeper's cottage when he growing up. He remembers hearing the story of a Norwegian keeper named Fischer, whose wife inherited gold and jewelry from her former husband.

She wanted to take the money to visit her homeland, but her husband refused to let her go. On a stormy night, they had a terrible argument and she ran out to hide her treasure.

"When she came back in, the keeper was waiting for her with a butcher knife and he murdered her. In those days, transportation was slow, and it was considered suicide until he confessed on his death bed," he says.

Mrs. Fischer was buried on the island, her grave tended by subsequent lighthouse keepers. On quiet nights when the wind wasn't howling through the tower, his father sometimes heard footsteps on the stairs. He assumed it was one of his assistants and would open the trap door to shine the light down. No one would be there.

The hair on the back of his neck would rise. His theory was it was Mrs. Fischer's unhappy, restless soul because her death never was avenged, and she was buried on unconsecrated ground.

Wichmann likes to make an annual pilgrimage to the lighthouse, usually around his birthday on February 21, to reminisce about good times and the bad.

He can see his broad-shouldered, 5-foot-2-inch father making the spiral rounds up the stairway to crank up to the top of the tower the 200-pound weight that caused the giant reflector to rotate. He can see him polishing the brass in the light house, painting the picket fence and trimming the grass.

His father won the efficiency flag, awarded by districts to the best-kept light stations on the coast, for most of his 21 years.

"He had a lot of long boring periods out there, but there were some high points. He was very efficient. Everything was spic and span and in tip-top order."

That's not to say that he led a romantic life of the sort many associate with lighthouses, says Wichmann, recalling many sad moments for his father. His first wife and child died during childbirth, and his second wife died of a heart attack after 28 years of marriage.

"He was sort of lost and at the lighthouse by himself. It's a lonely life anyway."

Local churches would sometimes host picnics out at the cape, and it as at one of these that his father met a beautiful woman, who was 40 years his junior. His father, who was "of substantial German stock," had saved his nickels and had a good reputation in the community. They married in 1928.

Before his mother became pregnant, they used to start at the base of the tower and race 150 feet up the stairs.

"Who do think would win?" says Wichmann, grinning. "My father. He was very fit and very trim."

The night he was expected to be born, a doctor from the village came over along with a black midwife, Mammie Hessie. About daybreak and tired of having waited all night, his father went fishing. He caught a 25-pound channel bass and came up to show it off to Hessie, who was at the window.

"He held up the channel bass, and said, 'Hessie, see what I caught?' Hessie opened the window and held me up. She said, 'Captain, see what I caught?' and that was the beginning of me," says Wichmann, grinning.

His father retired when Wichmann was only 4, and his mother committed suicide when he was 7. He was lucky his father lived to be 88, staying with Wichmann in his later years, regaling him with maritime stories of old.

One of his father's favorite stories was of an ocean-going tug that wrecked during a severe gale off the coast of Bull Island. A hardy swimmer made it to the lighthouse to seek help, and his father took his small boat through the inlet to try to help the other crewmen. He rescued five men, and had to search for the captain. He finally found him down the beach clinging to a piece of wreckage.

His father, who couldn't swim, waded out into the raging surf to encourage the captain to come to safety. He said he was too tired, to leave him to the sea.

"My father put him on his back and carried him two miles down the beach and got him to the lighthouse. They exchanged Christmas cards for many years after that."

Sometimes it was dangerous work, especially during the years of Prohibition. His father used to tell the story of one hot, flat July day, when he spotted a schooner sitting low. He towed it in, and notified the owners. His father didn't ask about the mysterious cargo, but when he went back to check on the schooner, he was confronted by rum runner Peter Lambert and an armed gang of men who were claiming the ship for salvage.

His father returned to the lighthouse and discreetly called the U.S. Coast Guard, which quickly arrived to put the men in custody and blow up the schooner. Afterward, his father inspected the site and found, much to his delight, a 100-gallon barrel of scotch whiskey floating just beneath the surface.

It was rolled into the sand dunes. Wichmann smiles.

"They had friends from Georgetown, McClellanville, Charleston for years afterward sampling the Scotch whiskey in that barrel."

Wichmann says his father was a colorful character. He was good friends with S.C. poet laureate Archibald Rutledge. He also was friends with a former curator of the Charleston Museum, whom he kept stocked with birds to be stuffed that had flown into the lighthouse and broken their necks.

The loneliness and isolation didn't bother him. Having to go to the mainland did. When his father got tired of having toothaches, he finally went into McClellanville to see the dentist, who asked him which tooth needed to be pulled.

"He said, 'All of them,' and the dentist did. He was a man. He really was a tough old man - a really interesting man."

He took his job as lighthouse keeper very seriously. That's one reason he was promoted to be the Cape Romain lighthouse keeper, says Wichmann.

His former post was as keeper of the Hunting Island lighthouse. He was there when the great hurricane of 1911 struck. The iron-plated tower vibrated and shook in the storm, but his father manned his post in the lantern room where he fought to keep the giant reflector from fogging up and dulling the light. He did that for three days.

"When he came out, he was blind from the glare. He went into the hospital for three weeks in Charleston. He did regain his sight, but he had to wear glasses for the rest of his life."

"But that light never went out."

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