Born in the Lighthouse – that’s why she’s so bright

November 8, 2019
By Marcy Shortuse

Evelyn Carter McKinney took her first breath of air in the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse. She was born in 1934 in a bedroom of the circa 1890 Lighthouse that doubles as a museum of regional history.
Her father, Light Keeper Osmund McKinney, served as the keeper of the establishment from 1931 to 1941.
Her sister Ruth recalls playing inside the assistant light keeper’s house when it was vacant. That building now houses Florida State Parks staff.
“That was our playhouse,” Ruth said. “We’d go inside all the time and bring our dolls and play for hours.”
They both attended the Boca Grande School until the family moved to Panama City in 1941. The ladies remember when there was so much erosion, it looked as if the Lighthouse was going to sink into the sea.
“I think one corner of it was actually in the water, and I believe there was some kind of grant that helped pump sand in and plant rocks near the shore,” Ruth said.
Evelyn recalls playing around the cisterns that were located under the Lighthouse that held rainwater for landscape purposes.
When he was two years old, their brother Calvin tried to climb the steps to where his father was working, and he fell and cracked his skull. “He didn’t know until years later; he had a X-ray and the doctors showed him the pictures,” Ruth said.
There was a dairy on the island in those days, and Evelyn and Ruth remember seeing cows at the south end. The family also had chickens and enjoyed fresh eggs.
“Groceries were very expensive, and we had to order them and have them delivered by train,” Evelyn said. “It was a big deal when the train came to town.”
Evelyn said they were not allowed to go to the top of the Lighthouse by themselves, but sometimes their father would bring them with him while he was working. They also were not allowed to walk on the pier by the beach alone, but both admitted that  they still did.
Every Sunday the family attended the First Baptist Church of Boca Grande, located on Fourth Street and Gilchrist Avenue.
The ladies recall that Fugate’s was the only drugstore in town.
Just before World War II, Osmund served in the Merchant Marines and carried military supplies on civilian boats.
“I remember him being gone for a while, but not many of the stories about the war,” Evelyn said.
Ruth’s daughters, Dee Lane and Mary Evelyn Harrelson, traveled with their mom and aunt from Texas to Boca Grande to visit the Lighthouse and museum on Saturday, Oct. 26.
“I remember that granddaddy loved to paint,” Mary said. “Nothing was ever shabby. He kept everything neat and clean.”
Barrier Island Parks Society Executive Director Sharon McKenzie interviewed Evelyn when she visited the island in 2011. Ruth has not been to Boca Grande for more than 50 years.
“I’ve never met a person who was born in a lighthouse,” Sharon said. “Evelyn told me she was born in a bedroom, I believe it was the room right behind the entrance to the Lighthouse. It’s closed off now, but we understand that’s where the family slept at night.”
McKenzie said the Lighthouse was decommissioned from 1966 to 1986.
“In 1986, the Coast Guard recommissioned it as an active aid to navigation,” McKenzie said. “It is still an active aid for vessels today.”
Hurricane Michael destroyed Evelyn’s house in the panhandle last year, so she’s currently staying with family in Texas.
Shown above are Evelyn Carter and Ruth Lane during their visit to the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse.
Photo by Sue