Volunteers keep Mukilteo lighthouse shining

MUKILTEO — When John Collier volunteers at the Mukilteo Lighthouse, many times over the course of a day he’ll tell people the story of the antique Fresnel lens that still shines far into Puget Sound.

He’s been doing it for 12 years and never gets tired of it.

He’s one of 40 regular volunteers who explain the history and workings of the lighthouse to visitors, run the gift shop, keep the grounds and buildings immaculate and create the historical exhibits.

One longtime volunteer, Ellen Koch, recently received a key to the city from Mayor Joe Marine for her work at the lighthouse and grounds.

“We love to do it because we get such a positive response from the people coming here, it’s fun,” said Collier, 71.

The lighthouse gets up to 15,000 visitors every year from all over the world, based on those who sign the guestbook, said Ann Collier, John’s wife, who also is 71 and been volunteering for 12 years.

On a busy summer day up to 400 people will visit, on a slower day, maybe 50 to 100, Ann Collier said.

Most of those people will have some interaction with the volunteers.

The lighthouse and gift shop are open only on weekends and holidays from April through September. The gift shop is open on Saturdays in December before Christmas.

Some of the volunteers have specialties, preferring to work in the lighthouse or the gift shop, but they all pitch in where needed. Most work one day per month in the spring and summer, four or five people each day, and more on especially busy days, such as during the annual Lighthouse Festival in early September.

It was at the festival earlier this month that Koch received the honor from the mayor.

Koch, 68, has volunteered for 18 years. She especially enjoys designing exhibits and working on the grounds.

Lois Brown, another volunteer, nominated her, Koch said.

Plans for the presentation of the key, made from crystal, were kept secret from her beforehand.

“I was amazed,” she said.

Many of the volunteers, such as the Colliers, live in Mukilteo, but others, such as Koch, don’t. She lives in south Everett and treks to the lighthouse up to three times a week, year round, to work on the grounds or exhibits in addition to summer weekends.

Koch wasn’t eligible for annual awards in Mukilteo such as Pioneer of the Year or Citizen of the Year because she doesn’t live within the city limits. So Marine came up with the “key” idea as a way to confer a special honor, he said. It won’t necessarily be an annual thing.

“It was the first one I’ve given,” said Marine, who has been mayor since 2006. “We wanted to do something for Ellen.”

Koch rounds up extra volunteers for jobs such as planting flowers and painting the white picket fence. Then she and other regular volunteers tend to ongoing tasks such as pulling weeds. The city mows the lawn but the volunteers do the rest.

“She just loves it like it was her own house,” John Collier said.

“It is my passion,” Koch said. “I take such good pride because it just looks beautiful all the time.”

Volunteers also take pride in the history of the lighthouse, built in 1906, and its scenic setting.

“We have a beautiful place and I like to showcase it,” said volunteer Brenda Thorsen, 60, who works during the week as a school nurse for the Mukilteo School District.

“It’s a gem. We’re very fortunate.”

Many lighthouses — there are 26 in Washington — are not open to the public, John Collier said.

“It’s one of the few opportunities for people to come and see a working lighthouse up close,” he said.

Nearly all the volunteers are members of the Mukilteo Historical Society, which has more than 100 members altogether.

Proceeds from the gift shop go to support the non-profit historical group. Bette Burns, who has been volunteering about 10 years, likes working there.

“I like to help sell things,” said Burns, 79.

Another historical society member, Bev Schreiber, designs mugs and cards on sale at the shop, which also carries clothing, caps, books and many other items.

The longest-serving volunteer, according to John Collier, is Beverly Dudder-Ellis, 92. She was active as far back as the 1930s and was a founding member of the historical society in the 1960s. She still helps out at the lighthouse doing research, Collier said.

Other volunteers started just recently.

“We do have younger people who volunteer,” Koch said, laughing.

“But we always need more,” John Collier said. “We’re always looking for more fun-loving people persons.

“They’re all precious in our eyes.”

Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; sheets@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

The Mukilteo Lighthouse and gift shop are now closed for the winter except by special arrangement for groups. The gift shop is scheduled to be open from noon to 4 p.m. Dec. 1, 8 and 15. The lighthouse is planned to be open for a visit from Santa Claus on Dec. 8.

The lighthouse is open to the public on weekends and holidays from April through September. For more information go to http://mukilteohistorical.org/.

For more information on group tours call Karen Carpenter at 425-347-2719.

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