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Connecticut’s modern-day keeper

The sun pierced through the darkened clouds, despite forecasts for thunderstorms, as the G.W. Tyler ferry pushed off Hope Dock near the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Conn. The passengers settled into their seats, listening to the welcome speech from the captain, as the ferry motored slowly toward Norwalk’s SheffieldIsland.

Norwalk resident Don Burr was also on board. Burr, whose childhood summers spent in Maine sparked a longtime interest in lighthouses, is the keeper of the Sheffield Island Light. He was returning to the island after a weekend spent on the mainland. Other times, he lives in the caretaker’s cottage on the 57-acre island, which has no electricity or running water. His family — his wife and four children, Lance, 16, Lindsay and Ashley, 13-year-old twins, and Heather, 11 — has spent much of the summer there as well.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to step back in time,” says Burr, 36. “The kids have gotten into it. They enjoy the lighthouse life. I think they’re going to remember this for the rest of their lives.”

Burr, who works with visually impaired kids during the school year, first read about the lighthouse keeper position in 2002. The Norwalk Seaport Association, which owns the lighthouse and much of the island, had placed an ad seeking a keeper for that summer. There were 30 applicants. Another man was chosen last year. Then last winter, Burr says he ran into the head of the association’s island commission and there was an informal discussion. Burr, who often spends his vacations touring lighthouses and is a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, was offered the seasonal post this year.

“The life of a lighthouse keeper is romantic, but it’s a job,” says Burr, who spent summers at his grandparents’ house that overlooked Rockland Breakwater Light in Rockland, Maine.

Years ago the keeper and his family had to carry buckets of oil up to the tower several times a day to keep the oil lanterns lit. There was always maintenance work to be done and the occasional rescue.

Burr doesn’t have to keep the light lit, but there is still plenty of work to be done. Burr’s primary duties are those of curator. He greets visitors, gives them a tour of the lighthouse and explains the history. Weekend tours began Memorial Day. The lighthouse is open daily late June through Labor Day. Weather permitting, the ferry operates a morning and an afternoon excursion to the island. The trip takes about 45 minutes.

Burr helps coordinate various special events, including the association’s events and private affairs such as weddings. He also cleans the lighthouse and sells snacks and souvenirs.

On this particular July day, visitors to the lighthouse include a group of school-aged kids from a summer program, a mother and four young children, and various adults.

“It’s challenging with large groups of children — letting them experience it without saying, ‘No, don’t touch,’ ” says Burr, who has an extensive background in youth ministry and recreational programs.

As the ferry nears the dock, the visitors gather up their bags and prepare to disembark. Burr runs ahead to raise the flags. Helpers — college students hired for the summer — unlock the Victorian-style lighthouse and open the windows.

Gershom Burr Smith (Burr is tracing his roots to see if he is related) bought the island from his father-in-law, Captain Robert Sheffield, in 1810. The first lighthouse was built in 1827 and Smith was named keeper. The lighthouse, replaced in 1868 by the present structure, used 10 oil lamps and parabolic reflectors, alternating red and white flashes. The original light was later replaced by a fourth- order Fresnel lens. The lighthouse was decommissioned in 1902 and replaced by Green’s Ledge Lighthouse. The island was purchased by Thorsten Stabell in 1914. The Stabell family still owns a part of the island, but they sold the lighthouse and most of the island to the Norwalk Seaport Association in 1986 for $700,000. The association raises funds for upkeep of the lighthouse, as well as educational programs and other non-profit causes, by hosting the annual Oyster Festival in Norwalk (Sept. 10 to 12 this year).

The Stabell family owns half an acre and still maintains a cottage there.

As Burr leads a tour through the historic structure, he tells a few tales about the former keepers and owners. One of his favorites is the tale about the island kids who would swim to the mainland with a nickel clenched in their teeth to buy ice cream.

“Every single day I learn something new,” says Burr, who also is trying to compile a more complete history of the lighthouse.

There is a keeper’s cottage next door, which was built at the same time as the original tower. The “new” lighthouse has living quarters which include a living room, dining room, kitchen and three bedrooms. Burr and his family live in the keeper’s cottage.

After a tour of the living quarters, smaller groups of visitors are led up the winding steps to the tower. There are 44 steps, and they are steep. There is no light fixture in the tower, but it offers a breathtaking view of Long Island Sound.

When the tour is complete, guests can hike the nature trails or picnic on the grounds. The school-aged children, with their leaders, head for the trails while the mother and her brood settle on the picnic tables to eat their lunch. Some stay in the lighthouse, taking a closer look at the photographs and furnishings.

Burr heads to the keeper’s cottage to complete some chores. He gazes out of the kitchen and talks about his island life. He enjoys the peacefulness and the views. Occasionally a boat goes by and interrupts the usual silence.

“It’s quiet in the morning,” says Burr. He says he often finds deer grazing just outside the kitchen door. “Sunrise is amazing. Sunset is spectacular. I’m paid in sunrises and sunsets.”

While Burr has been a lighthouse fanatic for much of his life, he didn’t become interested in the sea until recently. He doesn’t own a boat, but he recently joined the local Coast Guard Auxiliary to learn about boating. He is one of their public relations officers.

“I’ve always appreciated the nautical lifestyle but I didn’t have any opportunity to pursue it,” he says.

Burr has already been asked to return next year. He hopes to expand the education program. He also is looking forward to more restoration work.

“We’re in desperate need of renovation,” he says.

The ferry blasts its horn around 2:30 p.m., a signal that the boat will leave the island in 10 minutes. The visitors again gather their belongings and head down to the dock for the 45-minute trip back to Norwalk. The Tyler motors away, and the quaint Sheffield Light slowly slips into the distance. Visitors aboard the ferry talk more freely now, and many vow to return to the light during one of the special events. “Christmas in July” is a popular event. One weekend in July, the lighthouse is decked out in traditional Christmas decorations. The association also offers a lobster bake on Thursday evenings in the summer.