Light the Way

Exhibit shines light on St. Augustine's Keeper
//by Ron Whittington


It was 10 years after the Civil War when William Harn and his family took up residence at the St. Augustine Lighthouse, and visitors will soon be able to experience what life was like for the Harns when a new interactive exhibit opens at the lighthouse keeper’s home in October.

“We actually didn’t have any photos of the interior of the house in putting together the exhibit, but we used photos of other lighthouse keepers’ homes from the same time period, so it’s very authentic,” says Paul Zielinski, a museum educator at the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Museum.

Zielinski says they had to search out period furniture from the 1870s for the At Home with the Harns exhibit, noting that finding items in the East Lake-style, a geometric and floral pattern popular during the day, was the biggest challenge. However, he says they were fortunate to run into some “good finds,” gathering all the necessary pieces at local antique stores.

“Harn’s wife, Kate, was originally from Maine, so when he passed away in 1889 she moved back home and took all of her things with her,” he says. “But these pieces are very much what a home like theirs would have had at the time. All have a very strong Victorian influence, which may seem a little fancy to us, but it represents the socio-economic status of a lighthouse keeper in those days.”

To the 200,000 annual visitors to the museum, PR Coordinator Shannon O’Neil says most are unaware that the 2,400-square-foot, two-story residence adjacent to the light- house actually housed two families, which led to some very tight living conditions.

“The house was originally a duplex, with one half used by the head lighthouse keeper and his family and the other side used by the first assistant to the keeper,” she says. “Harn had five daughters and all of them shared one of the bedrooms, while Harn and his wife had the other. It was very cramped conditions.”

O’Neil says that while most visitors see or go through the lighthouse, they don’t always connect with the family who lived there 140 years ago.

“It was their home, but it was also a military outpost,” O’Neil says. “It may sound like a cushy job, but it wasn’t. As the lighthouse keeper, he had to climb the tower with a bucket of hot oil every night to keep it lit, and there was ongoing work like painting the tower and maintaining the lens. His life was very regimented, and so was the family’s. They all had duties and assignments.”

Hard work as it was, Harn’s service at the lighthouse was less dangerous compared to what he had been through before he pulled the assignment in St. Augustine.

The Pennsylvania native was serving with the Union Army at Fort Sumter when the Confederates began shelling the South Carolina outpost and the Civil War was officially ‘on.’ After he and the other Union soldiers evacuated the fort, Harn joined a Union Army artillery regiment in New York. He engaged with the Confederates at many major battles, including Gettysburg where he commanded an artillery regiment, and ended the war during the final campaign against Confederate General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.

I bet there were very few Union soldiers who started out at Fort Sumter and ended up at Appomattox,” Zielinski says.

By the time Harn arrived in St. Augustine on what would be his final military assignment, he was a decorated war hero.

Once they moved into the home, Zielinski says the family didn’t leave very often.

“The family wouldn’t have been going into St. Augustine much, but tourists from St. Augustine would have been coming out here,” he says.
“They would let visitors climb the tower and entertain them in the parlor. Since Kate and the five daughters lived here, they were very well-known in the community.”

While maintaining the décor and authenticity of the time, the museum hopes the interac- tive parts of the exhibit will help visitors better understand the family’s way of life.

“There will be screen sections where guests can interact with the people who lived here,” Zielinski says. “How Harn felt about the issues of the day, how Kate and her daughters thought of their activities they were involved with... cooking, homework, dining and the games they would have played as a family. Visitors will really get a good idea of what life was like from the perspective of the family members.”

As part of the exhibit, a virtual modern-day archeologist will also provide an historical perspective on St. Augustine during the mid-1800s and the Harn Family.

The museum held a ‘soft opening’ of the new attraction in late July, and expects it to be on display for several years. The museum plans to bring a Civil War expert from the Smithsonian Institute to give a presentation when it opens to the public in October. Viewing of the new exhibit is included in the $9.95 general admission price, and O’Neil says the museum offers a special behind-the-scenes tour of the entire attraction three times a day.

O’Neil says that creating the exhibit has been a “project of love” among those involved. “The whole thing came from a donor, who is surprising someone in her family and funded the exhibit,” she says. “We’ve all been very passionate in recreating the experience of the
Harn Family during their time here.”