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Salt Cay Family Robinson

ellas-gardenTo these siblings, home is nowhere but Salt Cay.

Story & Photos By Michele Belanger-McNair

Most residents of Salt Cay tend to be somehow related through several hundred years of marriages and births. There aren’t many different surnames:  Simmons, Smith, Simons, Talbot, Robinson, Dickenson, Been, Wilson, Kennedy, Lightbourne, Selver, Landy, Hamilton, Glinton and Garland cover most everyone born and raised here. With the passing of time, many members of these families have left Salt Cay to make a living. Some of the young undertook professions only found in cities, not tiny islands. Others have left only to come back to live out their days. A few have stayed their entire lives.

Like most Turks Islands families, those on Salt Cay were big. They easily spanned 7 to 12 children, all born in the small homes in which they would grow up, and perhaps still live.

On Salt Cay, there are several families of brothers and sisters still residing there after many years, with the largest among them the children of Roderick Robinson and Eliza Kennedy Robinson. Ten children in all, the Robinsons bore eight girls and two boys. Today, Leonie Been, the eldest of the Robinson children at 93, lives in Grand Turk. The remainder of the surviving brothers and sisters can be found on Salt Cay.

Melvina Simmons

Melvina “Mellie” Estelle Robinson Simmons is 82 years old. She lived with her husband William Stanley Simmons in their South District home until his death on July 31, 2007. Mellie and Will raised seven children in 56 years of marriage. One child, a son, died at five months.

When they became engaged, Will worked in the salt industry and was learning the trade of a mason. During their engagement, with the help of his future father-in-law, Will built the home they share today. What started as a one bedroom has grown, in salt-raker fashion, to three. They married in August, 1956 at St. John’s Anglican Church, in, as Miss Mellie describes, “a big church wedding.” Mellie then moved to the South District, having spent her entire life “North.”

As they raised their growing family, Will labored by day in the salt pans, then worked into the evenings as sexton at St. John’s, taking care of the church, including cleaning 25 oil lamp shades after every evening service. Mellie baked bread and Queen cakes for sale, and made the 17 shillings Will earned each week go as far as possible, after he helped his own mother. “I stretched those 17 shillings. I was an ‘up and down wife.’ Between Will and me, we could do anything,” says Miss Mellie. “I sewed all the clothes we wore on my machine.” I stood in Miss Mellie’s kitchen, transfixed, as she effortlessly prepared her bread for baking pans. (For me, this same effort takes concentration and all my manual skills. Millie does it with her eyes closed.)

Will earned his mason rating. He made many of the walls still standing to this day at the cricket field and government and school buildings, as well as his own home. Life became a little easier for the Simmons’ with Will as a mason. Their seven children all went to school on Grand Turk when they turned 11. Their eldest daughter is a teacher. The other children work as a shipboard chef, musician, minister, airline manager and as government employees. Mellie says, “We have the respect of our children and the payback for our hard times is returned daily.” She talks with them by phone nearly every day.

Now Will suffers from “nerves” and is dependent upon his wife for much of his needs. Miss Mellie gently cares for him and has no desire to leave Salt Cay, ever. Nor does Will. The children suggest they come live with them in Grand Turk or Provo, but as she tells them, “My house is my home. Your house is yours. I’m staying home.” Miss Mellie still bakes her bread on Saturday, and her cookie cakes, for a few lucky people. Each year she paints a part of her house herself, loving and caring for the home she has known for so long. Sitting on the arm of the easy chair occupied by Will while we talked, Miss Mellie affectionately stroked his hair and leaned on her man’s shoulder with a smiling and practiced ease. And Will, despite his frailties, reveled in the love bestowed upon him by his bride, smiling and beaming at her touch.

NOTE: On July 31, 2007, on the first anniversary of his daughter’s passing, William Simmons passed away peacefully in the home he built, with his wife Melvina at his side.

rosalie-dance-lessonsElla Hamilton

Emily Eliza Robinson Hamilton, now 80 years old, still lives in the North District near the home where she and her family were raised. Widowed since 1982, Miss Ella (as she is affectionately known) continues to maintain the home where she birthed and raised 10 children. Ella married George Stanley Hamilton of Salt Cay. George passed away on his 60th birthday in 1982. Ella’s regret is that she has no photographs of her late husband. “People didn’t take pictures then like today. There were no cameras and even if we had one, we could not have gotten the film they used or even afforded it. No one could,” says Miss Ella. “Those who did take pictures weren’t interested in pictures of us,” she adds — meaning the working class of Salt Cay.  The occasional traveler or salt proprietor’s visitor had other pictures to take.

George Hamilton did not have the luxuries of the similarly named Hollywood actor. George was the preacher in the Methodist Church of Salt Cay, one of the oldest churches in the Islands. He worked in the salt ponds, on the Harriott Company boats and the Harriott stable’s horse carts. He was a jack of all trades and could fix anything. But money was hard to earn. Eventually he went to Freeport to work in construction, but stayed for a relatively short time. His home was Salt Cay. Living on two shillings, six pence a day meant tough decisions on how to spend your earnings, especially with ten children. “It was so little,” says Miss Ella, “you did not know where to begin to spend it.”

Life on Salt Cay meant that Miss Ella — and any of her children old and strong enough — took a five gallon can or bucket and got water for the day. They walked to the town tank or the mile to the White House water tank. They filled their containers and walked home balancing them on their heads. Miss Ella bears the brunt of so many years of carrying water, as she can barely raise her hands above her shoulders now. A cistern (or “tank”) to provide water at home was far too expensive to build. Laundry meant carrying the wash to either the Front or Back Wells on the north end, where fresh water was to be had. The wells were regularly cleaned by the Islanders and were a primary source of fresh water for all. (Now, livestock use them and nobody bothers to clean them.) Ella, and other island ladies, would haul up their clothes and wash them, bring them home to dry and then iron them as well. It took days, not hours, to do the laundry. Each child had two sets of clothes: one clean suit and one dirty suit, one for school and one for church. With 10 children, that was a lot of clothes.

Giving birth to 10 children on Salt Cay meant giving birth at home. One day George left for the salt ponds only to return and find he had a new son to hold while Ella cleaned up after the day’s singular effort. Keeping that many children in line and raising them to accomplish something was no easy feat either. Miss Ella says she “brought my children up hard.” If they got out of line in church they got their ear pulled or tightly pinched.

It must have worked, for Ella and George Hamilton’s children, all products of Salt Cay’s Primary School, are: a bishop on Grand Turk, a minister, a local preacher and teacher, an “on trial” Methodist minister, a carpenter, an artist, a water treatment specialist, a sales person and a fire department official in Provo. Ella herself should have been a civil rights attorney as she fought many battles for her children’s educations and never backed down. Getting to high school on Grand Turk was not a “given” for anyone, even if you passed your exams with distinction. Like Miss Mellie, Ella helped support the family by baking bread. And although Ella doesn’t bake much anymore, she still makes the most delicious Queen cakes. If you are lucky enough to be somewhere on Salt Cay where they sell them, you’ll never forget them.

Today, Ella spends her time tending her extensive plant garden and caring for plants at neighboring houses where expatriates live part of the year. Though her yard looks like a nursery, it isn’t. If you need a plant, she will cut some off and tell you how to get it started and thrive. (I take plants to her so they can escape my brown thumb of disaster.) You’ll most likely see her at Nettie’s store down the way as well, helping when the Dominican boat arrives and goods need to be handed out and accounted for. For certain she will be in the front pew of the Methodist Church on Sunday mornings, listening to her son Noyle, a minister-in-training, preach the gospel and day’s sermon. Make no mistake about it, Mrs. Ella Hamilton is one proud woman.

robinson-siblingsRosalie Glinton

Rosalie Albertina Robinson Glinton lives in the South District in one of the few, distinctive, two story homes left on Salt Cay. She is 77 years of age. She married Clifford Glinton, a widower whose wife “died in a straw bed” (while giving birth). This child, Edward, was the only one Mr. Glinton had, as he and Rosalie did not bear children of their own. Rosalie raised Edward. Sadly, Edward Glinton died in 2005 in Freeport. But while he lived on Salt Cay, he lived in a home filled with music, as his father played guitar and accordion and his stepmother the organ and piano.

The Glintons loved to dress up in their finest clothes, Edward included, and Rosalie was more than happy to oblige. When Rosalie Glinton arrives at a social function, everyone notices her hat. Though all three of the Robinson sisters have a love for hats, Rosalie’s collection is amazing and most match the dress she is wearing. Clifford Glinton was chief deacon of Mt. Zion Baptist Church on Salt Cay. Rosalie, though a member of St. John’s Anglican Church next door, played organ for the Baptists . . . and the Methodists . . . and the Anglicans. Much in demand, Rosalie played the church organ — and still does to this day — at whichever church is hosting their minister on Sunday. Rosalie brings her electric keyboard to every island function and can play anything anyone can hum.

Her graciousness in donating her time and talent has resulted in a wall of plaques and awards, including recognition by the Turks & Caicos Tourist Board Gospel Awards. Most important is her recognition by Queen Elizabeth II with a gold medal and Certificate of Achievement for her service. If not playing the music, then Rosie is dancing to it. When the Turks & Caicos Police Band come for the annual Christmas Carol dance, Rosie is the first up swinging, teaching the kids to dance properly and getting all the ladies, tourists and most of the men in the swing as well. She is irrepressible. Her smile is broad and deep as the ocean off Salt Cay.

mellie-bakesThough Rosalie has traveled a little in life, she would never leave Salt Cay. “You can lay down in your bed, comfortable. And sleep with your doors open on Salt Cay,” says Rosalie. “We’ve all known each other all our lives.” But the night, as is the custom, means closing your door at sunset. Not locking it, but closing it, to keep the night away. Evil spirits can come out, not burglars. Nothing good can come at night. “As kids,” says Rosalie “you ran for the door not to let sunset beat you, for fear of a whipping. You didn’t want your daddy to come looking for you. Girls did not walk up to boys then either.”

Back in “the days,” there was no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Cooking was in a brick oven, wood fire and coal stove. Dinner was at 4:00 PM with a biscuit and tea served after dark. With time, Clifford took out the brick oven and put a gas stove in its place; indoor plumbing arrived as well. Upstairs in the old house, the tradewinds blow through, cooling the bedrooms. Multiple rooms have been carved out of the large downstairs living areas. Rosalie’s cow grazes in a side yard and her yard abuts that of Mrs. Amy Smith, a friend since childhood. Life down South can’t be beat.

Lew Robinson

Lewis Roderick Robinson is 72 years old. The youngest of the Robinson children still surviving, he is, as Lew says, “the end of the line.” He is known by all as “Uncle Lew” and is regularly seen riding his old blue bicycle the length of Salt Cay’s two mile Victoria Street. He plans his trips with the wind at his back. He spends his time both at his sister Rosalie’s house, as she hates to be alone at night, and the family’s home in the North District, having inherited it as the only living son.

Lew lived on Salt Cay until 1967, working as a salt raker. He worked in the few pans his father had, as well as for the Harriott salt business. The salt pan bottoms could cut your feet to shreds so he wore “whompers.” These were sandals made from old truck tires, cut to fit and then tied with rope or leather onto the feet of the rakers. The brine, or “pickle” as it is called, was hard on the skin but when you had a wound or bite, it was the best healing ointment made. Getting a job as an Ordinary Seaman, Lew went to work for National Bulk and sailed until the late 1980s, when he retired to Salt Cay. He sailed all over the world, visiting ports in Ireland, England, France, Italy, Sicily, South America, western Africa, Japan, California, western Canada and the Caribbean. His favorite places were Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Baltimore, Maryland; Mobile, Alabama and Trinidad. Though he married for a time, he has no children. Living the life of a merchant marine made being married difficult.

uncle-lou-bikesAfter all these places, why return to Salt Cay? “Salt Cay is my home. There are no problems here and the people are always friendly. Grand Turk is too busy. This is the best,” says Lew. But even Salt Cay has its distinctions. Lew prefers the North District to the South. There are more things to do, places to spend time, the dock to visit and cafés to stop at. Despite a stroke several years ago, and an arthritic knee that affects his gait, Lew keeps riding his bike. “I have to ride or I would never go anywhere,” says Lew. Plus, it seems to keep him young. He also walks the island’s beaches, looking for treasures, finding glass buoys and floats as well as good hardwoods to work with.

Each Sunday will find Lew in the front pew of St. John’s in his Sunday best, singing his heart out as Rosalie plays the organ. He never misses a church or social function.

Conclusion

As darkness falls on Salt Cay, families still shut their doors to the night, each child home and accounted for. The doors are still not locked and street lights help turn back the night, though they diminish the stars somewhat. The lights from the Grand Turk’s cruise ship port now glare on the horizon as if the sun rises in the North. When Salt Cay had hundreds of residents, everyone knew each other and trusted everyone else. Crime did not exist (and still doesn’t for that matter.) But with winds of change looming on the horizon and unknown people arriving under the guise of “development,” those virtues could go the way of gas lanterns, coal stoves and clothes lines — all obsolete.

Yet the Robinson Family, as other longtime Island dynasties, will continue on, ensuring Salt Cay a rich legacy that cannot be lost to a bulldozer’s blade.



6 Comments

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Thomas Robinson
Apr 26, 2011 21:47

I love this web site! It also helped me out alot as it relates to finding out about some Robinsons from Turks!

Oliver Kennedy
May 10, 2011 1:26

Good writing acurate information you are doing a very good service for my people
like family and I love my Salt Cay.
Never met you but hope to some day.

Thanks

minister betty jean smith
Jan 13, 2012 14:51

my maternal grandfahter, JOHN HUNTER SIMMONS WAS BORN ON TURKS ISLAND AND HIS SIBLIINGS AS WELL. MY GREAT ANUT INNA AND GREAT AUNT MARY SIMMONS BOTH HIS SISTERS AND HIS BROTHER FRANKLIN JOHN HUNTER SIMMONS AND GRANDFATHER MARRIED DRUSILLA BONAPARTE SIMMONS MY MATERNAL GRANDMOTHER AND HAD SIX CHILDREN. JOHN HUNTER SIMMONS JR AND FRANKLIN JOHN HUNTER SIMMONS, DRUSILLA SIMMONS, SELEMNA SIMMONS MY MOM AND MARY SIMMONS AND LUIDEL SIMMONS. THEY LIVED IN SHEEPSHEAD BAY BROOKLYN. ONLY FRNAKLIN JOHN HUNTER SIMMONS
IS STILL ALIVE FROM THEIR MARRIAGE. MY GRANDFATHERS SIBLINGS MOVED TO THE ISLAND OF NASSAU AND THEIR CHILDREN STILL LIVE THERE AS BUILDERS. THIS SITE IS VERY ENLIGHTENING.

Andy Hunter
Jun 12, 2012 14:55

As someone with a Turks Island connection in his family tree I would very very interested to hear from Betty Jean Smith. John Hunter features greatly in my family tree!

GSM
Apr 20, 2013 21:17

Looking for Roderick Arthur and John Simons.

lavarno
Jun 26, 2016 19:57

any one know William Simmons from Kew, North Caicos?

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