42.9709° N, 82.4249° W
Port Huron, Michigan
Fort Gratiot Lighthouse
By Patti Samar
Mike Popelka likes to keep things ship-shape.
As a Coast Guard retiree, Popelka knows a thing or two about ship life and he’s using his knowledge of all things nautical as the Port Huron Museum site manager for the Fort Gratiot Light Station.
“I’m the first one there in the mornings,” he said. “This time of year, I make sure the heat is turned up and that everything is cleaned and dusted. I make the cookies and the hot chocolate, too.”
Cookies and hot chocolate are easy-peasy for Popelka, who served as a cook in the Coast Guard on both land and sea. He was shipboard on the USCG Icebreaker Mackinaw of Cheboygan and, in his final tour of duty, on the USCG Bramble, which was docked in Port Huron.
A native of Wisconsin, Popelka spent 20 years in the Coast Guard. His active duty career took him twice to Texas, and on the second tour there he met his wife. He was also stationed in Connecticut, Puerto Rico, Sault Ste. Marie, Cheboygan and finally Port Huron. He retired as a First Class Petty Officer.
Popelka noted that he especially enjoyed his time on the Mackinaw, as it was during the 1970s when the shipping season went year round, so there was never a downtime.
Upon his retirement from the Coast Guard, Popelka worked in security for the Acheson Colloids company in Port Huron for almost 20 years. It was after his retirement from Acheson that he first began working with the Port Huron Museum as site manager for the USCG Bramble when the museum owned and took care of that vessel. Upon the sale of the Bramble to a private owner, Popelka became site manager at the Fort Gratiot Light Station.
The St. Clair County Parks and Recreation Department cares for the property at the light station so Popelka’s duties are administrative and include cleaning duties and making sure the 50 volunteers are kept abreast of events and activities scheduled for each day.
The light station is open to the public for tours from early May through December, with special holiday hours and nighttime candlelight tours of the lighthouse in December each year. The buildings on site are available for rent year round to groups holding special events. Overnight stays are available on site at the light station, as well.
“The holiday candlelight tours are an attraction to the local people,” said Popelka, who noted that many locals have climbed the lighthouse during the daylight hours, but are interested in seeing the nighttime view. “Seeing it at night is a unique opportunity.”
Popelka’s favorite part of his job? “I think meeting the people who come to see the lighthouse,” he said. “There are not too many jobs in the world where you work with the public and it’s fun.”
For more information regarding lighthouse tour dates and times, contact the Port Huron Museum at (810) 982-0891. To make a donation, call or visit the Port Huron Museum website at www.phmuseum.org/support-us/