While visiting the McGulpin Point Lighthouse near Mackinaw City, I met Eric Klein. He was dressed as an early 1900s lighthouse keeper and served as the docent.
While we were talking, Eric said that he he grew up at the 40 Mile Point lighthouse. Bringing up a picture of the old lighthouse keepers home on his tablet, he pointed to a window and said “here was my room.”
“I was the last person to polish the lenses,” he said.
His dad wasn’t the lighthouse keeper. They just lived in the attached house. Every once in a while, the lighthouse caretaker would stop by and check on the light, locking the door behind them after each inspection. Then one time, they left the door unlocked. Eric did what any curious 12 year old boy would do: he climbed up the stairs.
At the top, Eric saw the lighthouse lamp. “It was filthy and black with crud, so I went back up with some rags and a can of Brasso,” he said. He cleaned not only the metal, but the lenses as well.
At the next inspection, the inspector asked who had cleaned the lamp. When Eric admitted that he had taken the cleaning on himself, the inspector said “great job” and the door to the lighthouse was never locked again while he lived there.
Years later, a lighthouse historian told Eric that the lenses should never be touched again. So he can lay claim to being the last person to polish the Frensel lenses at 40 Mile Point as his personal piece of lighthouse history.
As we talked about lighthouses and reenactors, Eric asked “Did you see my boats across the road? I build them as a hobby.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when he offered to show them to me.
I was already taking notes on my phone, as I wanted to make sure that I got his story right. Exchanging business cards, I saw “Scale model ships” on his. I was relieved that I wouldn’t be seeing huge ships like the Mackinaw Ice Breaker we had toured earlier.
However, building model “ships” – not boats when they’re at 1/24 scale – isn’t something you do on the kitchen table. As we walked across the road to the parking lot, I could hardly believe what I saw.
Just as if you were carrying a kayak, on top of his van was a vessel almost as long as his vehicle. It was the Evan A. Klein, an Great Lakes freighter, which he named after his son. Next to it, the 301, an 1890s whaleback freighter, a style of ship that fell out of favor due to its odd shape and vulnerability to collisions.
Both vessels are seaworthy and detailed enough to be realistic. Eric talked about showing photos of them to people who thought they were actual size until he showed them a photo of his son Evan next to them.
It is an unusual enough job to be a docent at a lighthouse, especially when you spend your days in period costume. Deepening his enjoyment of history as a hands on hobby with his shipbuilding, Eric Klein is truly a keeper of the past.