Gretchen’s Christmas Letter

Memories of an expatriate’s life on Grand Turk in 1957.

By Gretchen Steffke St. John ~ Photos and Captions By Art St. John

Gretchen St. John came to Grand Turk with her husband Art in 1957. Art St. John served as the Commanding Officer of “Waldo II,” the temporary US Coast Guard LORAN station set up in the old Navy Base at the north end of the island. What follows is Gretchen’s Christmas Letter of 1957, illustrated with a small selection of the more than 150 digital copies of photos Art took from 1957 to 1958, recently donated to the Musuem. The combination creates a captivating time capsule, especially since they lived in the Guinep House, now home of the National Museum, during their stay!

Author Gretchen St. John and friends

Author Gretchen St. John and friends stand in front of the Guinep House. The building on the left burned about 20 years ago. The lot where it sat is now the Museum’s Cultural and Botanical Garden.

Now that I finally have sat down to tell my tale of Grand Turk, I hardly know where to begin. The only flat statement that can be made about G.T. is that it isn’t quite real. It is difficult to explain what Turk is now without mentioning what she was. I guess you could say that Grand Turk is a seven by two mile chunk out of the past. From the 17th century until a hurricane in 1945, the island thrived. It was a beautiful spot with its stately houses and gardens filled with tropical flowers and vegetables. The harbor was always lined with ships. Supposedly Grand Turk was a favorite pirate rendezvous. Turk is the first island to be sighted when one is traveling from Europe to the Windward Passage, which is located between Cuba and Haiti.

There is little left now to indicate what Turk once was. Only the old houses, much the worse for wear, and the way of life have remained the same for over 100 years. There are no gardens left—only pulverized coral (sand) and shrubs. The remains of the great wharves can still be seen, forlornly jutting out into the sea all along “Front Street” (where we live.) Now only about two freighters a month and a few motley sail boats use the harbor. Only a very few trees remain on the island. These all list to the west because the wind almost always comes from the east. On the eastern side of the island some quite scenic spots remain, but most of the island is drab and unattractive. Nature has taken her toll, both of the island itself and its population. The sea and the wind are constantly eating away at her.

I arrived on this exotic lump of coral on September 30 [1957]. A.J. and I had just spent the weekend at the Caribe Hilton in San Juan. The Caribe did not prepare me for what I was to see on Grand Turk! Before we left San Juan, A.J. forced me to spend hours in the bathtub. The most important thing for a new arrival to learn about Grand Turk is that there is a severe shortage of fresh water. There is, needless to say, all the salt water one could ever want within easy walking distance of any point on the island. The only source of fresh water is rain. The only trouble is that it never rains on Grand Turk. When it rains, the water is caught in large catchment areas which fill almost every backyard on G.T. A.J. and I spent my first ten days here living with another young couple. This enabled me to comprehend with comparative ease the living conditions, social restrictions, and personality quirks of most of the inhabitants. On an island as small as this one, successful social intercourse requires knowledge of the life histories of most of the residents.

Front Street fresh market

The Front Street market building was destroyed decades ago. The building on the left burned in 2010.

[The best] homes here all possess at least two stories, and have large, high-ceilinged rooms. At least three of four of the beams in these large houses have been made from the timbers of the old wooden ships which were wrecked on the many reefs surrounding the island. These houses, like most of the commercial buildings, were built during the last century or before. Since most of them were constructed of wood, the termites and the salt air have taken a great toll on them. A very few of these houses have electricity. It can be used for nothing but one or two small light bulbs because it is very weak. It is generated by wind. A few of these houses have indoor plumbing, consisting of a toilet (flushed by salt water), running water (never hot) in a bathroom sink, and some even have a regular porcelain bathtub, ancient, but nevertheless a bathtub. It is only ornamental, however, as there is never enough water to fill it. These houses usually have kerosene stoves of the two-burner variety (probably equivalent to our hotplate), and kerosene refrigerators. In back of these homes one usually finds the old charcoal kitchens and ovens.

We live in a charming old house (built in 1812) and situated right on the ocean [the “Guinep House” named for the guinep tree in the front yard, now the home of the Turks & Caicos National Museum—ed.]. It was constructed of Bermudastone (much like limestone) and cedar. All the materials for the house were brought here from Bermuda by sailboat. It is a two-story house with 13 large rooms. We were very fortunate to get a house in pretty good condition and with a great deal of furniture that also is in good condition—ancient, but in good condition. (You never know when visiting a fellow Grand Turkian whether you will be embarrassed by falling through one of his already scarce pieces of furniture or the floor—termites are very busy little creatures, and they’ve had many years to work on the furniture and houses down here.)

When we moved into our house, it had no plumbing, refrigeration, or electricity. It still lacks the last. A.J., with some help from his “boys,” all over six feet, put in the plumbing, so we now have a toilet, bathroom sink, and kitchen sink, the last two have running water. It was necessary to dig a saltwater well to get flushing fluid for the “convenience.” On G.T. it is not necessary to dig very far to find salt water. In order to have running and flushing water for the sinks and jon, it is necessary to pump the water from the catchment, and well, by hand, to oil drums on the roof (if it will hold them) or some other high place. A.J., with the help of one sidekick, did all of the painting. Side-kick was also over six feet tall. For weeks, there was a parade of giants walking through the house all hours of the day or night. (There is little privacy on G.T. anyway. The doors and windows are always open to get all possible breezes.)

Bagging salt for shipment

Where once mountains of “white gold” were piled now stands the Carnival Cruise Ship Welcome Center in Cockburn Town. The two-story house with the impressive veranda in the background is gone and the building behind it known as Woodville has all but collapsed.

The main industry on the island is salt-making. There is a salt water lake in the middle of the island. Water from it and from the ocean is flooded into large troughs, some as large as 200 by 200 feet, called salt pans. The pans are separated from each other by stone walks. A number of salt pans together is called a salina. When the water has evaporated somewhat, the salt is culled from the pans and brought down to the dock area, where it sits in piles until a salt freighter comes for it.

There are two American military bases on the island, one at either end. One base is an auxiliary Air Force Base operated by Pan-American Airlines. It is one of the down range guided missile tracking bases. It employs about 164 American men. The other base is a Navy base and employs about the same number of men. The British Government has a British Cable and Wireless station here, which employs only about eight Englishmen. These three stations hire only a very few natives. Since salt making requires very few men, and very few natives have enough money to purchase a sail boat, most of the young men must, and do, leave the island if they desire to find work.

Aside from the lack of water, the biggest problem on the island is a fight for survival. The only native source of food supply are the small sail boats, which carry oranges, limes, grapefruit and coconut, and come very irregularly from Haiti, and a ship which sometimes brings unsavory meat, half-rotted vegetables, and canned goods from Jamaica. The Jamaica boat is scheduled to come every two weeks, but seldom does. Food, as well as everything else sold here, costs about three times what it would cost in the States because of various duties and taxes. Luckily, we can buy our food from the Navy mess, and everything else from Sears or Montgomery Ward.

There are various forms of mangy, motley animal life on G.T. Approximately three hours after sunset, they all begin to make the various sounds indigenous to them. There are some scrawny cows that are no more than skin and bones, quite a few small Spanish horses, and for every square foot of island there are at least three motley donkeys. Every house and building must have a fence all the way around it to keep the beasts out. There are also sundry forms of fowl on G.T.: chickens, guineas, and turkeys. No one has ever explained to a Grand Turk rooster that he must only crow at dawn. He and his guinea counterpart, who has the most hideous voice I have ever heard, keep up their crowing for as long as two hours without a single station break. After dark all forms of bestial life take a leisurely stroll down Cockburntown’s main thoroughfare, which runs in front of our house.

Lighters near pier in Cockburn Town

This was the view from the balcony of the Guinep House, where Gretchen and Art lived. The sailing salt lighters no longer exist.

We really enjoy it down here, in spite of the primitive conditions and the inconveniences. Most of my problems are solved by my maid. Her name is Susan, and she is about as big as a minute. I don’t know what I will do without her next year. Having a maid is a very bad influence on a young bride. Susan is completely trustworthy and devoted to us, especially to A.J. He can do nothing wrong. I, however, have not been graced with my husband’s infallibility.

At present there are 7 American families down here. There are more wives who are anxious to come, but there is a severe housing shortage. We all have a lot of fun together. Surprisingly enough, we have quite a great deal of social life. The English are very prone to parties, especially drinking parties. On Friday nights, we have Exiles’ Club. Exiles’ Club is held on a lighted tennis court which has a small clubhouse. At Exiles’ one can drink, dance, listen to hi-fi, play Mah-Jong, ping-pong, darts, or just talk. On Saturday and Sunday nights, if there are no parties, most of the families eat dinner at the Pan-Am base and stay for the double feature afterwards. It is not at all unusual to see most of the families packed like sardines in a pick-up truck off for a weekend jaunt. Then, too, the weekend is the time to go skin-diving and water skiing. A.J. goes skin-diving or water skiing almost every weekend. I haven’t yet gotten up the courage to dive into a school of barracuda or shark. I do use mask, snorkel, and flippers, however.

The Commissioner, head of the Turks and Caicos Islands, geographically a part of the Bahamas and politically a dependency of Jamaica, gives quite a few cocktail and dinner parties for visiting dignitaries. In this way, A.J. and I have met many dignitaries, both British and American. One of the most treasured memories of our stay here will be our conversations with Sir Hugh Foot (the former governor of Jamaica, now transferred to Cyprus) and Lady Foot. They are both excellent examples of British statesmanship. The British Cable and Wireless Mess usually gives a nice party about every month. Then there are always very formal dances given for various reasons, usually to raise money for some island project or other. We have regular Tuesday night poker sessions. In the morning the wives often give coffee parties at the drop of a hat.

We can also frequent the native “night spots” of which there are three. Each is a shack about 7 feet by 9 feet equipped with a very few rickety chairs and tables. They have the enticing epithets of “John Butterfield’s Manhattan Skyline Bar,” “La Tropical Patio,” and, last but not least, “Henry’s.” About every other Friday night the natives have a “rip saw.” This is classified as a big blast with dancing. The same tune, with slight variations, is played over and over again on such instruments as a saw (from which the blast gets its name) played with a nail, beer cans on sticks with pebbles inside, a comb and paper, and five gallon cans used as drums. With the former rhythmic music in the background, everyone proceeds to get loaded on brush, the dregs of a rum cask to which water has been added, while “dancing.”

A.J. and I spend our days down here quite enjoyably. We have more time together than we ever will again, probably. A.J. works from about 8:30 in the morning until noon. I have a first-grader whom I tutor from about nine until noon. We then have the rest of the day to do whatever we wish. Sometimes we go to one of the many beaches and sometimes A.J. spends the afternoon doing one of his many correspondence courses while I putter about the house sewing or something. Almost every evening before supper we sit on our second floor front porch which overlooks the sea, and we watch the sunset while sipping a cocktail. The sunsets down here are indescribably beautiful.

I suppose, as with all tropical countries, the two things that really get into your blood are the way of life and “nature.” The way of life is carefree and easy-going, but the things that really appeal to A.J. and me are the sea and the sky. The sea is never the same. Every day she changes color. As you look out over her you can see patches of every shade of blue and black. The water is so clear that in some places the bottom can be seen clearly 100 feet down. You can spot drop-offs and reefs by the color of the water above and around them. I especially love the sea when she is rough. The breakers begin far out on the reefs then, and the pounding of the ocean is even stronger than usual. Each day the sea changes the beaches. You can never find a beach the same as you left it. The sea and sand are constantly shifting.

The sky in the daytime is usually a beautiful blue. At sunset, however, the whole sky takes on a new personality. It can become every color of the rainbow. The clouds change to various shades of red and purple all the way around the sky. At night, even the far way planets are bright enough to see by. When there is a full moon, believe it or not, it is almost as bright as day outside. It is so bright that you can see the reefs and drop-offs perfectly at night. I have never seen as many stars in my life as I have down here.

Gretchen Steffke St. John

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