A room with a view
AHMEEK – The Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn stands about 25 miles northeast of Houghton in the small village of Ahmeek. At the top of the lighthouse is the sight of trees and water that stretch deep into the horizon.
While it no longer operates as a lighthouse, it has been re-appropriated by Bill and Mary Frabotta as a bed and breakfast, far from the crowds of the city. There’s not even TV.
Despite being tucked away in a secluded part of the Copper Country, people from all over the world choose the Sand Hills Lighthouse as their vacation destination.
One of those people is Donald H. Johnson, born on Dec. 15, 1920. He is 92 years old. Johnson has been visiting the area for many years ever since he was stationed at the lighthouse during his time in the Coast Guard, which he joined on Jan. 7, 1942.
“I was working at the Ford Motor Company, and I was sick of that,” Johnson said of his decision to join the Coast Guard. “Then the war came along and that gave me a reason to get out of the factory. I stayed in for five years.”
Johnson was eventually discharged on Jan. 7, 1947 and went back to work at the Ford Motor Company.
But when he first joined the Coast Guard, Johnson was sent to Buffalo, N.Y. for a few days. After, Johnson, along with 49 other men, was sent by train through Chicago to the Sand Hills Lighthouse, where he stayed for a total of three months.
“The first night we slept in a church,” Johnson said. “The next afternoon a truck drove us out to the lighthouse.”
When Johnson and his band of brothers walked into the lighthouse, they were shocked.
“No furniture, no electricity, no heat, no running water, no toilet facilities, no bunks or beds to sleep on,” Johnson said. “For the first week or so we slept on the hardwood floor. This is the middle of January. It’s cold.”
For water to drink or wash with, they had to go out to the frozen lake and chop a hole in it to get water.
About a week later, they finally received double bunk beds to sleep in.
When the war broke out, the U.S. didn’t have the facilities for the influx of men that were signing up or being drafted. They had to get every facility they could to house and train all the new personnel.
“So that’s why this place came into use,” Johnson said. “Every afternoon we’d go out and have training lessons. We had four or five officers and they were the instructors. A few times we had rifle practice on the grounds.”
Sentry duty was also part of their responsibilities, which switched between the men every four hours.
“The worst hours were midnight until 4 a.m. because it’s pitch black and you hear all these sounds in the woods,” Johnson said. “You don’t know if a bear was coming up there. Could have. I never saw one.”
There were also a few times when Johnson and the soldiers didn’t exactly follow all the rules.
“A truck brought us into town for church and after church a truck was supposed to pick us up,” Johnson said. “About six or eight of us decided to stay in town. That time we got caught. For punishment, they put us in one of the big rowboats that had been dragged over rocks and had holes in it.”
They had trouble even bringing it out into the water and soon after they had to abandon the boat.
“It was a pretty dumb thing for (the military) to do,” he said. “Risk our lives for something silly like staying in town for a few hours. The military did a lot of dumb things, as far as I’m concerned.”
But it wasn’t all just training and near insufferable conditions. Johnson met a young girl, Marguerite Moen, whom he would later marry.
He met her at Riley’s Photo Studio, which was on 5th street in Calumet.
“I took a roll of film to get developed, and all of a sudden other stuff developed,” he said. “She was a beautiful girl.”
Johnson asked her out on a date, but she said no, saying they hadn’t even been properly introduced. But Johnson didn’t give up that easily.
Marguerite was actually seeing a buddy of Johnson and he seized that opportunity to have his friend introduce him.
“She never went out with him again,” Johnson said with a hearty laugh.
Johnson must have loved her deeply, as he once walked over 17 miles just to take her to church … during the winter. The day before, the truck he would have used broke down, leaving him with no form of transportation.
Sadly, Johnson didn’t make it to church. But when Marguerite returned, Johnson was waiting for her. Her father helped played a joke on her, shoving Johnson into a closet, saying that he never showed up. But he was there. He was always there.
They married about a year and a half later at Calumet’s Norwegian Lutheran Church in a candlelight ceremony on Sept. 18, 1943.
They had three children – two daughters, Lynne Treachler and Cheryl McDowell, and one son, Donald G. Johnson, two of whom were born up here. From his children came five grandchildren – four boys and one girl. From them, two great-grandchildren.
In the background of Marguerite and Donald’s love and life together was the U.P. and the Sand Hills Lighthouse. After they married, every vacation they got would be spent up here. In 1952, they moved to Calumet. Vacations were then spent in Detroit with Johnson’s father. In 1958, they moved back to Detroit.
Marguerite passed away in 1995.
Don’s daughter Lynne, who currently lives in Carrollton, a suburb of Dallas, Texas, said they would go camping up here nearly every year and even now she continues to come.
While they didn’t always stay at the Sand Hills Lighthouse Inn, which has been open for 18 years, they would camp at various spots.
“He would call me and say, ‘I’m going up,'” Treachler said. “This is my fourth year (at the Inn). I won’t miss it. It’s just unbelievable.”
Johnson said he feels indebted to Bill and Mary, the proprietors of the Inn, for refurbishing the entire place.
“It brings back so many memories that I can’t count them all,” Johnson said.
Part of what Johnson also likes is the breakfast that’s provided.
“It’s fabulous,” Johnson said. “She fills that buffet with all kinds of goodies and it’s different each day.”
The Inn is a quiet place that is perfect for those looking to get away.
“You can’t say enough about the peace and the serenity,” Treachler said.
Johnson’s had a full life, and coming to the Inn, which he’s done 11 times, helps him realize that.
“I don’t have any qualms or regrets about any part of it,” he said. “Especially when I stay here. It’s my love of this lighthouse and the people who own it.”