Window to the Past

The legacy of Emily Kersteiner.

By Emily Malcolm ~ Photos Courtesy Heidi Hertler

The Turks & Caicos Islands are literally “Beautiful by Nature” with crystalline waters, white sandy beaches and stunning shoreside terrain. An archipelago of astonishing and well-preserved ecosystems, it is also home to well-preserved historical buildings of Bermudian-styled architecture found on the Salt Islands of Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos.
These beautifully designed buildings with their rich history are slowly disappearing from sight due to man-made and natural disasters such as fire, termite infestation, storms and, most recently, the destructive hurricanes Irma and Maria. The loss of these buildings should not create a vacuum of cultural and historical knowledge of the life of our ancestors.
So journey with me as we take our first look through the “Window to the Past” at Emily Ann Stubbs Kersteiner, female entrepreneur and native of South Caicos. Mrs. Kersteiner, as she was affectionately known, was a household name on the island of South Caicos where she owned several business entities. Her husband lived on the island for only a short period before returning to Germany. They had no children.

Kersteiner House

The Kersteiner House was the venue for the South Caicos Regatta Festival.

Mrs. Kersteiner’s two-story home, simply known as the “Kersteiner House,” was situated on a hill overlooking the southern and western sides of the island with a beautiful view of the Caicos Bank. She had several employees. Many young ladies received their training in domestic work at her house. She had no tolerance for tardiness and the words “spic and span” aptly describe how she liked everything. Although stern, she was compassionate to the sick and was known to correctly diagnose and successfully treat many ill persons.
The estate grounds were well-kept even though many large horses, chickens known as “yardies,” turkeys, ducks and dogs were raised on her estate. Her animals all were given very special attention.
In the 1960s, Kersteiner House became the Admiral Arms Hotel, the first hotel in the Turks & Caicos Islands. The 14-room hotel was started by Liam McGuire, who operated the Caicos Company. Many small planes flying between South America, North America, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands would stop and visit South Caicos.
Several fascinating aspects of the hotel were captivating points of conversation. For instance the registration numbers for airplanes flown by every pilot who stayed at the hotel were posted on the walls and ceiling of the bar. The large underwater mural adorning the wall in the dining room was a backdrop for many photo shoots. The meals were tasty and delicious but the conch fritters were the ones that got international word-of-mouth recognition. The saltwater pool was the center of attraction, but most people simply enjoyed lounging around it with a cool drink, enthralled by the majestic view so often captured in photos.
The Admiral Arms was also the venue for the annual Miss Regatta Beauty Pageant, part of the South Caicos Regatta Festival. This packed, fun-filled series of events took place for many, many years.
The estate has never been without activity. The late Eben Mills and George Garland operated the island’s first telecommunication system from the second story of the hotel in the late 1960s. Today it is home of the School for Field Studies. Every semester sees 30–35 students from the University of Boston attending courses in marine biology and other related areas.

Carpenter Shop
Another building on the estate that was integral to life in South Caicos was the “Carpenter Shop,” a rock structure now housing faculty members of the School for Field Studies. Many island tradesmen learnt their carpentry skills at this shop, including my father and grandfather. In the early days in South Caicos, it was customary for girls to learn domestic work and/or how to sew. Young men worked in the salt industry or in carpentry.

Kersteiner Shop
Mrs. Kersteiner also owned a two-story building originally built in 1870 that was always a center of activity. Back then, the first floor was a clothing store and the second floor was the home of the resident doctor. Later, the second floor housed the head office of the Caicos Company started by Liam McGuire in the 1960s.
About 1964, and for several years after that, the first floor was a general merchandise store, owned or operated by the late Phenous Ritchie and Gladys Mills, affectionately known to all as “Uncle Rich and Ma Curly.” They also operated the famous Ice-Cream Parlour, the popular stop on a Sunday afternoon outing. Many children went to Sunday School just to ensure that they could go for ice cream later on. It was a treat to buy a cone for just one shilling (10 cents) or a cup for one shilling and three-pence (thirteen cents). Some years later, in the late 1970s, this same first floor became the general merchandise store for Caicos Company Ltd. Some of the finest china could be bought there.

The Tin Shop
As the name implies, the Tin Shop was made of corrugated zinc plates. This was a general merchandise store catering primarily to Mrs. Kersteiner’s employees. They were given first preference to purchase merchandise, especially if there were any items in short supply. The employees were able to establish a line of credit at the store. Weekly deductions were made from their pay to settle their bills. One of the early shopkeepers was Mr. Benjamin Saunders.
Throughout the years, this building has consistently been a store of some kind operated by a number of different owners. Today one can find a grocery store there, operated by Anise Pierre.

The Kersteiner Shop building housed the Caicos Company, shown here with Liam McGuire and Norman Saunders standing outside.

Kersteiner Salt Shed
On the Kersteiner estate, very near the coastline on the southern side of South Caicos, is an area referred to as Buttmon. There you can find the ruins of the Kersteiner Salt Shed. This was the last stop for the salt harvested in Kersteiner ponds before being bagged and shipped off to the United States and Canada. Trucks delivered raw salt to the shed’s eastern entry where it was first put through the mill to be refined, then bagged and stored until the steamer or salt boat would come to pick it up.
At one point, the Salt Shed served as a movie theatre. That was in the 1940s when Puerto Ricans lived on the island helping with the building of the airport, the dock at the Buttmon and the Old School. I have been told stories about people sitting on bagged salt to watch movies shown there. In 1972 this building hosted the first Miss Regatta Beauty Pageant, won by my sister Patsylee Malcolm. In the intervening decades, most of the shed’s limestone walls have crumbled due to erosion.

The Household of Ruth annual march was held outside the Odd Fellows Lodge.

Odd Fellows Building
The building that became the Odd Fellows Lodge was built in 1926. Originally it was the home of Mr. John Godet, but at one point was owned by Mrs. Kersteiner who gifted it to the Odd Fellows Lodge. They held their meetings on the second floor in “The Temple” and the Eunice Lodge, Household of Ruth, also held their meetings in this building. Both organizations were known for their elaborate initiation banquets for new members and annual lodge marches. The ladies dressed in all white, while the men wore all black. Everyone wore regalia depicting their positions in the lodges.
The facades of the Kersteiner House and Carpenter Shop have changed through the years, but they still retain their resemblance to the original structures. They were damaged in the most recent hurricanes but are repairable. The School for Field Studies still occupies both buildings.
These buildings were renovated and maintained by some of South Caicos’ most skilled carpenters and masons: Cornelius Basden, Turton Clare, Nehemiah Williams, Calvin Williams (all deceased), the Thomas Brothers (Shirlen, Wilfred and Carlton), and my father Walter Malcolm.
Mrs. Emily Ann Stubbs-Kersteiner might not be spoken about much today, but her legacy as an entrepreneur continues in the minds of many residents.

Emily Malcolm is a native of South Caicos and a teacher by profession who owns and operates Elam’s Care Centre. She has twice served as district commissioner for South Caicos, besides holding other local offices. Emily is a local preacher in the North Turks & Caicos Islands Circuit of Methodist Churches. She has mothered five sons and one daughter (all nieces and nephews), and has assisted in the upbringing of all of her other nieces and nephews and now, her grand nieces and nephews. Her hobbies are cooking, reading, writing and handicraft, especially shell work.

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