Mary Outten’s story reflects a rich life, well-lived.
Story & Photos By Siri White ~ Original interview by Sara J. Kaufman and Siri White
The island of Middle Caicos is the largest in the Turks & Caicos Islands and was once known as “Grand Caicos” for that reason. Ironically, it probably has the country’s lowest population density—and highest average age!
Many Middle Caicos folk have spent their lives on the sprawling island, farming its fertile soil, harvesting the fruit of the sea, creating distinctive and practical crafts from materials on-hand, and living a simple, unencumbered life focusing on God and family.
In the Summer 2011 issue of Times of the Islands, we featured Alton Higgs, a multi-faceted senior from Lorimers settlement. Here, we take up the story of life in Lorimers from a lady’s viewpoint—that of Mary Outten, born in the same settlement in 1928.
Back in 1928, Lorimers was the biggest settlement in the Turks & Caicos Island, bigger even than the “big city” of Bottle Creek on North Caicos. Today it is almost abandoned and nearly a ghost town. Even as late as the mid-1960s it was still a major settlement—the survey after Hurricane Donna in 1960 registered 125 dwellings, indicating a population of several hundred people. There were five shops, a school, the church and many farms. Today there are seven households and maybe twenty people, but no children.
Mary Outten has lived all her life in Lorimers. She has visited her family in the United States, but finds it too noisy and busy over there. She prefers life in Lorimers where she can walk to visit neighbours, work in the fields and enjoy fresh air. Mary’s house and yard is first on the right as you enter the settlement. She keeps it clean and tidy, and still farms the surrounding “fields” for her daily needs. She earns a little money from basket making, and can still do her own sewing. At 84, she is active and alert, and very sociable.
Mary’s parents were Marcellino Hall and Mary Augusta Tucker, who worked on the land as farmers. They were a relatively small family with two boys and three girls, of whom Mary is the youngest. As for many at that time, mortality was high—one brother died as an infant, Mary’s oldest sister Sophie died young, and her second sister Cassandra burnt to death when a spark from a corn-roasting fire ignited her coat. Migration also took its toll —Mary’s eldest brother Stephen (Boy) Hall moved away to the Bahamas, leaving Mary and her son Garnett as the only Outtens remaining in Lorimers, but her cousin Floriana is also a staunch member of the community and remains very close.
Mary went to school in Lorimers. She did not attend high school. The only high school in the Turks & Caicos Islands at that time was in Grand Turk and that was not an option when she was young.
As a child, Mary would go out with her cousins and friends to play in the fields and swim or they would play “big tag” and run up and down the street below the church. On Sunday mornings, Mary and her friends would go swimming in the creek at Lorimers Landing. Then they would go home for breakfast before Sunday School and church. In those days, everyone could swim (unlike the present generation who unfortunately seems to have lost that skill.)
There were village events like the Maypole party and Guy Fawkes’ bonfire night when they would make Guy Fawkes dolls. At Christmas they would go carol singing in the other settlements (Bambarra and Conch Bar) and even though the settlements were a long walk away, everybody knew each other in those days. One gets the impression that the community in which Mary grew up was bustling, friendly and supportive of each other. These days, she feels that one has to be much more careful about who one associates with—she says the environment is not as safe as it used to be.
When she was young, Mary did not work much in the fields—that was left to her parents. Her task was to run the family shop, which she did for 70 years and only closed in 2008 after Hurricanes Ike and Hannah, but the building still stands in her yard.
Life in Lorimers depended on farming and fishing. Fishing was by line and net in the creek at Lorimers Landing. Every settlement had cows, and during the war, Mary had a very fat cow. Mary’s cow was slaughtered and the tallow (fat) rendered for cooking, because it was impossible to buy lard during the war.
To supplement their diets, people bought rice, flour, sugar, lard, salt beef and oil from Haiti or from Grand Turk. The fishermen from Middle sailed in big sloops with dried conch and traded it for foodstuff. The trading sloops would anchor at Big Landing at Half Creek (down the road past Haulover Plantation) and the people of Lorimers took small boats from Lorimers Landing to the top of the creek, walked to Big Landing, carried the food back to their boats and then sailed back to Lorimers.
In 1948, at the age of 20, Mary married Telford Garnett Outten, also of Lorimers. They had 15 children, of which 9 survived (1 girl and 8 boys). Like so many other men in Middle and North Caicos, Telford went to the Bahamas to work, leaving Mary to bring up the 9 children mostly on her own. Besides the shop, she had to work the fields, and also earned money with basket work. Eventually Telford returned to Lorimers, and passed away in 2005.
Eight of Mary’s children are still alive. Three went to Florida, where Ednell and Hewline are pastors and Mary Rose (Blossom) is a nurse, following high school in Grand Turk. Mary’s other children remained in the Turks & Caicos—Garnett is a pastor in Lorimers, Newton is a deacon at a Baptist church in Five Cays, Providenciales, and Cleveson and Melvin live in Provo and work in construction. Mary says of Cleveson, “He is a smart man, a philosopher, really, but did not follow the other boys into the church.” Maggie works in Carlos Handfield’s store in Whitby on North Caicos.
Despite the depopulation, quality of life in Lorimers has gradually improved. Because the elders choose to stay on there and in the other settlements, there is now electricity and roads, and most folks have indoor bathrooms and plumbing, using water from cisterns.
The improvement in health care is especially notable. Like many old people, Mary at 80 was almost blind, but in 2010, she underwent surgery for cataracts at the new hospital in Provo and, thanks to her improved eyesight, she has been able to resume her sewing and basket making.
Mary makes hats and bags without seams by use of knit-plaiting, which she learned from watching her grandmother and others (her mother did not do basket-work). Not many people master this technique today. The traditional products were field hats and baskets made from the strong white palm tops which are plentiful near Lorimers—there is no fanner grass elsewhere on island. Mary still does her stitching on her mother’s old Singer hand-cranked machine.
Even though her shop is closed, Mary remains very active. As well as basket-making, she farms and is an active member of the little church community.
Mary learned farming from her parents and is a strong agriculturalist. Her days are mostly filled with work in the seven fields she still farms. In the old days there were many fields, but today the bush has reclaimed them. She remembers there were lots of fields at Haulover and Increase where the cotton plantations had been. William Outten, Telford’s grandfather (Old Scupper) grew corn, peas and potatoes on his farm. In addition, people cultivated a lot of fruit—mango trees, sugar apple, pomegranate, sour oranges and banana, as well as the local sapodilla trees. Today you can still see a few of these trees, as well as the remnants of cotton plants from the old plantations. Mary still has fruit trees in her yard (we noted guava, pomegranates, tamarind and sweet/sour oranges) but further away from the road she harvests from mango trees by Dark Night Well and Big Well from trees planted by her grandparents.
Besides farming, Mary’s yard is a hive of daily activity —she has a corn-grinding room, an outdoor laundry and three buildings which require constant work (she is still trying to fix one up for visiting family). There are also interesting relics of former times: a well with a hand pump for ground water and old hand tools and farm implements.
And that leaves the church. Every Saturday night Mary cleans the church for Sunday morning service. On Monday night she goes to prayer meeting and Tuesday night there is bible study when the pastor comes from Conch Bar. On Thursday night she goes to women’s missionary meeting.
All of this makes for a faith-filled, full, rich life, which happens to be quite a long one. Where would the Turks & Caicos Islands be without its elderly—the strong, patient, unchanging folk like Mary Outten, who are the backbone of the country? By documenting their stories, we hope to educate and inspire future generations.
A long time TCI resident originally from Norway, Siri White uses a standard Hasselblad camera that is fully manual and processes and prints the film in her home darkroom. She has held several photo exhibitions in the TCI and produces an annual calendar and postcard series with the MIddle Caicos Co-op. Visit www.siriwhite.com.
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Cover photographer Christine Morden works for Paradise Photography www.myparadisephoto.com , a full service boutique company based in the TCI. She especially enjoyed the Rejouvenance photo shoot to learn about the benefits of coconuts and to smell the amazing scents of their hand-crafted products.