Mildred Carpenter Jewett, born on September 24 1907, spent her life in service to both people and animals in distress. She lived in Madaket from the age of 4, only left the island 10 times in her lifetime, and eventually earned the nickname “Madaket Millie.” There she fished, opened scallops, and helped the US Coast Guard.
Famously gruff with many adults, Millie opened her heart to animals, children, and her Madaket neighbors. Her cottage, located in the marshes of Hither Creek, served as an ice cream parlor, sanctuary for wounded wildlife, a dog training center, and a US Coast Guard command post during different periods in her life.
Born on the island, Jewett and her family moved to Madaket in 1911 where they lived on her grandmother’s farm. Jewett was the daughter of a fisherman and scalloper who taught her the maritime skills that would serve her so well all her life.
She learned to open scallops at age seven, assisted in rescuing crew from a shipwreck at age ten, and by the time she was eleven was acknowledged by the adults around her to be a superior mariner.
She was fascinated by the ocean and would often sit on the roof of her grandmother’s home and gaze out to sea for hours.
The family lived near the Madaket Life Saving Station and as a child Jewett was a frequent visitor there. Before the Coast Guard, the US Life Saving Service operated manned life-saving stations all along the coast. Crews of “surf men” kept watch for ships in distress. When necessary, the surfmen assisted crews and passengers of ships in trouble and worked to safely bring them ashore. Nantucket had life-saving stations on the beaches of Coskata, Surfside, Madaket, Tuckernuck, and Muskeget.
Eventually the US Life Saving Service and the US Revenue Cutter Service merged to become the US Coast Guard. The Madaket Life-Saving Station became a Coast Guard post until 1947, when it was consolidated with the Brant Point station because the Coast Guard believed new radio and radar technologies made more than one post unnecessary. As a young person, Jewett wanted to join the military but her poor eyesight prevented it. At age ten she, along with a group of westenders, rescued people from a ship that had run aground in Madaket. Jewett spent the rest of life assisting mariners caught short by Nantucket’s tricky waters.
During World War II, Jewett was one of the Coast Guard’s 24,000 Coastal Defense Specialists, and she patrolled the island’s western shores watching for ships in distress and for the presence of German submarines. She discovered a live mine on one of her watches and towed it away from shore to a US Navy minesweeper in deeper water. For the Coast Guard, Jewett also trained dogs who accompanied security personnel on patrol. She had a gift for training and healing animals and Dogs for Defense enlisted her as a volunteer trainer. She trained six German Shepherd and Pinscher pups and was working with 13 more by the conclusion of the war.
Unhappy with the decision to close the Madaket Coast Guard Station, Jewett voluntarily continued to watch the horizon for ships in distress.
On the day that the Madaket Station closed, January 3, 1947, a 400-foot Panamanian steamer ran aground in a heavy fog off Madaket. Disoriented by the fog, the captain had radioed incorrect information to rescuers who were searching for the vessel 40 miles away. Jewett noticed the steamer’s masthead lights too close to the beach, alerted the Coast Guard and organized the local recovery effort. Despite protests from the community, the Coast Guard moved forward with its Madaket station closing. After having served as a volunteer for 30 years, Jewett was made an official active member of the Coast Guard’s civilian arm, the Auxiliary, in 1947.
In 1952, the Coast Guard gave her the honorary title Warrant Bosun, W-1. In 1965 Jewett was promoted to the rank of W-4, Honorary, and given the title “Commanding Officer, West End Command.”
Two years later, in April of 1967, Jewett watched as a distressed US Air Force airplane, which had just taken off from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod, flew over her house at only 100 feet.
Its engines were on fire and the plane was dropping metal parts as it flew. A part of the fuselage landed in Jewett’s yard. Rather than risk injuring civilians during an emergency landing, the pilot opted to crash land the airplane in the ocean one mile west of the island. Jewett alerted rescuers who were able to save the plane’s sole survivor.
In 1975 the Coast Guard authorized Jewett to fly weather-warning flags at her home, a welcome sight for local fishermen. That year the Coast Guard also awarded her its highest civilian award, the Meritorious Public Service Commendation.
Jewett died in 1990 at age 82 at her home in Madaket, surrounded by her beloved animals, having assisted the U.S. Coast Guard in a variety of capacities for 78 years. The Coast Guard held a remembrance ceremony at her home and members spread Jewett’s ashes over Hither Creek, the place she had lived next to and loved all of her life. Amy Jenness is the author if “On This Day In Nantucket History,” available at island bookstores.