If Windows Could Speak…


Photos By Michele Belanger-McNair

If only windows could tell what they have seen and heard.

I was looking up at a bedroom window at the White House on Salt Cay one day, shooting pictures of this venerable old home and the now fallen Treasury office next door. As I stood there, I thought: How many women have looked out this window and wondered where their men were? How many children have been born in this bedroom? How many people took their last breath there, as well? What joys, sorrows, rumors and affairs of the heart have been observed through, and by, this window? What futures have been made and ruined in the eyes of this window?

I thought of the Treasury Building, Taylor Hill and its mysteries, the Dunscombe Point Mill windows, Government House, the Mt. Pleasant and its history, as well as many other on-island ruins of lesser distinction or flair. And I had the same thoughts . . . if only these windows could tell me the secrets and events that have gone on before them.

What if a window could tell the history that it has seen? Would not that be one of the most enlightening history lessons of our island, or the world for that matter? Unfortunately, windows cannot speak their history, or what they have witnessed. We can only imagine, research and record.

I immediately embarked on a photo mission to take pictures of Salt Cay’s historic windows, the little known or seen windows, the obscure and the obvious in every light and angle I could imagine. I left the island and went home, only to return again with a new perspective, a new technique and new light or sky.

I played with the idea for several years and then mentioned it to Rosalie Harriott, a descendent of the White House salt barons, when we were both on Salt Cay. I had my grand idea of how the Harriott women must have waited for their men to come home from sea and how it must have worried them so.

Rosalie laughed and said, “Oh, no one waited for their man looking out the windows. The men looked out the windows of the house to watch the island. That’s why there are windows all around the second floor. The salt barons kept track of the island production and workers by roaming around the second floor of the White House, calling out orders from the windows.”

She added, “And the White House verandas, front and rear, with their jalousie windows? Well, that is where the evening’s entertainment was, as a rule. Who was visiting who; who went to church and who did not; who was dating who and who did not come home that night. Nothing got past the White House verandas and all was known on the island.”

But despite this information, every time I look at the windows of the White House and think about the storms and hurricanes that come through, the ships that wallow in the waves over 6,000 foot deep seas, the sinking of something as simple as a barge, I cannot help but think that there must have been at least one woman who stood at those windows and prayed that her husband or son would come home alive and well.

Salt Cay’s windows are more simplistic than you might think. They were made of wood and maybe some screen in the Bermudan tradition. The men went away for months delivering salt all over the world. The young island women worked the ships that passed Salt Cay in a most honorable way: crewing. Why? Because the ships needed crew, the men were gone and work was needed to survive.

salt-raker-windowThe windows of a salt raker’s cottage reflect the true Bermudan influence in the Islands. Bright colored shutters that are either open or closed, depending on if you are home or the weather is here. The window frames are thick-walled stone and cement, seemingly impervious to hurricanes, but apt to succumb to the evils of time, wind, salt and erosion.

At one time, over 1,000 people lived on tiny Salt Cay. Now 80 to 100 call it home, depending on the time of year and who’s visiting who. Salt raker’s homes, now in ruin, dot the land and have become tourist attractions and the dream of more than one new home owner and builder.

The ruins at Dunscombe Point Millworks reflect much of the salt trade that is long gone. Now just the corner of an old stone and cement building near the derelict jetty stands as a reminder of the industry that once provided a large portion of the world’s salt. The mill ground out tons of salt, bagged by salt workers and sent out by lighter to the ships waiting in deep water.

The corner windows that survive now provide a view to the beautiful, multi-hued blue water, making an interesting backdrop for tourist photographs. But you can’t help but wonder how many men working in the mill had time to look out this window and enjoy the view it afforded and the tradewinds it let in to cool the room. These windows stand as mute sentries over the relics of grinders, conveyers and the jetty itself. The small, man-made cove where once salt bags were rinsed and stacked is now a swimming hole for the island’s few children.

Nearby are the remains of the Treasury Building, where Turks Islanders received their pay. At one time this building was connected by a walkway to the White House. Now, it’s a pile of boards waiting to be burned or somehow used. The Treasury Building was the lone structure to fall to the winds of Hurricane Frances in September 2004. Photos are all that remain.

These second floor windows looked out across the salinas and housed the office of the Harriott’s salt company. It is depicted in the movie “Bahama Passage” when Moreno goes to the safe to get money and Leo G. Carroll takes a swing at him. Whether this was a set, or the office itself, I do not know. But I know, from Rosalie, that many of the scenes were shot on the island, in and around the White House.

governors-dormerThen we have the Government House. Bryan Sheedy, whose story-telling is loved dearly, perpetuated a tale that prostitutes lived in the Government House and looked out the second floor windows waiting for the ships to come in. Rosalie Harriott dispelled this quite clearly as far as I am concerned. But the lore of the story still continues. Did they?

The house was the seat of government for the island and home of the District Commissioner. Tea parties were held complete with white gloves and hats for the ladies while the men “mixed” on the playing field at the nearby cricket field. It took a good number of men to play cricket, so the issue of race and color was ignored in the name of sport.

Government House now stands empty and somewhat derelict itself. An effort to restore the building is slowly underway, but time and the likes of Hurricane Frances are daily attacks on this historic building. Quite unlike a salt raker, this is a two-story wood and stone building, much like one sees on Grand Turk. It is a one-of-a-kind place that needs restoration sooner, rather than later.

St. John’s is a beautiful old Anglican church, with gray walls and old, caulked windows trimmed in white with deep, brilliant red shutters. It is a most magnificent church, built in the early 1800s. The church’s graveyard stretches to her old sea wall. The doors open to the graveyard and allow the sea breezes to flow through to the altar.

St. John’s welcomed me, a lapsed Catholic, that first Sunday in September after Hurricane Frances blew over and through Salt Cay and made me so afraid for all my friends on island. I came, I went, I saw, I took, and I gave little in return, if at all. Yet the congregation welcomed me and made me feel at peace with my emotions. Everyone knew I was not a member of the congregation, and most likely I would rarely return. But the lay ministers, Poley Dickenson and Miss Pat Simmons, as well as the entire congregation, made sure I was part of every hymn and every prayer.

As I watched and listened to this ancient ritual, I looked out the windows of St. John’s for the first time, felt the sea breeze come through, and again, wondered how many funerals, baptisms, weddings and hurricane survivals had been celebrated here. If only the windows could tell what the people can no longer say?

St. John’s, as well as Salt Cay Methodist Church (circa 1850) are two of the oldest churches in the Turks & Caicos Islands. They have sheltered, buried, birthed and baptized many salt rakers, salt barons, sailors and visitors.

fraternityThere is the Benevolent Brotherhood Lodge with its silent bass drum, tattered flag, a young Queen’s picture and signs of concord, peace and fraternity. And, then, there are the two coffins awaiting occupants in a back room Ñ small, wooden coffins made for the Islander of slight build and for a small hole dug in hard, salt-packed earth.

I have passed that crumbling blue building a hundred times, if not once, without stopping to see what it was all about. Now I can’t pass it without stopping and taking a new picture.

The Lodge was reorganized in March 1915. The roster was still on the head table last April. The table by the door sat as if still waiting to sign members in. The pews sit empty. A sign standard for parades is in the corner, the Lodge flag and the bass drum wait for another review and parade. It is as if there was a meeting one month and then, never again. Why? I have yet to find out. Who played the bass drum in parades down Victoria Street? It is finding the right questions to ask any one person. It would be so much simpler to ask a window, “What happened here?”

The Mt. Pleasant Guest House was once a salt raker’s home, built and lived in by the Morgan Family. Rosalie Harriott believes it was built in the 1830s. In the late 1980s, Bryan Sheedy moved from New York and turned it into a guesthouse, dive business, restaurant and bar. This beautiful old home’s dormer windows look out across Victoria Street to Deanne’s Dock and the harbor of Salt Cay. It is the backdrop for a popular phonecard and photograph depicting a horse-drawn buggy.

How many hurricanes has this timeless home seen and survived?
And what of the people who have stayed in the guest house? At one time the Mt. Pleasant was pretty much the only place to stay on Salt Cay if you came to dive. We have met icons of the dive world at this home through the years. You just had no idea who would be there and what you would learn. The bar Bryan Sheedy ran was a raucous place every night of the week as he held court, telling stories and his history of Salt Cay. He was Norman Paperman in the flesh.

taylor-hillThen Taylor Hill . . . who looked out those windows? What was it besides a whale watching station, if anything? Rosalie Harriott has told me that when she saw it as a child, it looked like a military outpost, a place with barracks-type rooms and a Great Room. Plus it has a huge cistern and watershed, an observation of many miles with a 360 degree sweep, and the ability to signal Grand Turk, nine miles north. Is this part of a history we do not know? It reminds me of Shirley Heights above English Harbour in Antigua where they signaled the fleet from the promontory when a stray ship came in sight. This is much the same vantage point.

The view is unparalleled from Taylor Hill and is worth every moment of the climb. The eastern shore is spectacular, as is the beach. Nowhere on the island do you see the mangrove swamps as they appear from the hill. Salt Cay looks like a different place from this vantage point. But, again, what if the windows could speak? What would the eaten out, ravaged windows of Taylor Hill tell us?

Salt Cay and the entire Turks & Caicos Islands’ history is so important, we need to preserve it in photographs, scans of existing photos, oral history projects, stories and writings. Soon, so many of the people who know its history will take it to their graves and we will plunder along with our IPODs, MP3s, DVDs, CDs, VHSs and other alphabet soup devices. We will have blithely ignored the real world around us for immediate entertainment instead.

What happened to asking questions such as: “What is a potcake? Why is a road across the salinas called The Folly? What is that ruin over there? Where did you learn to sail?”

To watch the movie “Bahama Passage” is to take a trip back in time on Salt Cay. When Adrian spots his father’s body lying in the salt pond next to The Folly, you see much of the heart of the island. It shows the White House, inside and out, as well as Deanne’s Dock.

I cannot take enough pictures of Salt Cay to satisfy my imagination, curiosity and desire to preserve this graceful place in the sun. I cannot drink in enough of the stories to quench my thirst for more information from the people who have called Salt Cay home long before I was born.
So, let your imagination run…what would these windows say if windows could speak the history of Salt Cay?

Michele Belanger-McNair is an attorney in California in her “real life,” trying to retire from that to do things she enjoys, like writing, photography and travel. She’s been visiting Salt Cay since 1998 and purchased a home on the island in 2000. She says she loves life on Salt Cay because it is a reminder of the simple days of her childhood. Michele maintains a web site with stories and photos detailing her trips to Salt Cay at www.saltcaynews.blogspot.com.

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