Home sweet lighthouse: Willmar resident writes book about his 36 years caring for the Split Rock Lighthouse
Lee and Jane Radzak of Willmar lived for 36 years at the Split Rock Lighthouse Historical Site while Lee worked as the site's manager. Once he retired, Lee wrote a book about the family's experiences living at the lighthouse.
WILLMAR — When Lee Radzak started to write a book about the job he held for 36 years, his wife, Jane, wasn't sure how important or necessary their family's experiences were to the narrative.
"To me, we just lived our life like everybody else does," Jane said. "What do we have that is different than anyone else's life?"
But, when your home for those 36 years is arguably one of the best-known locations in Minnesota, people are naturally curious about what it was like to live there. Because, you see, Lee was the historic site manager for Split Rock Lighthouse overlooking Lake Superior on Minnesota's North Shore. The family lived in one of the historic keeper houses — just steps away from the famous lighthouse — for nearly four decades.
"It was a great place to live, and the job was fantastic," Lee said. "There was so much variety living right on the edge of Lake Superior."
After his retirement in 2019, the couple moved to Jane's hometown of Willmar. Lee was approached about writing a book about his time as the lighthouse's keeper. The book, "The View from Split Rock," published by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 2021, tells the story of the lighthouse, Lee's work at the site and the family's adventures from fall through summer, living above the crashing waves of the largest Great Lake.
"Both our job and our personal life was ruled by the seasons. Jane came up with the idea to organize the book by the seasons," Lee said.
The book, priced at $19.95, can be purchased online at the historical society's website at shop.mnhs.org/products/view-split-rock.
Journey to Split Rock
Lee first started working for the Minnesota Historical Society as an archaeologist in 1976. He worked on the statewide archaeological survey, where teams of archaeologists traveled the state looking to uncover and record the state's prehistoric and historic sites and artifacts. In 1980, Lee spent the summer in Kandiyohi County.
"We were finding things 5,000 years old in the county," Lee said. The team even did a survey of Robbins Island in Willmar, finding evidence of human habitation.
Lee also met Jane during that summer. Her parents had Native American burial mounds near their lake property on Lake Henderson, and Jane's mother went to a presentation held by Lee and the other archaeologists. Jane's mom came home and told her daughter all about the nice young man she had met.
"Yes, my mother set us up," Jane said.
In 1982, the site manager position at the lighthouse came open and Lee applied. As someone who lived most of his life in the Twin Cities and loved northern Minnesota, the Split Rock job appealed to Lee, and also to Jane. The couple were married in the late summer of 1982.
"Three months later, we got the job at Split Rock and moved up there," Lee said.
Life at Split Rock
The newlyweds arrived at Split Rock, located about 10 miles from the city of Silver Bay, in November 1982, not exactly the best time to move. The house the couple was to move into, the middle home of the row of three keeper houses at the site, hadn't yet been prepared for winter.
"I was doing that in a snow storm, putting the storm windows on that first year," Lee said.
Lee and Jane had two children, John and Anna, both who lived their entire childhoods at the lighthouse.
Living at Split Rock can be isolating, since the nearest town with a grocery store is 10 miles away and winter storms can knock out power or make roads impassable for days at a time. On the other hand, the family also had to live with a lack of privacy for several months a year, as the site is a popular tourist attraction from late spring into fall.
Despite those challenges, it was a great place to grow up and raise a family, the couple shared.
As site manager, Lee had responsibility for the upkeep of the entire 25-acre MNHS lighthouse site. That included taking care of 11 historic buildings, hiring staff and maintaining good relationships with the local communities and other organizations like the Department of Natural Resources which oversees the 2,000-acre Split Rock Lighthouse State Park that surrounds the lighthouse.
"Basically it was the maintenance, preservation and interpretation of the historic site," Lee said.
Split Rock Lighthouse was operational from 1910 until 1969 when the United States Coast Guard decommissioned and deeded the lighthouse property, including all of the internal workings of the lighthouse, to the state of Minnesota. MNHS took over in 1976.
"It is really unique," Lee said, because it is one of just a few lighthouses still with its original lens and equipment — and operational. "Over the years it took a lot of work, different assessments, to keep it working and keep it accessible to the public."
Lee was only the second MNHS site manager for Split Rock.
During his 36-year tenure, the society built the visitor's center; the lighthouse was listed as a National Historic Landmark; tours of the site, including one of the keeper's houses and up into the lighthouse, were started; and a calendar-worth of programming was created.
"It is gratifying to look back on that and think what happened during our time there that is being carried on," Lee said.
Those accomplishments include the annual commemoration of the 1975 sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a 729-foot iron ore carrier. On the 10th anniversary of the ship's sinking, Lee said he heard the popular song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot on the radio. When he got back home, Lee told Jane he was going to turn the beacon light on in remembrance.
Every year since, the event has brought more and more people to the lighthouse, some even flying in from other states and countries. Because Split Rock is considered decommissioned, the beacon can't be lit all the time. The anniversaries of the Fitzgerald sinking and on July 31, the day the lighthouse was first operational, provide the rare chance for the public to see Split Rock in all its glory.
"People love a lighthouse," Lee said.
Saying goodbye to Split Rock
Over the years, Split Rock Lighthouse became busier and busier. New programming, social media and a campground within the state park were all set to continue growing that popularity.
By 2019, Lee and Jane felt it was time for them to hand the lighthouse over to its next keeper.
"It was time," Lee said.
The couple moved back to Willmar, in part to care for Jane's elderly mother. Shortly after retiring, Lee began work on his book. He was assisted by Curt Brown, a journalist and author.
"He was great to work with," Lee said. "We worked together well on it."
Following publication, Lee was invited back to the lighthouse to give presentations on his book. He also gave a talk at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society.
Even though Lee and Jane have been living in Willmar for nearly three years already, they are still getting used to living away from the rural and wild area around Split Rock. The weather in Willmar is different, and Jane has found it hard to break the habit of stocking up on essentials. They do sometimes miss living at Split Rock, especially the aspects that made it such a unique home, such as the massive storms blowing off the lake or living so close with nature.
The Radzaks' time at Split Rock accounted for nearly a third of the lighthouse's existence. It is a time Lee and Jane will always look back on as well-spent. While Split Rock might just be a beautiful scenic site for many of its visitors, for the Radzaks, it will always be something more special.
"It is home," Jane said. "It is where your memories are."