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Lighthouse lovers visit the Cedar Keys

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By Kellie Parkin

If you were around town this past weekend, you may have noticed a few extra people visiting the island community. That’s because the Florida Lighthouse Association held a members meeting in the Island Room at Cedar Cove.  With more than 130 people in attendance, it was the largest meeting ever for the 14-year-old non-profit organization run entirely by volunteers who are dedicated to the preservation of the 30 remaining lighthouses along Florida’s 1200 mile coastline.  “Our mission is to preserve, restore, protect and defend Florida's lighthouse towers, along with their material culture, buildings, artifacts and records to assure that the magic of Florida's lighthouses and lighthouse keepers will be available for the enjoyment and understanding of future generations,” according to the  mission statement of the 553 member group.  Members of the FLA had heard of the Cedar Keys Lighthouse, situated four miles offshore on Seahorse Key, but few had seen firsthand the structural disrepair it suffers from – until Saturday.  After the morning meeting and lighthouse keepers presentation by Toni Collins, guests boarded the boats of Doug’s Tidewater Tours and the Island Hopper for a private tour of Seahorse Key, which remains closed all but three days of the year as a bird sanctuary in the Cedar Keys National Wildlife Refuge.   When viewing photographs of the Cedar Keys Lighthouse, visitors are often surprised by the building’s height, or lack thereof. The tower reaches just 28 feet. Once you’ve climbed the steep sidewalk leading to the front door, however, it becomes obvious as to why the structure needn’t be any taller.  The lighthouse sits atop a 52-foot Pleistocene dune – the highest elevation anywhere on the Gulf Coast, according to Refuge Ranger Pam Darty.  “The tower is really short, but it doesn’t need to be any taller because it sits on the highest point in the Gulf,” she said.  When the fourth-order Fresnel lens was lit, it could be seen from 15 miles away.  Foundational settling in the 156-year-old structure has caused large cracks in the floor and in the brick walls in some areas. The Cedar Key’s Lighthouse is the oldest continually standing lighthouse in Florida.  The Cedar Keys NWR received funding this year for a structural assessment to identify the problems plaguing the lighthouse, said NWR Manager John Kasbohm.  “The Refuge is responsible for the historical structures on NWR lands,” he said. The lighthouse, however, has been leased since 1951 to the University of Florida for use as part of its Seahorse Key Marine Laboratory. Most likely the Refuge and UF will work together to get the grants needed for restoration.  The Florida Lighthouse Association wants to help. “We don’t own any lighthouses as some other groups do, and we don’t do the restorations ourselves,” said Stan Farnham, FLA President. “We support those who own them and who will restore them.” FLA is busy raising funds in many ways, including offering special educational programs to the general public that feature noted lighthouse historians and speakers, during which donations are solicited.  A major fundraising campaign, nearly three years in the making, is the Visit Our Lights specialty license plate. FLA volunteers spent more than two years lobbying the state legislature and raising the $74,000 needed to implement the tag.  The first $14,000 was spent on a state mandated survey, and the remaining $60,000 was the state’s requirement for processing and initial production.  The license plate became available in December 2008, and 2,110 tags have been sold to date, said Farnham. The FLA receives $25 for every plate sold, totaling $52,750 in 14 months.  Since the FLA is operated strictly by volunteers, every dollar it raises goes directly to funding preservation, restoration and protection of Florida’s lighthouses and maritime heritage.   “It’s all volunteer,” said Farnham, 79, who is finishing his second and final two-year term as FLA President. “And for some of us it can be almost a fulltime job at times. I call it a labor of love – it’s a way to give back.”