2018-07-12 / Life in Leelanau

Nonprofit continues work to restore South Fox building

By Jen Murphy
of the Enterprise staff


PLANNING FOR repairs. Jerry Spears of Northport details proposed work for the exterior of the fog signal building on South Fox Island. Spears, a contractor, has completed work to restore buildings on the island in the past. Photo by Tim Statler PLANNING FOR repairs. Jerry Spears of Northport details proposed work for the exterior of the fog signal building on South Fox Island. Spears, a contractor, has completed work to restore buildings on the island in the past. Photo by Tim Statler Not all Leelanau County historic buildings were built on the peninsula. The first ones were built on islands off the Leelanau coast.

Seventeen miles northwest of Cathead Point, several century-old buildings still guard over the southern tip of South Fox Island. And the Fox Island Lighthouse Association (FILA) is a group of volunteers who are dedicated to their preservation.

Why is the group working tirelessly to restore the island’s buildings?

Simply put, it’s a part of our history.

Long ago, there were people who risked their lives to do this, FILA founding board member and Suttons Bay resident Sandy Bradshaw explained. That’s when the Great Lakes were our superhighways.


A NONPROFIT has been hard at work restoring the South Fox Island lighthouse complex. A NONPROFIT has been hard at work restoring the South Fox Island lighthouse complex. The lighthouse built in 1867 on South Fox Island helped keep mariners safe.

“(South Fox Island) is really far out there, and not everybody can get out there, but it’s still a part of our maritime history,” she said. “The South Fox Island lighthouse station has seven buildings. Those buildings are still intact, and that’s a big deal.”

The most recent work spearheaded by FILA involved restoration of the South Fox Island fog signal building, which included both interior and exterior work.

The roof was replaced by Northport resident and general contractor Jerry Spears, who, according to Bradshaw, has made 28 trips to the island so far this year.

Those trips are no small feat. After traveling 25 nautical miles from a marina in Leelanau County, a boat has to anchor offshore because the island has no dock open to the public. Supplies were brought to the island via dinghy.

“It can be rough out there,” Bradshaw said. “You have to cross the Manitou Passage, where who knows how many shipwrecks are out there.”

Getting workers and equipment offloaded is challenging.

“It’s hard getting all of the supplies off, let alone people.” Bradshaw said. Plans to build a dock at the island are “on the radar, but it’s going to cost a lot. A lot.”

She added that there’s much work to do in the future, but a foundation has been established. “Just looking at those before and after photos, it’s like, ‘Pinch me. Is this really real?’”

FILA volunteer Karen Wells is equally pleased with the group’s latest accomplishment.

“This is a great project to get under our belt,” she said. “We believe the current roof dates to a 1929 when the fog signal was converted from steam to compressed air. While we don’t expect the new roof to last quite that long, it should protect this building for a long, long time.”

Wells said more work is planned for the fog station structure. “It’s the biggest and most complex and will protect the building to buy us time to do the rest as time and money allows,” she said.

The next step will likely be repairing and replacing the building’s siding.

“We’re still researching the proper color scheme for painting,” Wells said. “The building was originally all red when constructed… People often focus on the construction itself, but we put hours into researching and planning to try to make sure our projects are as historically correct as possible.”

An important project for the digital era was the installation of a cell phone booster. Island communications have been challenging, according to Wells. Fortunately, FILA received a grant from the Leelanau Township Community Foundation to help with expenses.

“One of our biggest issues is that of safety on the island,” Bradshaw said. “Having this cell phone booster greatly improves communication and personal feelings of safety when being in such a secluded location as South Fox Island.”

Wells said FILA volunteer Kathy Rollins, who is spending her fourth summer on South Fox Island, appreciated getting a signal with no luck involved. Rollins and her husband, Bruce, are both retired engineers from Bullard, Texas.

FILA now plans to restore the interior of the fog signal building to be historically accurate.

“We have the most dedicated volunteers,” Bradshaw said. “They are dedicated to maritime history. They do it with passion and love.”

The 150-strong member group has provided several public awareness campaigns and presentations since organizing in 2005.

“We have a long way to go, but we want other people to enjoy it. Other people should be able to stay there. It belongs to the State of Michigan, which means it belongs to everybody and we all have a say in it.”

A presentation of the group’s work and mission was hosted yesterday by the Leelanau Historical Society.

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