18th Century Grandueur
from "St. Croix Under Seven Flags" by Florence Lewisohn 1970 Florence Lewisohn Reprinted 1991 by St. Croix Landmarks Society with permission from Florence Lewisohn
Poking around among the ruined Greathouses and the crumbling old sugar factories on St. Croix, one wonders how they looked and functioned when peopled by an aristocratic family and their many slaves. Plantation life on the island was only superficially like that of the American South, for there were peculiarities unique to island existence. It is these differences which set apart life on the sugar plantations of St. Croix.
Daily life revolved in two overlapping orbits - around the Greathouse, where the Mistress reigned in the midst of all the splendor she could muster in a far off colony, and around the sugar factory, where the Master was responsible for a mighty work force and a business inevitably subject to strange vicissitudes.
Sugar created all this, and sugar paid for it. However, in times of drought, hurricane, war or plague, not even the income from the golden brown muscovado could prevent the disasters. A sugar plantation was a calculated risk and took a huge investment. In good years, it paid off handsomely, but at other times, it sank the planter in enormous debt. There were few halfway stages. Good planters worked hard, stayed home, worried a great deal (with good reason) and scarcely had energy left to enjoy the luxuries sugar provided for them.
In this Golden Age, the huge Greathouses were built with loving care and lavishly outfitted with the finest of mahogany furniture, imported porcelains and glassware, heirloom silver and Madeira linens
There was nothing makeshift about the construction of the manor house. It was often a copy of some admired European mansion or followed the neo-classic style with tropical modifications. The architectural designs show varying influences, but the construction methods were almost all uniform. Great limestone blocks were hewn out of the wet sea coral or taken from a quarry, hauled to the site and used in the two- to three-foot thick walls. Local stone and ballast brick supplemented the coral blocks, held together with lime mortar made in the plantation kiln, then plastered over and usually painted. Skilled artisans were brought from Europe to oversee the more talented of the slave apprentices.
The Greathouse was almost always put on a knoll or side hill to catch the tradewinds, but the all-important windmill placement had first choice of the windiest spot. If there were not a good breezy place for the house, then the first floor was a storage and utility area, with the living quarters above to catch the wind. The largest houses usually used both floors for living quarters, with the storage buildings put elsewhere. If money were no object, both floors would be of stone, otherwise the second floor was of a good hardwood to resist weather and insects.
The rooms were large and high of ceiling, often vaulted or tray style, there being a theory that an uneven ceiling was less vulnerable in a hurricane. The windows had deep sills recessed into the two-foot thick walls, and each window was fitted with stout wooden shutters ready to be bolted and barred in case of storm. The doorways were wide, deep and often arched, fitted with massive doors. Wide, cool galleries ran around most of the house, and these often had lovely rows of stone and brick arches framing the view of the factory below with the sea in the distance. The galleries served as outdoor living areas and were the real social center of the house.
The planters usually made their own lime for mortaring the Greathouse and factory buildings. A kiln was built into a hillside, or earthen buttresses were packed against the firing room if no hills were available. The kilns looked something like a New England root cellar except they had two small furnaces inside, both with openings for firing in front and a large hole in the roof for a vent. Coral rock, alternated with rows of wood and stone, was burnt until the resulting lime sifted down through a grate on the floor. Various binders, including molasses, were used to convert the lime to mortar for building. One of the old kilns is still intact at Estate Clifton Hill where lime was sold commercially for many decades to builders who did not want to make their own kilns.
There is a partial kiln left near Estate Butler's Bay beach, which was used when this magnificent Greathouse was built during the Golden Age. The mansion has one of the most beautiful arched galleries on the island, rivaled only by the handsome ones at Estate Little Princess. Butler's or Bottlers' as it was originally listed when given free to a new settler to encourage agriculture in the Northwest area, is one of the finest examples of a restored Greathouse on the island. An inventory of 1764 notes the usual houses plus a lumber house and 'sickhouse', pidgeon cote and a necessary house, the euphemism for privy. A good sized sugar works there included five coppers or boiling cauldrons, a distillery which used 12 liquor casks of 3,000 gallons each and two stills. The eighty-some slaves included several coopers.
Almost every building on each estate, including the Greathouse, had a cistern under or adjacent to it to catch the rain water from the guttered roofs. Adequate cisterns were and are required by law in the towns, but country people didn't need laws to tell them that every drop of water was precious. Many of these old cisterns built two hundred years ago are still keeping water cool, pure and drinkable. However in those days of strange fevers the prudent home owner kept a big limestone 'drip stone' on the gallery and another near the cookhouse. Water was poured into a cavity at the top of the stone. It seeped through, cool, filtered and clean to a clay jug below. Sometimes the more elegant homes had charming lattice-work cabinets to house the stone, and sometimes a separate little 'drip stone' house was built somewhere for it in the shade.
There are some old wells on the island built at the same time, ranging from 10 to 15 feet across at the top and tapering downward to as much as 100 feet deep, incredibly lined with smooth even stonework. It is hard to believe that these were built with hand labor, the dirt brought up bucket by bucket, and the stones carefully laid row on row in mortar. From the construction standpoint, they equal the beauty of some of the fine stonework on the old windmills. They owe it all to the principle of the Bos'n's chair which was slung across at the top of the well, which permitted a mason to be lowered from the top.
The family bathhouse, with its plastered stone and mortar tub, lay somewhere to the rear of the Greathouse; it required much toting of water buckets to provide a bath. Cool cistern water felt best in this climate, and neither tub nor sea bathing were yet in vogue during this century. In any case, water was scarce, and no one splashed it about carelessly.
The all-important Cookhouse was in a separate building in the rear of the Greathouse yard. It was usually made of the same stone and mortar as the house or of all brick if enough were available. It had a very high ceiling in proportion to size and the enormous funnel of a fire-resistant brick chimney ran up at one end from a bank of cooking units. These burners were each separate, mounted into a wide shelf under the chimney hood. Each hole had space for charcoal below, a grate for ashes and a grill above to hold a pot or for direct cooking. The one or two ovens to the side of the shelf had their own fire boxes. The one used for bread-making was pre-heated, and the coals were then raked out before the dozen or so loaves went in. This system provided the coolest possible kind of cooking done at the convenient waist-level. Open fireplace cooking with its lost heat and awkward stooping was unknown on St. Croix.
Clay beehive ovens, big enough for roasting a goat or pig or used also for bread-baking were often built near the cookhouse, and others were put near the slave quarters. Generally the slave women cooked for their families on what are still known locally as "coal pots." These are graceful utilitarian clay stoves on the hibachi principle, shaped from a flared narrow bottom with a small grate opening to a wider top which holds a big clay or metal pot over the glowing charcoal. The variety of delicious dishes contrived for "coal pot" cooking is surprising. Cast-iron versions of this portable stove and matching pots are still on sale on the island and popular for outdoor or gallery cooking. Several times a year an old-style potter on the British island of Nevis sends up clay "coal pots" by schooner to St. Croix. They are quickly snapped up at the wharf since they are one of the handiest miniature stoves ever invented.
The slave quarter is still known as a Village, and in the 18th Century, it was almost as self-sufficient as any communal settlement. The very earliest slave huts were constructed of withes, daub and wattle style. Upright poles were laced with branches and a daub thrown on made from clay or cow dung base. A well thatched roof of cane stalks or palm branches could last 50 to 80 years, barring fire or hurricane.
These primitive daub and wattle huts were soon abandoned for the long motel-like row houses built with one wall between each unit. A family had two adjoining rooms with a connecting door. These were well-built units of stone and mortar, and they often survived the hurricanes in better shape than some of the fancier estate buildings. Usually two long rows of these units faced each other with a block-long street between, in which the children played and the women cooked and visited. Sometimes, as on one West End estate, the rows were staggered up the hill in long parallel lines, each with a sea view and good breezes. The slaves' furnishings were few: some benches and other simple furniture, pallets filled with the local kapok or silk-cotton, simple eating utensils and wooden plates, calabash bowls, the clay cookpots, cloth supplied by the yard by the master and made up into clothing by the women. Their further wants were rarely consulted. Each family had its own plot of provision ground to grow some of its food and an area for chickens or animals.
The nearby factory building consisted of a long boiling house, often two stories high, where the cauldrons called 'coppers' were used to reduce the cane juice to sugar. There were sheds for storage of tools and barrels and others to keep the fuel dry, a distilling house and outdoor cisterns to hold the cooling pipes for the rum-making process, a molasses cistern and racks above it for the hogsheads of draining sugar and a shed to store the filled sugar barrels. Nearby were stables for the mules, horses and oxen and a long, low brick-arched building to hold the cane carts. There was perhaps a fancy carriage house for the gigs and barouches.
Somewhere not far off, lay the two estate graveyards in a grove of trees. One was for the family of the master and its kin, having fancy iron railings and sometimes elaborate tombstones or even stone tombs, and there was the simpler one for the slaves. It was a picturesque slave custom to outline each earthen mound with lustrous pink conch shells, so that a slave graveyard was a thing of reflected pink and white beauty, glowing in the soft light as the slaves must have expected the pearly clouds of heaven to look when their days of sorrow were done.
The estate owners loved to plant impressive avenues of mahogany, tibet or palm trees lining each side of the long drive up from the public road to the Greathouse. Up these trotted the callers: the ladies come to visit in their barouche or caleche, or the gentlemen on horseback passing by on their way into the Capitol. Formality prevailed but was harder to maintain on a distant island than in Europe, so there were many casual modifications of allowable behavior. The callers, their rigs taken by a groom, mounted the "welcoming arms" double staircase to the rocking-chairs of the gallery and sat with a cool "shrub" or planters' punch or rum swizzle. Now and then, the more elegant Greathouses were thrown open for a dance: the ballroom resounded with the joy of the quadrille and the minuet, the couples strolled in the intense tropical moonlight haunted by the smell of the frangipani and the sight of the moonlit yuccas and oleander. It was storybook romantic while it lasted, and the brooding dark realities of island life could be swept temporarily under the palm trees.
After the passing of this prosperous period, one American visitor wrote "we were accustomed, some 20 or 30 years ago to see dashing West Indian Nabobs in our cities or at our watering places whose doubloons were as plenty as our dollars. Such demonstrations, however, gave a most unreal impression of the wealth of these islands. The Planters, or their sons, who were then gay as butterflies, had but the butterfly's brief existence. They were not spending merely the earnings of their estates, but improvidentially loading those estates with debts which have since swallowed them up. . ."
The young Nabobs were mostly sent off to school in London, Copenhagen or Paris; the young ladies, too, went to fashionable finishing schools or convents on the Continent. Over the years, as the ties with North America grew firmer, some of the young people were sent north to the new colleges in the British colonies or even to the convents of Canada.
Among the historic Greathouses which have survived fairly intact from this period or have been lovingly restored are the beautiful Butler's Bay and Whim and also a number of others, including Estates Little Princess, Pearl, Little La Grange, The Grange, La Reine, Slob, Cane Garden, Bonne Esperance, Annaly, Sprat Hall, Baron de Bretton's old home at Concordia, Sion Farm, Richmond and the two Orange Groves.
Sion Hill's Greathouse is a well-kept roofless ruin showing the fine dressed-stone workmanship around the doors, windows and cornices. The estate has impressive storage vaults dating from about 1757, and a rum distillery of the same vintage. The old sugar-boiling "coppers" are back in place in the factory area, alive now with water lilies. The only factory on the island where the "coppers" have stayed in situ these two centuries seems to be the one at Cane Bay. The huge old boiling kettles were usually removed to cattle estates to be used to hold the animals' drinking water in the fields. They now have become so fashionable as garden accessories among the new Nabobs, that they are worth more now than in 1750, when they came out from Denmark or Scotland lashed to the deck of a pitching schooner.
One of the most impressive restorations is that of the old Greathouse at Estate Cane Garden, part of which dates from the 1650's, when the Jesuit friars supposedly built it for a monastery during the French occupation of St. Croix. It has been restored and refurnished to its mid-18th Century period to show all the grandeur expected of a wealthy West Indian planter.
Most of these preserved or restored Greathouses are in private hands but appear regularly on the Open House and Garden Tours sponsored annually in February and March by the Landmarks Society, at which time the public may visit them.
The architectural gem, Whim Greathouse, and its adjunct Plantation Museum, a restored sugar mill and other buildings, are maintained as a public museum by the Landmarks Society, open at specified hours for an admission charge, under lease from the Virgin Islands government which owns this historical property.
Whim exemplifies both the great days of sugar and rum and tells the story of an enterprising, flamboyant family which made a fortune on the island. Extensive research by the Curator of the Danish Maritime Museum in Elsinore, Henning Henningsen, has added many new details to the MacEvoy family story: the first Christopher MacEvoy came from Scotland, probably a Catholic refugee avoiding the religious and civil wars, arriving on St. Croix about 1751. By the time he applied for Danish citizenship in 1776, he was termed one of the "most distinguished planters" on the island. Britishers on the island were notoriously sympathetic to the American Revolution and would possibly have been subject to property confiscation if Britain had ever chosen to take the neutral Danish islands, whose smuggling at the time often violated that neutrality. Perhaps this was part of his motivation for becoming a Dane. MacEvoy's plantations included Cane Garden, Granard, Longford, Rose Hill and Whim. MacEvoy married Jane Maria Markoe, of a prominent French Huguenot family whose predecessors had flown from Protestant persecution in France, to settle on French, English and finally, the Danish islands.
The couple's first son, Christopher, Jr., was born on St. Croix in 1761, and apparently they had another son, Michael, who is mentioned in later records as a contemporary of Christopher, Jr.
The older son never married, remained a Catholic like his father. He became an immensely wealthy man and a Chamberlain to the Danish King. Michael remained on St. Croix, unlike his restless brother, living at Cane Garden with his son Peter, who eventually inherited all the family property. The supposition is that Michael became the resident manager of the family holdings for Christopher, Jr., who was never in residence long. He was sent off first to London and then to Copenhagen for schooling and commercial training and somewhere acquired a good deal of technical knowledge.
The father and mother lived in Copenhagen or London as often as on the island, and the father died in England at age 73, in 1792. He was buried in the Roman Catholic churchyard of Old St. Pancras, Middlesex, where an elaborate monumental inscription was set up to his memory and that of his wife. Maria Markoe MacEvoy is listed in Danish records as having died in 1776, but the English gravestone reads 1812, and her will was probated in St. Croix that year.
Under the English inheritance system, Christopher, Jr. was the chief heir, but brother Michael seems to have inherited or been given the south shore estate of Cane Garden, which had been in the family since about 1767.
Christopher began to cut quite a swath in London and in Copenhagen, where his father had left him the country house, Christiansholm, and the Reventlow Palace in town. Now and then, he came back to St. Croix, and it was on one of these long visits that he is supposed to have started the building of the Greathouse at Whim. The exact date is unknown, but it has been estimated at about 1796. The land had been used as a working sugar estate since its original patentee, Patrick Donough, had sold it, and was called John's Rest until renamed by MacEvoy.
It is a mystery where the sophisticated young owner got his inspiration for the unique architecture, but it shows influences of a French chateau with its rounded ends and the sunken dry-moat watercourse circling the house. It is a spacious mansion with only three rooms, befitting a bachelor who owned enough other Greathouses to live where he chose. Living room, dining room, bedroom comprise the original structure. The addition to the rear came a century later. Outlying buildings included a cookhouse, a bath house, carriage house, storage sheds, the huge sugar boiling factory, a distillery, the windmill and animal mill and later a steammill: that was Whim in its heyday.
MacEvoy had been living at Wimbledon near London when he was caught in the absentee-owner tax squeeze put on roving plantation owners about 1812, and near the time of his mother's death. It was then he took his wealth permanently to Copenhagen and began to indulge his tastes further for high living.
Soon the new resident had bought Bemsdorff, a fine country estate, and then the Dehn Palace in Copenhagen. He furnished these so lavishly that the townspeople thought his wealth was without limit. MacEvoy had one of his few failures when he decided to establish a small private gas-works to light his own palace and the nearby Royal one of Amalienborg. The newfangled mechanism never worked well, and the whole apparatus was sold off in 1825 to benefit the Institute for the Blind. Openhanded in his charity, MacEvoy also built a large Catholic School, the first in Copenhagen, and indulged in many other good works as benefited a West Indian Croesus and Nabob. He had increased the profits from all his St. Croix sugar estates by buying the sugar refinery at Cammelstrand in Denmark.
The wealthy islander was best known for an episode in which he over-stepped a Royal perogative and used white horses for his carriage. The King exiled his presumptuous Chamberlain for a few years for this, but the enterprising Christopher bounced back with a compromise so amusing that the King forgave him. He had returned to Copenhagen with a vanguard of eight white mules which it had taken some searching to locate. His new carriage was royally fitted out with much gold leaf, his driver and attendants wore resplendent uniforms and the mules wore trappings finer than those of the King's white horses.
Some years earlier MacEvoy had considered using steam to run his sugar mills on St. Croix, in fact was talking of this as early as 1791, but the honor of having the first steam mill on the island went to nearby Hogensborg instead of Whim when another innovator took the step before MacEvoy got around to it. Whim itself seems to have been the second or third estate to supplant wind with steam, but not until after it had been sold by MacEvoy. He kept it until about 1824 when he sold it to the firm of Hartmann and Brothers, the Hartmanns being intermarried with his mother's family, the Markoes. It was sold again to the Tutein Brothers' firm of C. Blacks Enke & Co., passing on soon to Baring Brothers & Co. of London and then to a Thomas Griffith. Each of these owners maintained it as a large sugar estate. Long after the introduction of several of the huge central grinding stations and sugar factories on the island, Whim remained one of a half-dozen large estates run privately but processing the cane for many nearby properties.
By 1829, Christopher MacEvoy was listed as owning only three estates: Barrenspot, which also had a large private steammill, Salt River and Orange Grove. These were inherited by Peter MacEvoy of Cane Garden when his memorable uncle died in July, 1838, at his BemsdorfI country estate in Denmark, at age 77.
Peter helped carry on the family traditions. He seems to have moved to London and while there, like his uncle, was in trouble over the absentee tax on roving estate owners. The Danish Supreme Court sentenced Peter to a fine of 6,519 gold rigsdaler against his St. Croix properties. He had by then added Bushby's, next to Williams Delight, and several other plantations to his holdings. Peter had also inherited gold and silver tableware, stored in seven iron-bound chests, valued at 40,000 rigsdaler and untold wealth in all his uncle's property in Denmark.
The inheritance came at a time of declining economy, now known as the one-hundred year depression, and the golden horde supplied by sugar cane was soon no longer dependable. Still, the MacEvoys continued to be listed as owners of sizeable holdings on the islands until well through mid-century.
One of the last references to the family was in 1878, when a William MacEvoy signed a petition of "British Planters" protesting against the damage done to their properties in the Labor Riots, which, they charged, would have been prevented by firmer Danish control. It is an interesting sidelight that after a century and a quarter of ownership on St. Croix and a century of Danish citizenship, the family still referred to itself as British.
After visiting Whim, history-minded explorers may want to do a little curious poking about in some of the old ruined Greathauses. Bear in mind that no matter how forlorn they look, all ruins are owned by someone and souvenir hunters are not welcomed. The imaginative visitor can stand in the midst of the bush-covered ruins and call up visions of a teeming plantation.
Half an hour before sunrise the bomba blew the conch shell horn or rang the estate bell, routing out the men, women and children to start the day's work in the fields or around the factory and distilling house. All day, the women hoed, planted and cut cane alongside their men. For cutting they used the old time "bills," a knife similar to the machete now used but with a wider and more curved blade. The machete first came into use to strip the leaves from the cut stalk.
The children and older people had the lighter tasks of cleaning up the debris in the fields for use later as fuel, of loading the cane into the racks on the backs of mules on the hillside fields or into the cane carts on the flats. Young boys drove the mules or ax-carts to the mill, and the gang of smallest boys and girls did the weeding.
Only the most skilled workers tended the windmill to grind the cane or worked at the "coppers" where the juice was boiled down. Most skillful of all were the rum-makers, who used the molasses residue judiciously mixed into a mash of many ingredients to create the golden base for the planters' punch.
Making sugar and rum was a production line procedure. During "crop time" the factory area was a kaleidoscope of frenzied activity. The cane carts rumbled up in an endless line to the mill where a small crew ran the stalks through the rollers.
In the early years before the huge windmills became common, the rollers stood outside under a thatched shed, surrounded by a circular path on which the mules, horses or oxen trod with their harness attached to long poles which connected with the gears to turn the rollers. An improved version of these "mule mills" had a wide circular earthen or stone elevated walk. The animals walked the path on top. Sometimes there was a small platform attached to the pole on which the drover sat with his whip to keep the animals on the move. These animal treadmills were called ingenios by the Portuguese who first used them in Brazil, and in one primitive form or another they were in use for several hundred years throughout the West Indies and in the rural areas of the American South. On St. Croix, some of the mills were elaborate affairs with beautifully built high walkways such as the one at the old Estate Seven Hills. Bricked arches led underneath the walk for the cane carts to go in one side and out the other after leaving off the load of stalks and picking up the bagasse debris to cart off to the drying shed for fuel. These mills continued in use long after most estates built their more efficient windmills. If the tradewinds dropped or the windmill was out of order, an animal mill often saved the day if cane was ripe; or the old mill was used as an auxiliary grinder when the field crews cut more cane than the windmill crew could handle. There are only a few of these "mule mills" left intact; the best examples are those at the old Estates of Seven Hills, Cane Garden, La Grange, Rust op Twist and the one at Cane Bay which still has its sluiceway for the juice to run down to the boiling house. There are perhaps several dozen more such mills left half-standing. One of the old names for them was a "Whim" and possibly this is the original meaning of the name of Estate Whim.
St. Croix is fortunate in still having some 115 of its old stone windmill towers standing. At one time they numbered nearly 150. The one at Estate Whim, the Landmarks Society restoration, has had its grinders, gears, roof and sail blades put back in place; it is now the sole completely restored mill in the islands. What a sight it must have been in the late 1700's, driving through the hills, valleys and along Centerline in a barouche, watching the sail blades whirling on tower after tower rising above the green fields of cane.
Windmills were tricky mechanisms, although fairly simple in principle. They had a devilish inclination to make it hard for the working crew. Either the wind blew too hard, which meant the brake crew had to sweat, or the wind shifted, in which case seven or eight strong men were needed in a hurry to push on the long pole which rotated the roof on gears to put the sails into the wind before they were stripped. This enormous Canadian spruce pole, called a tailpiece, was as heavy as a mast on a large schooner. It was attached to gears which helped swing the entire roof along an inner track at the top of the mill. The four sail blades were attached to the roof and had to face into the wind. If the wind shifted and they weren't swiveled in time, the sails might tear right off the wooden frames. When the sails weren't in trouble from too much wind, the opposite problem might arise; a becalmed windmill in the midst of "crop time" gave the planter and the mill hands problems comparable to those of the Ancient Mariner. The meticulous planter sent over to Puerto Rico for the durable acoma wood to use in making the mill's sail blades.
The construction of the old stone mill towers is something to wonder at. They all look somewhat alike, yet there are many variations in style and dimensions because of the differences in terrain chosen for the site. This choice was determined by the prevailing wind direction and by the climb to be made by the ox-carts, so that nearly all the towers are on the tops of small rises or the sides of larger hills. Each tower was built with precision and esthetic care considering that they were solely utilitarian and that the work was done by slave labor without benefit of architects. The walls are as much as six feet thick at the bottom, tapering up smoothly inside and out to about three feet thick at the top, with the walls always slanting inward to form a lopped off cone on which the roof structure was placed. The walls were usually made of square cut coral rock in which the sea life was forever perpetuated. Inside, square holes in the stone work were left to tie in the beams for the two wooden floors which ordinarily divided the mill into three stories.
A few of the towers had small fireplaces with a long chimney flue inside the mill wall. Speculation is that these were used to cook for the grinding crews during "crop time," when the men worked in shifts around the clock.
This stone tower type of windmill derived from the Dutch Jews who had first evolved the style on their Brazilian plantations. When they were expelled from there, they moved on up into the Caribbean, bringing their knowledge of sugar cane culture and sugar-making with them. Later, with the change from wooden grinding rollers to ones made of iron, much of the machinery for the mills came from Scotland or England.
The grinding machinery consisted of three iron rollers; the center one, called the 'King', was geared into the flanking ones. Back of the rollers was a "dumb returner," which pushed the ground-up cane stalks back around again for a second turn through the rollers. Incidentally, just about the most elegant grinding roller imaginable was turned up in the ground a few years ago at Estate Judith's Fancy. It was made of marble, and dates, perhaps, from the late 1600's, when the French Knights of Malta had their headquarters on this estate.
Ordinarily the grinding rollers were on the first or ground floor of the mill, but on some of the hillside mills, the carts came to a second-floor ramp and this level would have an opening through which the bagasse, the cane debris left after the stalks were ground, would be dropped down through a hole into waiting carts on the first floor.
There is a contemporary print showing one of the rare old water mills on St. Croix, with its enormous bucket wheel resting in mid-stream. This is believed to have been located at Estate Strawberry Hill, which was named for a suburb of London, but there are other references to two similar water mills, one at Estate Orange Grove on Mahogany Road and the other located somewhere in the Estate Mon Bijou or Estate Little Fountain area. Possibly a fourth one was at Rust op Twist where there are the remains of an old sluiceway. This proves, if nothing else, that the island once had enough running streams for a planter to take a chance on having a steady supply of water to run his mill.
There are two or three other unique mills on the island, built in the ancient post-mill style; a derivation of the earliest Dutch and English mills in which a structure revolved on top a center post. In the modified island version, the towers are of stone and look like all the others, but a little more squat. The ground floor has a large stone center post arching out into a vaulted ceiling. In this type, the carts went up a ramp to the machinery on the second floor. Two examples are still standing, at Estate Diamond Keturah and Estate Two Brothers. Presumably, these two mills were operated by windpower.
There is one completely unique mill located on Estate Old Pye, not far from Long Point on the south shore. Its stone tower has the huge center post and vaulted ceiling on the ground floor, but unlike the others, it was not built to be a windmill. Originally it was a stone tower "mule mill" surrounded by a high broad walkway for the mules or oxen to tread on top. The machinery was inside the second floor. Two long poles known as "swepes" ran from the animals to the gears. Such mills were among the most primitive kind built by the Dutch for the first sugar plantations of Barbados. The Barbadian ingenio had vertical rollers geared into a spindle at top from which several chains were attached to yokes on the oxen. The remnant of such a mill on Barbados has an octagonal stone tower with doors and a spindle opening, but it is only about half as high as a windmill tower. An octagonal walkway, buttressed with earth, surrounded the tower.
Old Pye's mill was converted later from this type to a windmill. Several of the French maps of the 1660's and 1670's indicate a Sucrerie des Anglois in approximately the area of Old Pye. There were no English on the island then, so it is just possible that this unique mill was built during the joint English-Dutch occupation of St. Croix, beginning sometime in the first quarter of the 17th Century. If so, it vies with Fort St. Jean (now Louise Augusta) as the oldest known structure on the island. The French maps also indicated two other old English sugaries, but so far, there is no trace found of them. Pye being an obsolete English term for either a pie or a piebald animal, the Estate name may be derived from the shape of a possible octagonal walkway or from the favorite old beast on it.
Richard Ligon in his True & Exact History of Barbados, printed first in 1657, gives an eye-witness version of the working of the early animal mills:
The manner of grinding them is this, the Horses and Cattle' being put to their tackles, they go about, and by their force turne (by the sweeps) the middle rollr, which being Cog'd to the other two, at both ends, turne them about, and they all three, turning upon their Centres, which are of Brass and Steele go very easily of themselves and so easie, as a Mans taking hold of one of the Sweeps, with his hand will turne all the rollers about with much ease. But when the Canes are put in between the rollers it is a good draught for five Oxen or horses; a Negre puts in the Canes of one side, and the rollers draw them through to the other side, which another Negre stands and receives them, and returnes them back on the other side of the middle roller which draws them the other way.
Ligon speaks also of a barbycu, a type of shed with racks to hold the canes when brought in to the lngenio, and possibly if this term later was applied to the crushed bagasse stalks used to fuel the fires under the kettles, his word may come from the Taino Indian barbacoa which became the Spanish-American barbecue. But of more interest is Ligon's mention of using camels in Barbados to carry the 1,600 lb. hogsheads of sugar and the lighter ones of wine and beer. One Englishman, on Nevis Island, also tried out camels at a later date, and while the same planter who imported them to Nevis also owned several estates on St. Croix, there is no reference that the beasts were ever imported to this island.
Reaching further back into sugar-making on St. Croix, the most primitive mill type of all may have once been in use on the island. There is an old French print with a scene from an unidentified French West Indian island showing the use of a huge mill stone of the gristmill sort with a hole in the center. Unlike the horizontal use in gristmills, this stone stood vertically on its outer edge, with a pole wedged into the center hole and two men are shown pushing on this as a lever to roll the stone around. The top of the stone had another pole attached to it and then to a socket in a fixed roof beam, allowing it to swivel. As the two men pushed the stone in a circle, their helpers pounded the cane stalks with mallets and then put them under the stone. The juice ran in a trough to a small receiver; from this it was put into clay boiling pots over camp fires for reduction to sugar. Dated 1670, the print shows only white workers who are probably white slaves since the importation of Africans to the French colonies was very limited at this time.
The cane juice ground out by any of the most primitive or most sophisticated of mill types was run in a sluiceway of wood or lead, downhill to the boiling shed or house. Freshly squeezed juice had to be processed quickly or fermentation set in which spoiled the sugar. It went first into a huge pot called a Receiver and then on into a Clarifier where it was barely simmered to bring up the first impurities, then allowed to stand a little while before skimming.
The activity around the windmill was as nothing compared to the feverish scurrying in the steamy boiling room. Here in the long rectangular space were mounted the banks of "coppers," the huge iron vats in which the juice was reduced to the right thickness for granulation. The Clarifier was always elevated above and near the first of the "coppers," and the hot mixture drained from a petcock down a trough to the first boiling vat.
The big vats were built into a solid long shelf of mortar, their rims flush with the top and at waist height. Each had its fire box enclosed below and fed from an outside opening. The men and boys pushed the dry bagasse fuel into the "furnace" under the "coppers." There were draft openings between the fire boxes and outside and long flues to bring in cold air and suck out the foul air. There were ash pits below the grating bars which held the fuel. A brick archway usually led into the pits and through this the men had to crawl to clean out the ashes now and then.
The fresh hot juice came from the Clarifier into the "copper" known as the Grand, where it was boiled and skimmed constantly until reduced some in volume; then it was ladled into the next smaller "copper," the process of reduction, skimming and ladling being repeated down the row of four "coppers." Various "tempers" such as Bristol lime, wood ash or vegetable ash were added during the process and these helped "yaw" or cleanse the sugar of various impurities.
The master boiler worked at the end of the row of "coppers," at the smallest one known as the Teache. His job it was to decide just when the thick mixture was ready to "strike." This was the crucial point at which the syrupy mass would best crystallize into good grainy sugar when cool. The success of the entire process depended on the judgment of this man. He tended to be the most pampered slave on each plantation.
The yell of "strike" brought a whole crew of men running to ladle the boiling mass into a portable wooden trough which reached across the room to the long wooden cooling pans which were built along the wall near the floor.
The yield of sugar from cane varied widely because the sweet content depended on soil, weather, ripeness and other factors. Generally a good mule mill using relays of teams could produce about 500 gallons of juice per hour, which meant 10,000 gallons went through the boilers in a day if the mill ran more or less around the clock. Given good breezes, the windmill production could double this.
Once the sugar mass had cooled, it was put into huge hogsheads of the 1,600 cwt; these were then suspended on racks over a cistern built to hold molasses. Each hogshead had eight or ten holes in the bottom which were plugged loosely with the pithy leaf stalks of the papaya tree, through which the molasses slowly drained away from the sugar. When drained fairly dry, the, hogsheads of sugar were inverted and filled to the top with additional sugar; then the cooper put on solid new headings and the big barrel was branded with the estate name or symbol and was ready for shipment. St. Croix was noted for its fine muscovado sugar, a moist, raw brown type. The making of refined white sugar was almost unknown on the island.
The skimmings from the boiling process were used in the mash for rum-making, being later combined with purer molasses from the cisterns. Some planters sold a good deal of their molasses to the Northern British colonists in exchange for provisions not readily available from Denmark such as barrel staves and headings, lumber, horses, salt fish and corn meal. New England was filled with rum distilleries using West Indian molasses, thriving on the Triangle Trade which took rum to Africa, slaves to the West Indies and molasses to New England. Generally the planters used most of their molasses for their own rum-making as it, too, was a good cash product.
The enormous containers for mash stood in a still-house adjacent to the sugar factory. The capacity of these "butts" was up to 1,000 gallons, and a distillery might keep a dozen of them fermenting at once. Into them went a variety of mixtures depending on what was available. To start, five parts of water to one of molasses, plus the skimmings from the sugar boiling if it were crop time. A mother of yeast was needed to start the fermentation, and sometimes this came from part of the bagasse which was caught in the strainer as the cane juice flowed down from the mill. This fine "trash" from the cane was known as cush-cush. The natural yeast in it came from a whitish powder formed at the joints of the cane stalks.
The mixture needed some form of acid; some local limes or tamarinds, salt peter, mineral or vegetable ash all went in according to the planter's taste. Some imbibers favored the piquancy of the bitter Seville oranges added to the mixture. It took four to six days to ferment the mash in the "butt." The next step involved the pot still and a doubler or retort which stood next to each other out of doors just outside the still-house. The pot was elevated over a bricked-in furnace. A pipe ran from the mash "butts" out through the wall to the pot, carrying the mash into the still where it was heated until the vapors passed on by a gooseneck into the retort. This vessel had already been filled to one-fourth capacity with low wine, a weak low-proof rum taken off at the beginning and end of every distillation. It acted as a primer for the hot vapors coming out of the pot still; when the vapors and low wine combined to boil together, it greatly strengthened the proof or alcoholic strength. The combined vapors passed on down into a weird-looking contraption which condensed them into rum.
The contraption was a set of "worms," pewter pipes coiled something like a huge bedspring, suspended in a cistern of cold water. When the alcoholic vapors circled down the cold pipes, they condensed and out came rum. Not the golden color expected, but a colorless "white" which the planters so preferred to drink that they often lined their rum puncheons with wax so that the aging process would not turn the rum golden. Ordinarily, the rum aged in the wooden puncheons for months or years, after which it became the expected amber shade of a good dry rum. The pot still method produced rum averaging 120 to 140 proof. Anything weaker than this was tossed back into the low wine "butt" to be used over again to prime the retort for the next batch.
The last step in the operation was to run the leftovers in the retort and pot still back into the used mash barrel and then to dispose of the whole used-up dregs in the lees pond nearby. The sour mash smell of the lees pond permeated the whole area on a good breezy day. There were thrifty planters, fortunately mostly on the British Islands, surely Scotsmen, who used the lees itself in making up fresh batches of mash, but this practice was reprehensible on St. Croix where the planters prided themselves on their quality rum.
The very finest rum of all was made directly from pure cane juice without using any molasses. This naturally could be distilled only at "crop time" and naturally was reserved for the planter's own private, extravagant, stock.
Almost every slave on the plantation worked feverishly during "crop time," either in the fields cutting ripe cane, in the mill, sugar factory or distillery. When "crop" was done, it was time to celebrate. There was all the cane juice one could drink and all the molasses one could sop up on good corn bread, and some of the rum to wash it down. There were a few days off from work and a few nights with the drums reverberating from the hills, with the indefatigable dancers and chanters performing until dawn. Dimly remembered tribal dances out of Africa vied with the bamboula, a gay and spirited dance which soon became the favorite of townspeople also. Originating on the Guinea coast, the bamboula reached the peak of being a craze some decades later in the 18th Century among the Spanish Catholics on St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. It was danced in church and in their processions and on Christmas night the nuns danced it on a platform built in the convent yards in front of a grating kept open for the townspeople to watch. The only way in which the sacred version varied from the secular was that no men were allowed to dance with the nuns. Shortly after, the Church forbad the practice and eloquent sermons were preached against the bamboula in any form.
When the "crop over" celebration was done, the sugar went off to market in a rumble of ox-carts down Centerline to the town wharves. The workers settled down to making rum from the cistern newly full of molasses and to a general rehabilitation of the plantation and themselves. The pace was more leisurely, but there was never-ending work. Cane fields had to be cleaned of the debris and new fields planted. Fields were used in rotation for planting, and because the cane plants renewed themselves for five or six crops at 18 months' intervals, the new growth had to be cultivated, manured and weeded. Fallow fields had to be hoed and "holed" into squares each holding a newly planted cutting.
Each family had its own provision ground and possibly some stock to care for, and this lull was a good time in which to get in new kitchen gardens. The coopers were busy fashioning puncheons to hold the new rum and with putting together hogsheads for the next year's sugar crop. The wainwright made new carts and wagons while the wheelwright repaired the old wheels.
The blades were taken down from the windmill and stored away carefully during the hurricane season. Their big old canvas sails were repaired or new ones made. The women worked on new clothing from the hundreds of yards of osnaburg or rough linens and woolens sent out from Europe. West Indians favored lightweight woolens for this hot climate for reasons unknown, unless it had to do with beliefs about dangerous night airs and strange miasmic fevers. And true enough, the slaves were peculiarly susceptible to respiratory diseases and few on the island escaped the chills and fevers. Impure drinking water, the malarial mosquito and the plagues carried out from Europe took their annual toll of slaves and masters.
The master mulled his accounts in this Spring lull and worried about whether the sugar shipment would ever reach market, what with the fortunes of war and the bad storms in the Atlantic. His freight insurance costs were high, and in wartime the rates were astronomical. He had yearly mortgage payments or interest to meet. The fluctuating price of sugar was the crucial key to the whole year's work, and it was more unpredictable than today's stock market. The incessant wars of the late 18th and early 19th Centuries made life in the colonies pure financial speculation.
The keynote was self-sufficiency, although no single island or plantation was completely independent of outside supplies and markets.
The slaves, with their African background, were skilled in the use of plant life and trees. From the Indians, they had inherited the cassava, tobacco and the hammock. There were at least 30 varieties of local "bush" from which they made medicines or refreshing teas, and at least 100 other trees and plants had medicinal usages of other sorts. Many of these were surprisingly effective and are still in use today on St. Croix. There is an interesting leaflet republished from the Bulletin of The History of Medicine in 1958, detailing the medicinal practices of the St. Croix weedwomen, the old women of the island who have inherited untold generations of accumulated lore on the curative powers of plants. Written by two Department of Agriculture experts, Dr. A J. Oakes and M. P. Morris, the leaflet discusses the place of the weedwomen in Cruzan life and describes the plants they use for various ailments. Under slavery, the stable tribal life was broken up and with it gradually disappeared the "medicine man," to be replaced by this group of knowledgeable wise weedwomen who dispensed remedies at least as reliable as the official medical practices of the times, since these consisted mostly in bleeding, sweating and purging. These old women rarely dealt with obeah or voodoo aside from trivial love charms, but the men did, and many hair-raising, uncanny tales have been passed down although no true believers appear to be left.
For household use, there were many local plants and trees which took care of a surprising number of needs. There were various kinds of soap and scouring equipment to be picked from the fields; other plants supplied material for mats, cloth, varnish, charcoal, insect repellent, indelible and other inks, fine oils, meat tenderizers, incense, perfumes, kapok, illumination oil, cloth dyes, glues, dishes and bowls, tranquilizers, tick and chigger killers, paints, broom fibers, table mats, screens and rugs, mattress stuffing, natural gelatins and insecticides.
The homemade medicine cabinet included not only the sickness remedies, but salves for burns, headache powders, laxatives, poultices, astringents, hangover remedies and various therapeutic compounds thought good to bring back a loved one, to improve virility or to aid in fecundity: all available from field or forest.
The self-sufficient men found sources for making cordage, twines, gums, water pipes, house framing, posts, fishnets, life preservers, floats, caulking materials, ropes, fish bait, fish poisonings, long-burning torches, glues, bushings, bearings, mallets, bowling balls, book binders, rollers, machine oils, gutters, alcohols, corks, tanning compounds, fire tinders and woven fences.
The children made flutes from the papaya stems, used many berries and seeds for jewelry, made Christmas decorations from plant seeds, tattoos from juices, candies and liquorices from tree products, rattles from pods and improvised toys of all kinds from fibers and barks. Their playing cards came from fig tree leaves etched while green, their whistles from reeds and their box kites from a light-weight wood. The drums, flutes and stringed instruments used by the slaves were all made from local products.
This one small island had such a variety of climates and plant life in its limited expanse that it often fascinated visiting botanists. It is on record that more than 20 of them visited and collected on the island in the period between 1785 and 1900 alone. These collections now rest in some of the most famous botanical exhibits in Denmark, England and France. One of the first of these was Louis Claude Richard, son of the French court gardener and nephew of the keeper of the gardens at the Trianon. Sent out by Louis XVI to Guayana to find new plants of economic value to the French West Indies, he widened his exploration from Brazil to Puerto Rico, and nearly all points between. He spent some time on St. Croix and included many of its plants in his Parisian herbarium.
The adventuresome Baron Heinrich Franz von Eggers was an avid botanist as well as a police Lieutenant in both St. Croix and St. Thomas. He fought on St. Croix during the 1878 riots, but this must have seemed a small skirmish in comparison to his tour of duty with the Austro-Belgian Corps of the Imperial Mexican Volunteers in 1865, when he was captured and held prisoner in Oaxaca, Mexico. He had fought with Denmark in her earlier war against Germany, coming himself from the Slesvig area where his father was police director and entering the Danish service again after his Mexican adventure. In all, Baron Eggers took home 500 sheets of specimens, which went to many museums, but his special ones of seaweed and phanerogams are in the Copenhagen Botanical Museum. His book on the Flora of St. Croix is now a rare classic.
The botanical record appears to be held by a Mrs. Rickseeker and her three sons. She was married to a Moravian minister and while the family was on St. Croix only a few years, the eldest son, Alfred, managed to take back some 6,000 St. Croix specimens with him to the Field Museum Collection in Chicago in 1896. After he was gone, his two younger brothers and his mother collected some 2,000 more. While these contained many duplicates, it has been estimated that when catalogued, the Rickseeker and Eggers collections together list 1,029 St. Croix flora.
Nature played a different role for the Africans who brought their beliefs with them. The first slaves were deeply involved with obeah or voodoo and with lesser spirits called Jumbies. The obeah ceased to be a meaningful influence rather earlier on St. Croix than on the British and French islands, but the mischievous Jumbies are still around. They are nuisance spirits, ordinarily engaged in such activities as popping out at intersections of paths at night just to frighten the late-goers, tangling themselves in women's hair, making the huge old kapok or silk cotton trees walk at night, scaring children and other moderate high jinks intended to keep behavior in line. Eerie tales of were-wolves were also useful to keep children subdued. On the more lovable side were the Bru A'Nancy tales brought from the African Gold Coast and much loved in the islands. Variously spelled also as Bru Anansi, plain Anansi or Ananzi, these tales of Spider Man and Lion had spread throughout all the islands. One of them, "Tar Baby," attained world-wide circulation.
Some, of the black magic of obeah, known as "Obi," was renewed now and then by the influx of Negroes from the British and French islands coming to work annually in the cane fields after the days of slavery were over. An obeah murder on St. Croix in 1922 was a hair-raising rarity, to do with a horse race. The killing of a young man was to secure his heart and liver to feed to a race horse. The murderer was caught and convicted. After this, the Jumbies with their evil spirits and bad tricks used as bogeymen for the children seemed only pale reflections of ancient Africa. The luxuriant folklore of the Danish Islands has been well covered by such writers as Henry Whitehead, Father John Levo, J. Antonio Jarvis and Hamilton Cochrane but one or two stories are unique to St. Croix and deserve inclusion.
One concerns the bas-relief sculpture of a mermaid high on the outside wall of the old estate house at Friedensborg which lies on a hilltop overlooking the Bethlehem gut. There are several versions of this story, but they all involve an old Dane who fell in love with a mermaid whom he found swimming in the gut in the days when guts ran wet, not dry. He borrowed money from the mermaid to build his new house, after falling properly in love with her, of course. In appreciation, he made the sculpture and put it up on the new wall. Then he celebrated his good fortune with a house-warming but did not invite the mermaid. This was not ingratitude; he merely assumed she could not walk up the hill. She could and she did. She killed her beloved in anger at the way he had snubbed her, went back down to the gut and swam away to sea.
When this story was related with relish by one of the old men of Friedensborg village, he was asked by a small boy, "but how could the mermaid walk up hill?" To which the true believer said firmly, "She just could, that's all." The literal little boy and the old Dane who lost his life should have known better, that's all. But as the island saying goes '''Me know it' nebber go before," which is to say that hindsight is easy.
One of the favorite stories of a local raconteur concerns the old method of getting rid of one of the milder venereal diseases, the Yaws, once as prevalent as Jumbies. Back east of Mt. Victory lay a valley called Yaw's Hole where those with the disease went for expert help. Here an old lady kept a brick oven in which she baked the feet of anyone with the sores. After 24 hours of baking, she had all the infection drawn down and knotted into one lump which she proceeded to twist out ruthlessly. The cure worked, but it was not recommended for the timid. Folklore often demonstrates that all the facets of daily life on St. Croix were not rosy and glamorous even during the Golden Age of wealth and prosperity.
The local outsized cockroaches came in for their share of lore. One story concerns the ingenuity of a bright young government worker. His Governor had been so indiscreet as to either give away or sell the large surplus of cannon balls which were never put to use on these neutral islands. Copenhagen dispatches asked for an accounting of all cannon balls. The young official wrote back that the missing ones had been eaten by the island's 'Cock'A'Roaches.' Three months later came the message that Danish scientists were most interested in having specimens of such 'Cock'A'Roaches'. Undaunted, the young man replied that it would be disastrous to ship specimens of any such iron-eating insects in a wood hulled vessel.
A generation back, enterprising small boys used to sell numbers of these iron-eaters to unsuspecting tourists interested in the flora and fauna of an exotic island. The boys carried their merchandise in large match boxes and sold them as being specimens of a rare "mahogany bird."