Meet Mrs. Wilma Daniels, A Descendant of a Lighthouse Keeper at the St. Augustine Light Station
From Investigating a Light Station, Part One: Geography and Part Two: History
Meet Wilma Daniels and her daughter, Donna Poole, who are descendants of St. Augustine Lighthouse keeper, Cardell Daniels. Wilma is unique because she is a descendant and she lived at the St. Augustine Light Station. Wilma was born at the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse in 1931 and lived there until she was three years old. The family moved when her dad was transferred to the St. Augustine Light Station, where they lived until 1943.
Wilma Daniels loves to share stories about what it was like to live at the light station. Her daddy, Cardell, was the lighthouse keeper from 1935 until 1943. He was responsible for keeping the lighthouse and the grounds in good working order. Her mama raised chickens for meat and eggs. She used chicken feed bags to make clothes for Wilma, her three brothers, and one sister. Mama also liked to grow flowers such as lilies. She could play the piano by ear.
Her brother, Cracker, liked to fish and took Wilma with him. She would say “got it” when there was a fish on the line. Cracker also liked to take Wilma’s food. He would say, “Look at that fly on the wall.” Then he could steal her food when she was not looking. Wilma charged tourists 25 cents to have their picture taken with her at the lighthouse. She used her money to go to the movies or to buy candy. When Wilma was about nine years old, she decided she could fly with the help of an umbrella. She jumped off of the shed roof and used the umbrella as a parachute. It turned inside out…Needless to say, she landed on the ground with a THUMP!
As a teenager, Wilma worked at a Woolworth’s department store in downtown St. Augustine. She rode her bike to get there. She also worked at a laundry mat. When her own children were young, she was a waitress. Wilma ended her working days as a custodian at a high school in St. Augustine. She says that this was her favorite job because she made more money and did not have to work on the weekends.
What does Wilma Daniels want you to know about growing up at the St. Augustine Light Station? The Daniels were a regular family. She had never lived anywhere but light stations, so this way of life seemed normal. Wilma played with friends, went to school, and did chores just like any other little girl.
Today, Wilma can visit her former house at the light station anytime she wants. Family weddings, receptions, and parties are held on the light station property.
Wilma Daniels continues to help the St. Augustine Light Station. She has donated furniture, such as a dresser and a mirror that her mama painted, to the Lighthouse Museum. She has also given letters and pictures from the period when her family lived at the light station. Through oral history, Wilma Daniels passes on the stories of growing up at the St. Augustine Light Station to her daughter, Donna. They think educating people about the culture of living at the light station is important. They believe that many people are very interested in their family’s stories.
Lightkeepers’ primary duty was to keep the lamps trimmed and burning. This meant that the light was lit and working so that ships could navigate safely. If the keeper was ill or had to be away from the light station, sometimes the wives, sons, and daughters kept the light burning. Keepers also repainted the outside of the tower and scraped and painted the ironwork inside the tower. The keepers and their families took care of the lighthouse grounds and buildings. Lighthouse inspectors came to check on the keeper’s work. When they passed inspection, the keeper received an efficiency star. Keeper responsibilities included tending to buoys. If a ship wrecked, the keepers rescued the people on board. They kept a log to note the activities at the light station.
Cardell Daniels’ log refers to constructing and repairing stables, chicken coops, and barnyard enclosures. There are references to gardens, but not specific crops. The log frequently mentions digging holes for trash.
Schooling was important for children who lived at light stations. Some families taught their children at home if no school was near. Other kids stayed with family on the mainland during the week if the lighthouse was remote. They returned home to the light station on the weekend. Other lighthouse kids traveled by boat to get to the school bus stop. Wilma Daniels rode the bus to attend school in St. Augustine.
At home, children did chores before they could play. They cleaned the lantern windows around the lens, washed floors, cared for the animals, and worked in the garden. They explored and played on the light station grounds. Boating, fishing, swimming, and digging for clams or oysters were popular activities. Building models, playing with dolls, and learning to knit and crochet were other interests. Wilma Daniels liked to play with her dolls, ride her tricycle, or play outside with her brother, Cracker.
For many lightkeepers and their families, life was remote. When the mail came, it was the highlight of the day because it was a chance to visit with friends. The US Lighthouse Service provided a Traveling Library which contained all sorts of books. Light stations shared these portable libraries. The Lighthouse Service provided each family with a chest containing basic medical supplies like iodine and tooth pullers because doctors usually did not live near the light stations. For the Daniels family, these things were not necessary. The St. Augustine Light Station was located close to the city. Keepers and their families had a regular mail schedule and had access to the city library and local doctors.