Childhood Summers Spent on St. John
(A Presentation by Gaylord Sprauve, summarized by Jan Frey)
March 31, 2005, marks the 88th anniversary of the acquisition of the Danish West Indies by the United States of America. It also marks the 140th anniversary of when this acquisition was first contemplated… It was in 1865, some fifty-plus years prior, the United States began discussions regarding this purchase.
Gaylord Sprauve of St. Thomas was warmly welcomed as the speaker of this season’s last St. John Historical Society meeting, which was held in the courtyard of the Cruz Bay Battery. His cousin Elroy Sprauve, who is a member of the Society’s Board of Directors, introduced him. Both men shared their childhood summers here with family and friends of a bygone era.
Mr. Sprauve told the group that he would come to St. John with his family as soon as school was closed for summer vacation. To this young boy, St. John was a place of sand, sun and sea to be enjoyed unlike St. Thomas, where there was only pavement near his home. His mother had no sisters of her own and she enjoyed the companionship of her sister-in-law and other “sisters” on St. John.
At the time, St. John was a small community with no vehicles, so the children roamed freely days and evenings. Fishing was the most important pastime for them and they first fished from the dock, where Nana—Elroy’s Mom, could keep an eye on them. As they grew older, they would fish at the reef at entrance of Cruz Bay harbor and later they went to small cays and fished all day. Some days they spent so many hours fishing that the fish they caught early in the morning would be spoiled by the time they returned in the late afternoon. Soldier crabs, which they used as bait, were harvested after dark from around decaying century plants. On one occasion when they were out in a rowboat in Plantation Bay, they heard a rumbling sound made by thousands of crabs washing themselves in the sea. This scene was only observed once.
The family owned a farm at Adrian with cows, sheep, goats and pigs where eastern Caribbean’s were the farm hands and lived on the property. Some mornings Gaylord would leave Cruz Bay at five-thirty, in the dark, to go to the farm for milk with two carts pulled by mules in which to haul the milk cans. Vegetables were grown at the farm, which were used by the family and other community members. Charcoal was used in the coal pots for cooking fish. Pigs and goats were cooked on spits over the charcoal fires.
There were family trips to the Island’s East End, when they would ride from Cruz Bay to King’s Hill, down to Carolina and on to the East End. Their stays were short as they returned the same day.
The families hunted wild ducks on the ponds, often on Tortola. The men would go ashore and hunt, while the children waited in the boat. Because the ducks would easily spoil, they rented refrigerator boxes, which were very cold to store the birds. Some homes had kerosene refrigerators, but daily food shopping was done at small “shops” in town. One event that Mr. Sprauve told the group was when a calf was brought to St. John from St. Thomas on the family boat. For the young ones, this was a big and exciting event. The trips to St. John were sometimes very long and at other times very short, depending on the winds. Often the boat would blow near Lovango Cay, when oars would be used to scull to St. John.
At the end of Gaylord’s presentation, he asked for questions or comments from the audience. To everyone’s delight, Gaylord’s brother, Gilbert, joined in the sharing of random reminiscences of that time in St. John.
There was a large open area where Wharfside Village is today that was used as a cricket field, when it was dry enough. Where the Post Office is located today, there were goat pens. The goats would spend their nights there and be taken to an area just past where Mongoose Junction is to graze during the days. There was no road past the bottom of the hill, so the goats grazing area was fenced and gated.
They talked about their mules, John and Jim, about making rope by taking vines off trees and twisting them, and the trips to the commissary at Caneel Bay by boat to buy alum. They even brought grass sod from St. Thomas and transplanted them on St. John.
Naturally fishing was discussed and the brothers told about using fish pots, which were positioned in various spots. The brothers would not mark the spots, but trianangulate mentally the spots using various landmarks such as sugar mills, so their fish would not be poached.
They spoke of Julius, Elroy’s father, who was St. John’s Councilman to the Virgin Islands government, with its headquarters in Charolotte Amalie. Julius would visit with people of St. John about their concerns and even ride over to Coral Bay on a mule to speak with the East End residents. Gaylord told the gathering of the eulogy he gave at his cousin’s, recent funeral. He ended it by calling St. John “our playground” remembering his childhood summers spent here.