I Remember It Well:

An Island Saga

Story by Earle Perkins

Photo by of Fish Frames Ltd.

Archive photos courtesy of Bengt Soderquist

If you had asked us 28 years ago if we were going to build a house in the British West Indies someday, we would have said, “What? Where? Are you crazy?” Well, looking back, I guess you could say we were.

In 1971, we received a letter from a good friend about a newly developing island that could be an interesting venture. The idea was intriguing and we were invited to stay with our friend and his wife at their villa. They had been on the island for several weeks and had fallen in love with the place. We read and re-read the enticing brochures and agreed we had nothing to lose but a couple of weeks of time. Thus we embarked on 28 years of intrigue, work and play.

Paradise was Providenciales, a beautiful, unspoiled island within the Turks & Caicos Islands group. It is not a lush island but it is pleasantly green. The vegetation consists of cacti, many varieties of small trees, palm trees . . . and the most gorgeous water on earth. It is 17 miles long and about three miles at its widest point, with hills of up to 110 feet high. There are many snow-white sand beaches, most of which are protected by an offshore reef. This reef contains a variety of corals and marine life with fish of all colors and sizes, all surrounded in crystal clear water.Turtle Cove Marina in the 1960s

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Turtle Cove Marina Then and Now

We called the sales office for the island property, Provident Limited, a corporation then located at the Lantana, Florida airport. They were delighted to honor our inquiry and the next morning we were chauffeured to the Lantana airport and boarded Kip Du Pont’s private airplane. It was a converted DC-3, the workhorse of World War II. However, this airplane was “plushed” to the limit with easy chairs, drapes, and large domed windows with swivel chairs for viewing the fantastic scenery. The idea of using this plane was obvious–we could fly to the island at lower altitudes where the color of the turquoise water was gorgeous beyond description.

The landing at “Provo” those days could be an exciting time for the passengers. If you were not a pilot and you saw the short gravel landing strip you might sensibly think, “We can’t land there, that’s somebody’s driveway!” Of course, it was perfectly safe.

Most of the population showed up when our plane arrived. The vehicles that were waiting to take the passengers to their destinations were in bad shape. Some of them had fenders rusted through, doors missing, springs broken and headlights gone. Actually, these were the better cars. Others were still on the roads without any of the original body left–makeshift frames of wood with wooden seats to ride on.

Our friend’s transportation was a three year old pickup truck, with no windows and the fenders almost gone. The seats and everything else were covered with a thick layer of white dust. Still in our street clothes, we felt well overdressed. The uniform of the day on Provo was ragged shorts, sandals and very little else.

The main road was dusty, narrow and all gravel, but in pretty good condition. Heading up the first hill, a car came speeding over the top on the wrong side of the road. As our lives passed before us, we realized that here, driving is on the left side of the road, in the British way.
After we left the main road, the really bad roads began. They were mostly bulldozed paths, which were next to impassable for most cars. Low vehicles would certainly high center on the huge rocks in the road and springs be easily broken.

Soon we arrived at our friends’ lot, where, surprisingly, they were camping temporarily in a small trailer (much against the rules) until they finished their house. Some vital pieces of lumber had not arrived and they apologized for the only accommodations they had. We stayed in the partially finished garage–the walls were roughed in, but there wasn’t any roof. No problem, until we were rudely awakened at 2:00 AM with rain in our faces from a passing shower.

We soon learned that our friends were pioneers in every sense of the word. There wasn’t an electric company, city water or sewers. They were getting by with one gas station and Simmon’s Store, which was like a small grocery/hardware store, without groceries, a good part of the time. A ship came in once a month (maybe), with the canned goods and staples, and fresh food was flown in by private plane about once a week. Everybody traded supplies back and forth. Cars and trucks lasted about three years, whether new or used. They all got island cancer (rust) and just fell apart. The deterioration was not caused by the humidity, since it averages only 40%. The culprit seems to be the residual salt mixed with limestone and water splashing up from the road after a shower.

Getting up at daylight is great in the tropics. It’s still cool and the first glimpse of that stunning turquoise water makes it all worthwhile. After breakfast, we trekked down the hill and up another rough bulldozed trail to the extreme top of the next hill. The view was tremendous–almost 360 degrees of magnificent ocean and a small private sand beach right below. Our friend said, “This is what I wanted you to see. This lot is available.” I immediately thought, “Who do we have to kill?” We had to have it even though our home in California was 3,500 miles away.

We signed the papers that day and never gave it a second thought. I think we knew then that we were going to come back and build a house. We just never dreamed that it would take eight years to get it up to the roof.

The rest of the week, we did a lot of snorkeling and toured the island. We met many people and they all seemed to have that friendly bond which all pioneers must have. We were invited to more homes than we had time to visit.

We learned, the hard way, about the social life on the island–never assume that the couple being introduced is married! Also, the man with the familiar name, ragged shorts, a belt made of rope, and canvas shoes with the toes rotted out, really is famous and is having the time of his life. We were cautioned not to spoil it for him.

We ate at “Henry’s,” one of the native restaurants, on Wednesday night, which was reserved for the “Honkies”. The meal was buffet style, chicken, grouper, lobster and turtle. All was fresh caught (except the chicken) and delicious. We met several of our new-found friends there, many who were from other parts of the world. As is the custom, the tables were pushed together and we all became better acquainted. A great idea!

innOn Saturday night, the Third Turtle Inn, one of Provo’s two hotels, invited all the residents and visitors in for dinner and drinks. This “hotel” had to be seen to be appreciated. The rooms were nestled in the rocks and caves of Turtle Cove. The lobby was mostly outdoors, and fronted on a docking area that many boats visited. The backdrop for the lobby was a large limestone cave, with many tropical plants and trees all around. At night, with the indirect lights and flowers, it turned into a fairyland. It had a pub atmosphere, with one exception–“dress-up” is required–which means shirts, shoes and long pants. In fact, some of the parties on Provo were full dress affairs and it was ludicrous to see people climbing in and out of their “junk” automobiles in long gowns and jackets and ties.

We were on Provo just those few days, and then we had to get back to California and the daily grind. We tried to settle down to a normal routine, but our conversations always seemed to end with discussions about our island paradise. We had been smitten by this chunk of limestone, and we seemed driven to return to the island.

So, we started planning our next trip. We had decided to build our house completely by ourselves. For us it was no big deal. This would be the third house we had built from the ground up. There were house plans to acquire and building permits to get. On Provo they try to follow the Florida building code and it was not an easy job to get a permit from the British Government offices on Grand Turk.

The biggest problem was finding the time to get started. I was able to schedule the contracts in my small business and, by working longer hours, I could be away for a couple of months. My wife worked for the school district and was off in the summer. The kids were now all on their own except for one, who ran our business in my absence.

We decided that the first couple of years of building would make use of native limestone. This was free for the taking and so we needed very little money for construction to get started. All we needed was a place to stay when we got there. At Montgomery Wards, we purchased two 10 x 10 foot square storage buildings, a 4,000 watt, gasoline powered generator and a large capacity cement mixer. All of these things to be delivered by their export department, (bet you didn’t know Wards had one), to the MV Enrus, scheduled to leave from Port Everglades, Florida. We had salvaged a Ford pickup truck from the business, and decided to drive it to Florida. It had over 200,000 miles on it, but was still in good condition. We put a large camper shell on the back, which we loaded with everything we would need for two months: tools, bedding, some lumber, plumbing supplies and even cases of canned goods. We loaded our 16 foot skiff on the top, tied our new Ford Pinto to the hitch on the back, loaded up the cat and dog and left for Florida and “Paradise”.

We delivered the pickup and precious load of material to the ship, then drove north to the Lantana airport in the Pinto. There we waited for Ed to arrive. At that time, Ed flew the principal transportation to and from the island, an old B-18. In the North he would be called a “bush” pilot, but flying through the “Bermuda Triangle” and delivering people and supplies to the Islands has a different set of problems. Landing on these limestone dots (sometimes on just a narrow road) in all kinds of wind and weather requires tremendous skills. The quick and severe thunderstorms have killed many good pilots who fly these island routes. I’ve seen Ed, in tough situations, do a lot of things that you can’t find in rule books. Ed arrived, we loaded up the baggage and the menagerie, stored the car for when we came back, and flew on to Provo.

We waited for the Enrus to come in . . . and we waited and waited. Three weeks later, it finally tied up at the dock. Island living lesson number one–things don’t happen with the snap of a finger. Little did we know that “ship day” would be a most confusing, amusing experience. Almost everyone has something on the ship, so we all show up at the same time to collect our merchandise. There was only one Customs Officer at that time and he was responsible for collecting the 33% duty on all invoices.

The Enrus had not been converted to handle containers, so all cargo was loose or loaded on pallets. After a very rough voyage, the holds became nightmares. What usually happened after it docked was that something would be pulled loose and if it was claimed, it was taken to the Customs Officer who accepted payment for the duty. Then, after paying shipping charges, it was yours to keep. We were lucky because late in the afternoon we got our truck and other materials and brought them back to our lot.

The island’s only bulldozer had (almost) constructed our road and driveway, so we were in pretty good shape. We immediately assembled one of the 10 x 10 buildings on a spot we had prepared earlier. We had built a two foot high foundation of rock to set it on because the walls of these buildings were only five feet high. We now had the beginnings of what was to be our vacation home for the next eight years.

abodThe two storage buildings served us all the time we were building our house. We walled them in with limestone, 30 inches wide, all the way to the windows to keep the winds from blowing them away. We fixed the sides and end so that the upper two feet could be opened up and screened. The front faced into the prevailing breeze and we installed a full sized screen and glass storm door which allowed the breeze to blow right through. We put in a sink, cupboards and our three burner Coleman camp stove. Within a week, we had water piped to the sink from a small tank outside. The other building was finished later on. It became the bedroom, with a toilet and shower facilities in the back. We were quite comfortable and, with the breezeway in between, we had plenty of room.

Our building permit was finally approved, and we were free to start on our house. I had learned how to build with stone in Maine many years ago and the experience was to serve me well. Our house was to be built right on top of a hill, on solid bedrock that sloped steeply on the beach side. There-fore, to have a level floor, we needed a 14 foot high wall in front, just for the foundation, which was tapered back to ground level, 60 feet up the hill. We made these walls 32 inches wide in solid limestone rock. About 15 feet back up the hill, a wall was constructed between the side walls. This formed a tank which would hold 16,000 gallons of rainwater. This is called a catchment or cistern. All homes and businesses were required to have these in their plans. Ours was located under our front porch.

When we needed additional fresh water, we visited one of Provo’s several wells. When it rains, water soaks through the porous limestone rock and meets salt water in the closed caverns a few feet below ground. The fresh water floats on top and can be bailed or pumped into a container. We had shipped over two stainless steel beer barrels and installed faucets in them for easy emptying. A battery powered marine water pump filled the barrels from the community well. We added a dollop of chlorine and had safe water. We elaborated on the system the second year and built a 1,000 gallon catchment alongside our temporary buildings. We put rain gutters around the roofs to fill the catchment, and we had a good supply of pure water. We soon learned that 1,000 gallons of water would last us for a month with “Navy” showers every day.

If you’re working, the daily routine in the tropics is to get up at sunrise and work until the sun gets hot, then it’s off to the beach or relax in the shade. Every morning we would load up the truck with rock from along the side of the road and build as much as possible.

This construction went on for several years using tons and tons of rock, cement and reinforcing steel. Because the rocks were irregularly sized and shaped, every rock was a challenge–where it would fit and how it would lock in to form a straight and safe building.

Meanwhile, life went on, the rounds of beach parties and night life seemed continuous. We all had CB radios and they were used just like telephones. All we had to do was go on channel and say, “We’re having a party Tuesday, at 7:00–everybody come”.

A telephone cable was connected to the island and we had one old Army field telephone, right on the beach, for calling out only. A couple of ham operators were used in emergencies.

Most of the time we had a medical doctor visiting regularly. A registered nurse lived on Provo and was always available. A small clinic was being built, so we would have a good first aid station at least. These were all financed with “Chinese auctions” and donations.

Almost everyone had a diesel powered generator and these kept the lights and electrical appliances going. We used a small gasoline generator for powering the cement mixer and other tools. A Coleman lantern supplied our light for years.

Does this sound like fun? It was, and if you didn’t have a sense of humor, it wasn’t the place to be. For years we had no TV on Provo. We hardly missed it, and I doubt if we would have had time to watch it anyway. The fun came with the people.

And there was quite an interesting roster of pioneers, all of whom came to the island to build their homes and shared the same problems as the rest of us. There were: Wells Wilbur (alias Betty Crocker), Kip Du Pont (chemical heir), Teddy Roosevelt III (grandson of the “Rough Rider”), Rogers Morton (U.S. Secretary of Commerce) and Floyd Carter (real estate). Carter owned most of the center section of Provo. How’s this for name-dropping? Cliff Robertson, Dick Clark, Princess Radswilk, Olivia Newton John and Dick Du Pont.

In the early days of our summer visits to the island, there were many famous visitors along with many “ordinary” people, all of whom wanted to share life on Provo. To be there during the pioneering era and capture the friendly spirit of the people (no matter who you were), was one of the finest times. After Provo became developed, we had the electric company, the infernal telephone and cable TV. We didn’t lose any friends, they just disappeared in front of the TV set or secreted themselves away from the public.

Five summers were spent building the huge foundation. It was reinforced with tons of steel and every four feet, a vertical 3/4″ steel rod was embedded in the side walls–to be tied into the walls and roof plates of the finished house.

While all this construction was going on, Provo was going through many changes. The airport runway was extended so that larger and heavier freight planes could land. The electric company was started and, very gradually, people began to have power installed in their homes. My son made a visit about this time and decided his future was as the company’s manager. This was a horrendous task since they only had two diesel generators and one was always down for repairs. (When people become used to the convenience of electricity, any interruption in service becomes a major catastrophe.) He was almost alone in the knowledge of engines, generators, lines and installation of transformers, etc. (These days, his responsibilities have tripled, since the company supplies power to several more islands with a large, modern power plant consisting of six of the largest diesel generators that money can buy.)

In 1984, Club Med built a resort on one of the choice beaches. This brought several hundred people to Provo every week. The Ramada Inn started construction about that time and now the main roads had to be paved. The airport was increased in size to handle large jets and more people were hired to handle immigration and customs.

Many more ships came in regularly to the much improved government dock. It became so busy that they seemed to have one ship unloading and one waiting in line all the time.

A TV station was installed with large satellite dishes that captured the signal and beamed it to its customers. We could only imagine how the native people felt about these changes. They had led a simple life before development, focusing on fishing and some farming. Now there was electricity, TV, a new supermarket, with all of its goodies, and . . . monthly bills. We surely ruined it for them.

Provo attracted many different people from all over the world. We had the wealthy characters and many eccentrics who were running about a quart low. It was hard to tell them apart, but most were harmless. Provo was a great attraction to people who were trying to get away from something or someone but, if they got into trouble on the island, they were deported almost immediately.

One of the characters, I’ll call Tom, was a well known owner of a restaurant chain from New York. He had one terrible problem–he was extremely overweight. When he flew on the airlines, he had to buy two seats. He couldn’t drive a car because there wasn’t room behind the wheel. For some reason, he was unable to keep from eating at his many restaurants and his doctor told him that if he was going to live, he had to get as far away from food as he could. Tom showed up on the island with a live-in nurse. She kept him on a strict diet of mostly fish, which she caught herself. It didn’t take long before Tom was down to a fit 180 pounds. We nailed his old trousers to the wall in the lobby of the Third Turtle Inn, for all to see.

One day, a private plane flew in from New Orleans, with three men aboard. All were drunk. They didn’t know how they got to Provo, or where it was. The only map in the airplane was a restaurant placemat from a bar in New Orleans, showing the Bahama Islands. They were very lucky. One of the island pilots flew them back to Miami and, hopefully, they made it back home.

As the island “progressed”, several major airlines found it profitable to service the throngs of people flying back and forth from Florida, New York and Canada. We had two supermarkets, with everything in them, several shopping centers and even a NAPA auto parts store. Vehicles lasted longer, because of the paved roads and a yearly inspection program kept them in a safer condition.

Our house came along fine. We found a good lumber broker in Fort Lauderdale, who was outstanding in selecting and shipping the finest pieces of treated lumber. There were eventually several lumber and hardware companies on Provo, but not until our house was all finished. One of these companies was started by a charming couple from New York City–Off Broadway, no less! They were both excellent singers and entertainers and even held a benefit show to raise money for a new clinic.

houseThis picture shows our finished home with all the large limestone walls and, if you look closely, you can see a large anchor standing against the porch wall. This anchor was found in one of the coves by our two youngest sons. Somehow they dragged it across the island with a jeep and managed to erect it against the wall, all by themselves. They tell me that it came from a 1750 merchantman ship and weighs nearly 2,000 pounds.

Later we built a small guest house a short distance from the main house and found life very comfortable after we retired. Provo was our home for several years. We made many good friends and, with our many experiences, we will always have something to talk about.

For instance . . .
. . . the time when five of us were in a small boat fishing on the northwest (unpopulated) end of the island. The motor quit and the wind was blowing us away from the island, toward Cuba. We had no paddles or oars. Everybody jumped overboard, grabbed the long anchor rope and swam for shore nearly 1/2 mile away, against the waves and wind. We almost didn’t make it–we arrived totally exhausted. We spent the night in a deserted fisherman’s shack drinking old tea made with brackish water and swatting at millions of insects. The next day, a good friend who was out looking for us in his airplane found us at noon and sent a rescue boat.

. . . one stormy night, my neighbor (a former Navy pilot) was flying in some fresh food for the store. He was late leaving Florida and arrived at Provo long after dark. The runway had no lights at that time, so his wife drove their pickup truck down to the airport and used the headlights to show him the runway. Unfortunately, she parked right in the center of the beginning of the runway. When her husband came in with the heavily loaded plane, it was too late to correct the landing. The wheels of the plane caught the rear of the pickup cab and peeled it right off, with his wife still sitting in the seat. She was a very lucky lady, sustaining just a deep laceration on her back. The plane ran off the side of the runway and into the bush. It had lots of damage, but nobody was hurt on board.

There are many stories that made the island what it was, but space is limited. I’ve been asked, “Would you do it again?” You bet, and if you get the chance, do it!

Aerial view of Turtle Cove Marina © Fish Frames Ltd.


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