When 19-year-old Vernon Cooper landed at the mouth of the Wicomico River, the Wisconsin native didn’t catch on right away that he’d found his forever home. He didn’t have a crystal ball. He couldn’t see that there was a Dames Quarter gal in his future.
The U.S. Coast Guard stationed Vernon at Great Shoals Light in 1951. That screwpile affair had been guiding vessels on their way to Salisbury since the oyster gold rush days of the 1880s. It stood out in the water at the upper end of Tangier Sound, two miles by boat from the nearest town with a post office—yup, the town of Dames Quarter.
Vernon shared tight quarters in that cottage-style beacon with two other guardsmen. Their drinking water was collected in barrels strategically set under the roof of the cottage to collect rainwater. Later, Vernon would remember feeling grossed out by the sight of gulls and other birds doing their business on that roof.
“I was lonely and very, very bored,” he said. “People would come by [in boats], wave, holler to us. That was about it. No visitors.”
Each guardsman was responsible for his own meals. Vernon didn’t know how to cook. He soon landed in a doctor’s office on the mainland, complaining of persistent stomach pains. The doctor asked, “What are you eating?” Vernon confessed that he had been eating nothing but hot dogs and hamburgers.
The days all ran together on the lighthouse. Polishing, scrubbing, painting, log-book writing, re-filling the kerosene lamp. There was no shower or bathtub. There wasn’t even any hot water, unless he warmed some up on a ramshackle stove. Doing laundry involved an old-school washboard.
A Honeymoon on Great Shoals
Vernon served shifts that ran 21 straight days. Then he got a week off. Presumably, it was during one of those off-duty stretches that he met 21-year-old Juanita Bozman, though it’s also possible that he first laid eyes on her while on duty, during one of his boating runs that involved stops at the post office or visits to a store in Dames Quarter run by Delmas and Eva Shores.
However Vernon and Juanita met, it must have been love at first sight, or something very close to it. They were married within six short months.
That’s where this story takes a fun, unexpected turn. Lighthouse keepers have a reputation for sticking by the rules and regulations. Surprise visits by supervisors happened now and again—the keepers had to have the lighthouse ready at all times to pass a famously rigorous white-glove inspection.
But a romantic notion grabbed hold in Vernon’s heart and wouldn’t let go. Somehow, he convinced his Coast Guard compadres to cooperate. The two other guardsmen left the lighthouse so that Vernon and Juanita could have a weeklong honeymoon on Great Shoals Light. No official dispatches requesting this arrangement were sent to higher-ups. The other guardsmen simply went AWOL.
The honeymoon suite on Great Shoals was a cramped affair with twin bunk beds. The powder room was a rickety outdoor privy hanging out over the water.
The Salisbury Daily Times did two stories over the decades about this 1951 interlude. Both were written by first-rate chroniclers of Delmarva history and culture—the first, in 1972, by Orlando Wooten, and the second in 2002, by Brice Stump.
Juanita was 72 years old when she was interviewed for that latter story. She had suffered two strokes by this time. She was fighting cancer, too. But her description in that interview of those honeymoon days hints at the vibrant personality that left Vernon falling head over heels:
“We fished, we swam, listened to the radio and danced–and had sex, lots of sex.”
In between romantic interludes, Juanita went to work. She took over the cooking duties. She helped Vernon refill that kerosene lamp. Perhaps it came naturally to her because her grandfather, Calvin Bozman, had been a keeper at the not-so-far-way Hooper Strait Lighthouse. (Alas, that assignment ended in tragedy. In September 1918, a passing ship reported that the lighthouse was dark. An oyster boat came upon Bozman’s body, drifting in the strait. An investigation concluded that he had fallen from a storage platform while sawing wood.)
In Juanita’s memories, everything about that lighthouse honeymoon week in July 1951 was perfect. Love had transformed the loneliness Vernon complained about into something approaching heaven on earth.
“There never was more perfect weather,” Juanita told Orlando Wootten. “The sun shone all day, and the moon at night. We had the whole place to ourselves with not a neighbor for miles, except for passing boats.”
The cottage-housed light at Great Shoals continued to light the way into the Wicomico River for those passing boats well into the 1960s. But then its light was automated, and the Coopers’ honeymoon cottage was torn down. Its metal foundation remains in place today, supporting a light that shines from a pole, sans the romance of that old-school cottage.
Juanita and Vernon never got a chance to go back and pay a visit.
“I really loved that old lighthouse, and just hated to see it torn down,” Juanita said. “We spent a wonderful week there, and no one ever found out.”
Forever Home in Somerset County
During his 20 years with the Coast Guard, Vernon was stationed on the other side of the Chesapeake Bay at Solomons Island for a while. He also did time in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska and in Chicago. Juanita followed him on those travels, of course. When those wandering years came to an end, the couple returned to Somerset County.
Vernon owned the Anderson Marine hardware store on Deal Island. He also held several posts over the years with the state of Maryland. He hung on to one thread of his Wisconsin roots, becoming well known as the biggest Green Bay Packers fan in Somerset County. He hung out with the Manokin Gun Club as well.
Juanita spent most of her married years in the roles of housewife and mother. She was very active in the American Legion Ladies’ Auxiliary. In their later years, the couple lived in the town of Princess Anne.
Juanita died in 2004 at the age of 76. Vernon joined her on the other side in 2011 at age 81. The couple had five children. At the time of Vernon’s death, they had eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Here’s hoping the two of them are enjoying a second honeymoon on some heavenly beacon.
–written and posted by Jim Duffy on Dec. 19, 2020 for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC.
• The photo of Great Shoals Light here is in the collection of the U.S. Coast Guard. The photo of Vernon and Juanita in their 70s accompanied the 2002 article in the Salisbury Daily Times that I mentioned. It was taken by Brice Stump.
• I did a post on the Secrets of the Eastern Shore Facebook page that has some more background on the Great Shoals light. See that post here.
• The map here also appeared in the Salisbury Daily Times. It was created by Erick Sahler before he became famous as the resident artistic genius at the Delmarva-themed Erick Sahler Serigraphs. If you are unfamiliar with his work, you should check it out.