From a Newspaper Clipping

Mr. Elof Bernstorff lived for a time at Minturn on Swan’s Island and wrote articles for newspapers. The following is from such an undated article from some local paper.

By: Elof Bernstorff

There’s something about a Maine woman which gives you the feeling of indestructibility. Like the state itself, she stands rugged under tender blue skies, filled with the music of sea and forest, strongly beautiful, ageless. Add to this a spark of dry humor, and you have Mrs. Nettie Milan, reputedly the oldest resident of Swan’s Island.

No one knew how many candles to put on Mrs. Milan’s birthday cake. Someone with more temerity than we asked, “How old are you, Nettie?”

“What do you mean, old?” The bright gray-blue eyes snapped behind their glasses, and Nettie’s mouth slanted into a dry smile.

And right she is, for her mind is young and gay. In this comfortable little sitting-room filled with the aroma of fresh coffee and cake, crowded by momentoes of a full life, we lingered after the others had gone, hoping for a deeper glimpse into the remarkable personality which for years has set the social pace of Swan’s Island.

“How lonely you must have been during your 34 years on Burnt Coat Light!” we said.

“Nonsense!” The frail, long-fingered hands poured two more cups of coffee, “I was never lonely in my life. Too much going on!”

Little by little, she took us back through the years, pausing now and then to lose herself in sort of a reverie. Her slender figure was as straight as young spruce. Her expressive hands toying with the silver as if she were laying out the pattern of her life.

At such moments, the room seemed filled with the rushing winds of Hockamock Head, surf pounding against the ledges, schooners running aground, and men struggling in the breakers. All through it, we felt the indomitable courage of the Maine woman whose charms and vivacity had captured the hearts of her many neighbors and held them these many years.

Nettie Saunders came from Down East. She was born in Eastport, and later her family moved to Calais. Orin Milan was assistant light-keeper on Mt. Desert Rock when they were married. Five years later, they came to Swan’s Island. They had two children, Frank and Urla.

As she recalled the days on Mt. Desert Rock, a faint shudder trembled through Nettie’s frail body. One day, for instance, she stood on the shore and watched Captain Milan struggle with death in the boiling water. C. W. Thurston, an assistant light-keeper, attempted to leave Mt. Desert Rock in a small boat that capsized, throwing him into the breakers.

Not able to swim, the strong undertow threw him against the rocks until he became unconscious. Captain Milan rowed into the breakers but was unable to reach the helpless man. The captain went ashore and tried to catch the body as the sea hurled it onto the shore.

The second attempt succeeded. With the help of the woman at the station, he dragged the man to safety. Thurston had been in the water fifteen minutes. It took two hours to bring him back to life.

Nettie remembers the New Years’ night the British schooner Prohibition went aground. “It was a cold and pleasant night.” She said, “Except for the wind. The Prohibition sailed out of Yarmouth, N. S., and trying to get into Burnt Coat Harbor, missed her stays and had to anchor off the Sou’west point of Harbor Island. It was blowing a moderate gale. She rode it out for about two hours when the starboard chain parted and she dragged to within a ship’s length of Scrag Island where she brought up and dragged ashore. Orin and two seamen started out in a dory to rescue the crew, but when they got there the six men were out on the island. They’d have had to stay there all night at two below zero if the dory hadn’t brought them home to warm beds. My, but they were grateful! I don’t know how many days it took the tugs from Rockland to work her off.”

Her words, terse and factual, nevertheless painted the picture for us. A picture of looming black water swirling into white combs as the tide pushed it over the rocks of a disabled schooner like a fly caught in syrup, tossed by the heaving sea which lifted her over the ledges. The dory nosed through the water, its oars dripping silver in the moonlight. The strong woman watched from the kerosene lit tower while the men took the shivering crew off the rocky shelterless island, dry clothing and hot coffee waiting in the warm kitchen below.

Nettie Milan remembers, too, the night the Rockland Steamer caught fire at the steamboat wharf. The slanting smile came out again as she said, “The crew was up to the Odd Fellows Hall. Everyone left the dance, and the boys all in their Sunday clothes, hauled her off while she was burning.” Then soberly, “She dies right there in the harbor.”

Yet, sitting there behind her coffee table, the deep waves of her grey hair caught neatly in a net. Her skin was as clear as it must have been in her youth. This remarkable woman showed no sign of the austerity of her life.

Others tell us she has the happy faculty of laughing at her own mistakes and misadventures. Even after her husband’s death and losing the big house he built for her, she was happy to move into the snug little house near the harbor where you can sit at her window with Orin’s ancient binoculars. On parting, Nettie Milan handed us her scrapbook.

“If you find any way of figuring out how old I am,” she said, her mouth taking that downward quirk, “I’ll thank you to keep it to yourself!”

The book, yellow and cracking with age, goes back more than 50 years. All dates were carefully deleted. Clearly through its pages walks the straight little figure of a Maine woman with immeasurable fortitude, moving gayly from one event to another.

There are programs from parties, plays, and dances. Records of visits and visitors, friends from Maine to Texas, even one who narrowly missed death during the San Francisco earthquake. There are birth, weddings, deaths, accidents, hurricanes, heavy partings, and deep sorrow.

Then, we remembered that Nettie Milan had been a newspaper correspondent for Swan‘s Island at one time, president of the Ladies’ Aid for 35 years, and avidly listened to world news on her radio when we left, never mentioned a neighbor by name. She told us she detests gossip.

“There’s so much good in the worst of us,” she quoted, “and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves none of us to speak ill of the rest of us!”

What Visitors Have To Say

This is our first time to Swan’s Island and the Keeper’s House Apartment….How lucky we are to have found this treasure! We loved our week of peace, nature, and beauty. The shimmering water, the ever-changing sky and clouds, the trails in the woods …made for a restorative week.

- Paul and Bonnie, August 2020

This place quietly, simply, intoxicates you. Senses are full; smell, sights, sounds … yet not enough to overwhelm, just enough to soothe, just enough to make you fully aware of the natural gift Hockamock offers.

- Conrad and Michelle, August 2020

What a perfect holiday!! … Heaven on earth …lobster every night for dinner, fabulous hikes, amazing kayaking, spectacular sunsets…But perhaps the most cherished memory is the kind and lovely people of this island….

- Mary Beth & Michael, Sept. 2020

I have always wanted to stay at a lighthouse and now my dream has come true! The keeper’s quarters and the entire lighthouse park completely exceeded my expectations! Thanks for providing everything my son and I needed for a perfect stay and such amazing hospitality….

- Kristin and Izak, Sept. 2020

What a magic place. Sun and moon glinting off the water. The lighthouse beam in the trees, the sound of a gentle surf when the tide is in. The bell buoy ringing in the channel. Wonderful sunsets.

- Mike and Kathy, September 2019

The view out our window - moonlight on the ocean, porpoises, giant owls - plus the sound of the gong, and the wild berries…truly a special experience.

- Rebecca and Rich, August 2019

The apartment is beautiful. And the view is amazing! We could not have asked for a better vacation. We plan to return!

- Ann and Dave, September 2018

Thank you to ALL who made our stay so wonderful and relaxing. To the Islanders who told of trails to explore, thank you! We look forward to returning to this little piece of heaven on earth.

- Heather and Jamie, September 2018

From the amazing Light Keeper’s House to the beautiful view from the porch of the same, the amazingly friendly people, and our daily hikes along this rugged Maine Coast. Everything was perfect.

- Leesa and Howard, August 2018

Everything is magical! This is one of the best vacations! Ever!

- Ronald and Janet, July 2018

The beauty you offer is immeasurable. The clarity of light, wind, and Downeast character here recharged me.

- Lee, June 2018

What a wonderful place! We were in awe the moment we arrived. What a quiet and peaceful location for a vacation.

- David and Lorie, June 2018

You truly have a treasure perched out here atop the rocks with the vast sea at the doorstep. We watched a bright moon spilling its light onto the water, listening to the music of the waves, and wondering anew at the stars emerging in the dark sky.

- Susan, September 2017

This has been a lifetime experience! The beauty of Swan’s Island can’t be described in words or photographs, for they just don’t do it justice. I look forward to coming back again next year!

- Lacy, September 2017

We just stayed there and it is tremendous. The view and setting are amazing. The quality of the Keeper's house (2nd floor) is excellent. It is fresh, well decorated, and spacious.

- Mary, July 2017

We are fortunate to have traveled to many places in this world, but still contend, by far, this is the prettiest place on earth. Stay in the keeper's house. You will not be disappointed!!!! It is special.

- Spencer, July 2017