Lovango Explore

On Saturday, March 8th, the “Sadie Sea” was loaded to her (legal) gills with a cargo of St. John Historical Society members and their provisions. We were crossing the tumultuous Windward Passage to Lovango Cay to see some old and some new real estate.

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Picturesque Smith Cottage

Toni and Wally Leopold’s motley crew of canines, led by the terrifying Daisy, welcomed us at their dock. Our first explore was of the Leopold’s enchanting house. Its beautifully crafted beams reclaimed from the Great Salt Lake, open living areas, eclectic furnishings, and humorous signage were wonderfully inter-woven with the reality of its desalination plant, solar panels, battery farm, and a ‘barnyard’ of beautifully cared for animals.

After touring this modern house, we walked east along the beach toward Smith House and Smith Cottage, earlier and more modest incarnations of living off the grid. The Smith House foundation probably dates from the late 1700s or early 1800s; as such it is one of the oldest structures in Cruz Bay Quarter still standing. It has, however, been reconstructed a number of times and one has to look hard to find its historical roots.

Smith Cottage, a mid-twentieth century structure of white Portland cement and blue shutters, with a corrugated roof, also sits ocean-side. Behind it is a very large impression in the earth, possibly the remains of a pit used either to burn coral to make quicklime, or to make charcoal, industries for which Lovango was commonly used.

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US Coast and Geodetic Survey of Lovango, 1919. Note the circles
which represent at least 17 houses. Roselyn Anderson’s house is
on the hilltop, mid-island. Rudy and Else DeWindt’s house is on
the east end… Almost all the houses are seaside.

SJHS President Eleanor Gibney gathered us on the beach to review the earlier history of the Cay. She began by debunking one story of the derivation of its name. It’s a good touristy invention, a charter captain’s story, that there was a brothel on the island, and that the name springs from Love and Go, she says, but it’s not so. Pronounced and sometimes written Lu’ongo or Loango, the cay’s name more likely comes from the name of an African kingdom, a trading post in the Congo, of the 16th or 17th century. The names of proximate cays–Congo and Mingo– tie in with this theory.

She reviewed the Lovango Timeline (See the companion Lovango Timelineon our website, which has been enriched with her commentary), beginning in 1728. As her review approached the early 1900’s, the timeline’s telling became more and more participatory. Board member Andro Childs remembered that her mother, Miss Myrah Keating-Smith, used the cay as a respite from her always being on call; Andro was left at home on the ‘mainland,’ St. John. Member Eulita Jacobs contributed lively stories about her family’s tenure on or use of Lovango. How shameful we didn’t have the tape recorder, but perhaps if it had been there, we would not have heard all the stories that will now enable us to call her Miss Mandolin at the next jumpup!

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Headstone of Andomeada Child’s aunt,
Roselyn Smith Anderson
(Photo by David Knight, 2008)

Fishing was the industrial mainstay of the Cay over time. Lovango censuses from 1850 through 1917 list the predominant job as fisherman or mariner. Charcoal making and quicklime production may also have been important to a number of on and off-cay people. A June 28, 1854 Tidende Notice inserted by William James Halley, representing the three (related) families on Lovango Cay, warns: “All persons are hereby cautioned against breaking of Ballast, cutting of Wood, or otherwise trespassing on the Island of LOANGO as also the adjoining Quay called ‘Congo.’ Offenders taken in the act after the date of this notice, will be dealt with according to the utmost rigour of the law–St Thomas, 21st June, 1854.” As charcoaling and liming declined, fishing remained. Even now, claimed those present, the best fishing is off Congo. A number of Lovango residents were actually born in the fishing communities of the nearby cays of Mingo and Thatch. The population of Lovango rose and fell–from 0 at times, to having more people than any individual settlement on the island of St. John. The population summaries: 1804–14; 1805–8; 1815–0; 1836–16;1846–22; 1850–17; 1860–12; 1864–15; 1870–13;1901–3; 1911–24, 1917–49. By 1917 there were clearly enough children for a school;

Myrah Keating-Smith’s Funeral Booklet describes the school she attended on Lovango in the early 1900’s: “Classes held in the “Parlor” of Mrs. Anderson’s home on the neighboring island of Lovango were attended by row boat with her headmistress, Miss Sylvanie Sewer, who left Cruz Bay in the early morning and returned late afternoon. There were 18 students in that “parlor” school, mostly residents of Lovango. When the headmistress could no longer commute, the school was closed, and Myrah and her twin sister were tutored by their stepfather, the late Edward Moorehead, Sr….”

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Gravesites at the west end cemetery proceed
in an orderly fashion down to the beach.
Some are indicated only by piles of stones
or conch shells. The tall marker
in the picture reads
‘In Memory of my beloved Husband,
Henry Smith. Died December’

Because burial had to be done quickly in the tropics, the cay had its own cemeteries. We visited two of them. At the west end of the island is an older set of graves, many of which are identifiable only by the multitude of conch shells. There are a few stone markers.

At the east end of the island is a cemetery where Roselyn Smith Anderson (9/18/1889-9/22/1969), Louis Christian Andersen (6/8/1879-10/11/1957) and the more recently deceased Mr. Rudy deWindt, born on Eensomhed, St. Thomas, are buried. This plot is now surrounded by private property.

There was a spirited discussion of burial practices. Those present remembered that in the 1920’s through 1940’s the deceased was almost always prepared for burial by washing down with limejuice, then dressing the person in his or her good clothes. Then (s)he was wrapped in a sheet or some other large available cloth. It was some time before the government provided wood coffins for burial. The person would be buried the same or next day, and often the visiting, cooking, singing, and eating went on long after the person was in the ground. There was singing and crying all night, Eulita Jacobs recalled. Proper mourning, indicated by the sequence of the color of clothes one wore months afterwards, also took time; there was real grieving.

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Rudy deWindt, c.1960’s
(Photo by
George H. H. Knight)

There was also lively discussion of life on the cay. Families moved between cays and the inhabitants were recalled as feisty (rock-throwing was mentioned, but no-one could recall the genesis of Murder Rock). Parties on the beach were remembered. The housing was simpler– the Perkins’ 2 storybook cottages were fondly recalled. There were memories of mid-20th century inhabitants who came and went–such as Dick and Ginny Joyce, and later the Muilenbergs and Hermon and Suzy Smith. Tony Palmer recalled a time when a stroll on the beach meant you could say hello by name on your way to a pigroast. And if the pig happened to be too large to roast in the time allotted, one had to make do with the substituted liquid refreshment!

Many thanks to the Leopolds for their hospitality. Thanks also to the “Sadie Sea” crew–Captain Ben, First Mate Danielle, and First Dog Romeo–for our safe passage.

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The epitaph on this tombstone
in the east end cemtery
reads “In loving memory
of Louis Christian Anderson.
Born in Denmark June 8, 1879.
Died October 1957.”

 


Robin Swank

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