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Building Colorful Good Life in the Virgin Islands

Charles Hillinger's America

April 05, 1987|CHARLES HILLINGER

ALL FOR THE BETTER, Virgin Islands — It was a warm, sunny Sunday afternoon in All for the Better, on the island of St. Croix. The brown pods on the tongue trees clattered incessantly in the gentle trade winds.

For Georgina Green, 68, who makes salads in a hotel for a living, it was a special day, a day she hired three men to work on the construction of her dream house.

For five years, whenever she has had spare money--a couple of days a month at the most--the All for the Better salad maker has hired workers to build her new home. So far, only the foundation is finished.

"I hope I get it done before I die," she sighed. Her daughter, Pevril Green, 24, a student at the College of the Virgin Islands, drew up the plans.

In Upper Love, John Henry, 44, was working on his home on his day off. He is much farther along than Georgina Green. Henry has been building his house six years. The exterior walls and roof are completed.

Henry and Green are typical of hundreds of individuals and families throughout 23-mile-long, seven-mile-wide St. Croix--building their own homes, paying as they go without ever having a mortgage, but taking several years in the effort. It's a time-honored St. Croix tradition.

Similar "long-in-the-making" homes are under construction at Adventure, Patience, Lower Love, Anna's Hope, Contentment, Elizah's Retreat, Jealousy, Envy, Judith's Fancy, Peter's Rest, William's Delight, Betsy's Jewel, Barren Spot, Hard Labor, Stony Ground, Slob, and the numerous other communities on St. Croix.

This Virgin Island has 375 populated settlements, all with quaint Danish land survey names dating back to the 1600s and 1700s when St. Croix was divided into 150- and 300-acre sugar cane plantations.

Sugar cane dwindled in importance on St. Croix during the 1920s and 1930s and, in time, the crop no longer made economic sense. The last sugar cane was harvested on the island in 1965.

Heritage of Sugar

But St. Croix's heritage as a sugar island is evident everywhere. Huge stone ruins of sugar mills, rum distilleries and greathouses (plantation mansions) dot the island.

"Our place names are fascinating. The derivation of many is uncertain. All for the Better, for example. No one knows where that came from," said William Cissel, 37, curator of Christiansted National Historic Site, 7 1/2 acres of 18th-Century Danish buildings in downtown Christiansted, largest town on the island.

Cissel is a 10th-generation Cruzan. Judith's Fancy, one of the island's settlements, is named after his great-great-great-great-grandmother, Judith Heyliger. Her father gave her a sugar estate in 1792 as a wedding gift. The plantation was called Judith's Fancy.

There is a Mary's Fancy and a Sally's Fancy on St. Croix. There are places like Peter's Rest and Katherine's Rest, so named because they were a previous plantation owner's place of burial.

One community is called Rust Up Twist, Dutch for rest after strife. Another is Work and Rest. Mount Misery, Utopia, Solitude, Sweet Bottom, Wheel of Fortune, and Whim are others.

"You can call us a couple of slobs," remarked Jim Millen, 25, on the beach at Slob with his girlfriend, Theresa Dearmond, 23.

Tracing a Slob

National Park Service historian William Cissel has been trying to trace the name Slob without success. "It does not mean untidy person and it is not Danish. I believe it is an archaic 17th-Century English word, but I haven't been able to find out what it means," he noted.

Joyce Hurd, 60, a descendant of British and Danes who came to St. Croix in the 1600s, lives with her husband, Jim, 64, at the circa-1650 Sprat Hall Greathouse. She told the story of one sugar plantation that was called Prosperity until it proved not to be prosperous, and was renamed Little Profit.

At Jealousy, Mary August, 55, a lifelong resident of the community insisted: "Nobody is any more jealous around here than anywhere else. It's a funny old name. Whenever outsiders come here, they can't believe a place would be named Jealousy."

"The stories about how those places got their names are something else," said Judy Baumgarten, 40, a resident of All for the Better. "There is an Upper Love and a Lower Love. An early day plantation owner supposedly had two paramours, one on one plantation, another on the other, hence the names Upper Love and Lower Love."

Flowers and trees here have imaginative names as well--flowers with names like Jump Up and Kiss Me, Stinking Toe and Four O'Clock, trees named Nothing Nut and Monkey-Don't-Climb.

Speaking English Creole

Cruzans speak a colorful and melodic dialect that resembles middle English and is called "talkin' broad." It is English Creole, difficult to understand with the th pronounced t as in: "If you watch your weight, it's because you tink it a good ting to be tin."

In St. Croix, the horses run at Flamboyant race track. It kind of figures that they would.

It was Christopher Columbus who named St. Croix. He called the island, largest of more than 50 U.S. Virgin Islands, Santa Cruz, which means "holy cross" in Spanish. French explorers later changed the name to St. Croix, which means "holy cross" in French.

Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands on his second voyage to the New World in 1493. He went ashore at Saltriver Bay on the north side of St. Croix.

After passing numerous islands in the Archipelago, Columbus called the islands Santa Ursula y Las Once Mil Virgenes --after the legendary Fourth-Century St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. One of the nearby British Virgin Islands is Virgin Gorda--"fat virgin."

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