The Place We Called Home

The on-going development of the Caicos Heritage House.

By Dr. Donald H. Keith, Chairman, TCI National Museum

The Turks & Caicos National Museum’s presence on Providenciales is growing! Construction of the “Caicos Heritage House” is nearing completion. Made possible by a grant from an anonymous donor, the House is the anchor exhibit for the “Caicos Heritage House Park,” a one-acre lot containing the Museum’s outdoor exhibits. Visitors and Islanders who tour this exhibit will leave with a new appreciation for where Islanders came from and what their lives were like for most of the past 200 years.

This photo of a typical Caicos homestead was taken at Conch Bar, Middle Caiocs in 1961.

The term “homestead” more accurately describes a traditional Caicos dwelling because it includes the home with adjoining buildings and land. The Caicos Islanders were largely self-sufficient, in tune with and adapted to the climate and environment on land and in the water. It is the Museum’s hope that the Heritage House will become a focus for the preservation and continuation of traditional knowledge. This is more important than ever because much of the Islanders’ knowledge about past life ways and traditional use of foods and medicinal plants is being lost as the oldest residents pass away and younger generations adopt urban lifestyles.

The Heritage House will strive to serve a wide audience. At present, visitors to Provo and the other Caicos Islands leave without learning much about the native population or the islands themselves. Sometimes they leave without even knowing what island they were on! The Heritage House will give visitors an opportunity to understand and appreciate the history and culture of the Caicos Islanders over the last two centuries before the advent of the tourist industry. For Islanders, it will preserve and perpetuate the story of how they came here and commemorate their achievements.

Our goal is to make the House and everything in and around it as authentic as possible, and to provide knowledgeable guides who can tell stories and answer questions about home life, farming, food types and preparation, health maintenance, bush medicine, boat building, and the like. Building the Heritage House is the first step in this process.

Designing and building the Heritage House has been quite a challenge, requiring extensive observation, photography, measurements and documentation in the field as well as a search for literature on the subject and interviews with “old heads” familiar with traditional building methods. It soon became apparent that we were none too soon in starting. Old-style buildings are fast disappearing in the Caicos as modern housing replaces them. Prime building materials are becoming expensive, and authentic items of daily use such as tools, furniture, and kitchen utensils are scarce.

This architect’s rendering shows the proposed Caicos Heritage House homestead in the Village at Grace Bay.

The concept for the Caicos Heritage House existed long before the National Museum acquired land in the Village at Grace Bay. When a parcel of “green space” adjacent to the Museum lot became available we were delighted to acquire it and turn the Heritage House concept into reality. Our original intent was to find a traditional homestead building on one of the Caicos Islands, disassemble it, ship it to the Museum, and reassemble it in the Park, but it quickly became apparent that would be prohibitively expensive. The alternative was to reproduce a house using all traditional building materials, tools, and techniques. Of course all old houses were built by hand and eye without reference to written plans. So the first challenge was to look at enough traditionally-built homes to see if there were patterns with respect to dimensions, placement of doors and windows, interior layout, orientation, etc. In other words, try to work out the builders’ basic mental template. This task fell to architect Jeff Lee of JAL Consultants. But how and where to start?

A tip led us to a research paper entitled “A Sampler of Life in Bottle Creek, North Caicos Turks and Caicos Islands, B.W.I.” written in 1986 by Catherine and Mary Weis of Pine Cay and Berthalee Belle of North Caicos. For the month of January, the three Denison University students stayed with Henrietta Delancy. She and Berthalee shared their own experiences and connected them with other Islanders to learn about daily life. There, in exquisite detail, was a record of many aspects of life on North Caicos before and after the development of the tourist industry and the coming of electricity in 1984. The Sampler contained information about subjects as diverse as traditional farming and fishing techniques, house construction, recipes for making wine from prickly pear fruits, charcoal production, what subjects were taught in school, and myriad other esoteric topics.

Fortunately, co-author Berthalee Belle still lives in the Islands. When she and her mother, Olive, heard what we wanted to do they volunteered to guide Jeff to a variety of traditionally-designed old house sites on North Caicos. After touring a number of these, Jeff determined that although every house was different, there were commonalities. Most of them were single-story masonry buildings with a floor plan on the order of 12 X 18 feet and massive walls 18 to 28 inches thick. The stone walls were rendered with a kind of plaster made from ground shell and sand. The roofs were all gabled, and up until the 1945 hurricane, thatched. Thatch gave way to metal roofing after the hurricane and is no longer used. Inside, wooden floors were 16 to 18 inches above ground level and there was a loft above the ceiling that could be used to store supplies or even as a bedroom. The interior was often divided into two rooms. Shuttered openings in the gable walls at either end of the buildings could be opened for access and ventilation. The long walls usually had at least one door and one window that could be shuttered. Cooking was done outside over a charcoal fire in a detached or semi-detached “fire hut” kitchen area.

Armed with knowledge of traditional design and construction features gleaned from actual examples, Jeff and Raymond St. Jacques Cushnie of JAL Consultants set to work determining how to build an accurate reproduction. With the original plan to dismantle an actual building and reassemble it in the Heritage House Park clearly beyond our reach, compromises had to be made. They opted to make the Heritage House’s skeleton out of concrete block and to clad it in native stone rendered in a plaster made of ground shell and sand. The flooring, ceiling, rafters, doors and window shutters are of native wood types and the thatch of native silver palm. The grounds immediately around the house will include outbuildings, the field garden where certain crops, spices, and medicinal plants were grown, and a boat-building area. The rest of the one-acre park will be landscaped and planted in native and economic plant species.

Although the Heritage House structure is nearing completion, it is only a first step. The House is just a shell. It needs to become a home, complete with all the items of daily use that make it come alive: authentic, original cooking and food preparation utensils, furniture, decorations, musical instruments, children’s toys, and farming, boat-building, and wood-working tools. Most importantly, we need the participation of many Islanders. It is our hope that they will embrace the Heritage House concept and make it their own. We need Islanders who can give tours of the House and Park, answer questions, describe what life was like before electricity and tourism and demonstrate how to make straw, cook, farm, and build boats. A dynamic boat-building demonstration in particular would be a desirable attraction. The Heritage House Park provides an ideal location to showcase the skills of Caicos boat-builders, collect and preserve their stories, teach young people, and keep the traditions alive.

It is the expressed hope of the generous donor who is sponsoring construction of the Heritage House that it will draw attention to the Museum’s presence on Provo and attract public interest and support for its broader plan to create a state-of-the-art facility dedicated to preserving the cultural and natural history of the Caicos Islands. The donor, a long-time resident, believes that there is within the population of these islands a growing realization of the need to uncover and preserve their rich and fascinating history before it is too late. It is this kind of respect and concern for the importance of history—and generosity demonstrated by the donor—that the Museum will need to go forward on Provo. Individuals wishing to volunteer, donate, or simply find out more about the Caicos Heritage House Park project and Museum’s development plans for Provo should contact:

Ms. Pat Saxton, Director, Turks & Caicos National Museum PO Box 188, Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos Islands, B.W.I. 649-946-2160 • From US 505-216-1795 •

Dr. Toni Carrell, Secretary/Treasurer Friends of the Turks & Caicos National Museum 39 Condesa Rd., Santa Fe, NM 87508 361-779-3863 • 505-466-2240 •

The Museum would like to express its gratitude to the people and companies that supported the construction of the Caicos Heritage House Project. Primary funding was provided by an anonymous donor with additional funding from the Hartling Group and Fondation AGENA. JAL Consultants is responsible for the building design. Raymond St. Jacques Cushnie created the splendid architectural renderings. Due to its long-standing involvement with the Museum, AND Construction was tapped to build the Heritage House. Kevin Taylor & Son, Ltd. procured the native materials, including stone, thatch, and oak timbers from North Caicos, and Lew 2 Shipping transported them to Provo. Top End Millwork finished the raw wood elements. Building Materials provided goods and services at cost. Turks & Caicos Banking Company and Savory & Company also deserve recognition for organizational support.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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