Astrolabe

Modern Crusoes

The rest of the story.

By Jeffrey Dodge

100 year old Alton Higgs of Middle Caicos worked for the California group on East Caicos when he was a teenager.

In 2017, the Astrolabe published a story I wrote about 19 Californians who went to East Caicos in 1940 with the intention of establishing a utopian colony there. (See: https://www.timespub.tc/2018/01/modern-crusoes/). Since that article was published, I have been contacted by descendants of the group’s leader, Richard Irvine. They’ve shared recorded interviews with Richard Irvine, two of his daughters and 100-year-old Alton Higgs of Middle Caicos. Higgs worked for the Californians on East Caicos in 1940 when he was 18 years old. Here is the rest of the story.

Synopsis

By 1938, Richard Irvine, a traveling salesman living in Pasadena, California, had become so distressed with what he viewed as the Roosevelt Administration’s swing toward socialism that he considered moving out of the country. Later that year, Irvine’s political dilemma was solved.

The Irvine family and Grace Lake in their family home in California prior to leaving for East Caicos.

In late 1938 while in Phoenix, Arizona on business, Irvine made the acquaintance of James Lake. During their conversation that evening at Irvine’s hotel, Lake mentioned that his wife Grace had inherited land on East Caicos Island in the British West Indies from her father John N. Reynolds. Based on a trip Lake and his wife made to the Turks & Caicos Islands in 1934, he told Irvine that the abandoned island was abundant in valuable resources such as hardwood forests, fruit trees, wild cattle and jackasses, sisal and bat guano in caves that could be sold for fertilizer. His description was so impressive that Richard Irvine thought East Caicos might be the perfect place to establish a colony far away from the politics at home. 

James and Grace Lake moved to Pasadena and into the Irvine home in late 1939 so they could more easily plan forming a co-operative settlement on the island Grace had inherited. Twenty-one people—fifteen strangers plus six members of the Irvine family—were chosen for this venture. They included a salesman, insurance investigator, carpenter for Walt Disney, a housekeeper for Hollywood celebrities, a nurse, a retired Standard Oil engineer and a student. Their ages ranged from 69 years to 18 months. The group of twenty-one signed an agreement forming a closed corporation they called the East Caicos Trading Company. Under the agreement, Richard Irvine became the group’s leader and could only be replaced if found to be incompetent and a qualified replacement identified.

The group left Pasadena on January 17, 1940 for Cutler, Florida in four cars—one towing a trailer—and a truck. While on the way, the Irvines saw the group’s trailer, filled with their supplies, abandoned by the side of a gas station near New Orleans. The trailer had been towed behind a car driven by John and Jill Dowdle. The group was so angry with the couple that they were voted out of the corporation on the spot and sent away by bus.

The yacht Spindrift just before departing for East Caicos.

While camped at Cutler, Richard Irvine met and contracted with Vincent Conley, the owner of the yacht Spindrift, for transportation to East Caicos at a cost of $800 and the rights to later establish a resort on the island. Spindrift left Miami on February 18 and, after a stormy two-week voyage that included layovers in Key West and Cuba, arrived at East Caicos on March 2, 1940.  

Trouble brews on East Caicos

Two days after arriving on their newfound paradise, the Californians moved their belongings from the coast to Jacksonville, a settlement abandoned by the East Caicos Sisal Company 20 years before. This would become their permanent encampment. 

The “modern Crusoes” became more and more disillusioned as they learned that none of the valuable resources James and Grace Lake had promised them were found on their island home. In addition, members of the group were already at each other’s throats complaining that not everyone was doing their share of the work, that some were selfish, or they didn’t like Irvine’s authoritarian manner. Richard, in a letter to his parents, said “I get blamed for everything.”

Two weeks after the group landed on East Caicos, morale deteriorated to such a degree that Richard Irvine was voted out of the East Caicos Trading Company, forcing the Irvine family to move out of Jacksonville and relocate at Breezy Point about five miles away. They were joined by Ned Read, Ernest and Cecilia Lawrence and bachelor Boyce Phillips.

Leaving “Paradise”

Conch shells are being burned to create lime for making “tabby” concrete.

By this time, Richard’s wife Louise was so miserable and fed up with the entire venture that on March 19 she had a knock-down fight with her husband—even threatening him with divorce—if he did not agree to return to California. Richard reluctantly agreed that night to return home. Ernest and Jill Lawrence also decided they would return to the U.S. and Boyce Phillips told them he would leave too once he was able.

The Lawrence couple left for South Caicos on March 23—one day ahead of the Irvine family and Ned Read. Once on South Caicos, Louise Irvine realized that in order to pay for further transportation home, she had to sell everything the family owned, including their clothes. 

Two weeks later, the Irvine family and Ned Read boarded a native boat loaded with conch that was headed for Nassau. The trip was miserable—the boat smelled and there were no toilets. Louise and the girls had to use an umbrella for privacy when nature called. From Nassau, they took the SS Alleghany to Miami arriving April 15, 1940. 

The last to leave

The Lakes stand in front of their tent on East Caicos in March, 1940.

On August 7, 1940, months after the Irvine family returned to California, Louise received a note from Frances Wenstermann, a friend of the Lakes, saying that Grace and James Lake were the only people left on East Caicos. In all likelihood, Frances received a letter from the Lakes with this information. Passenger records showed that Grace returned to Miami in February 1942. James returned a little more than a year later. 

A newspaper reported that the last person to leave East Caicos was “repatriated during WW II years partially at government expense.” This was confirmed by Alton Higgs during an interview with Richard Irvine’s great-granddaughter in 2015 at his home on Middle Caicos. Higgs said that he had worked for the California group while they were on East Caicos when he was a teenager. Higgs said that James Lake was alone on the island for over a year and that he and Isaac McIntosh, also from Middle Caicos, checked on Lake weekly and brought him food. He added that Lake lived alone until he was “removed” from the island.

Afterwards

This is what happened to some of the group of nineteen after they left East Caicos.

Richard Irvine had to ask his mother for funds to pay for food and transportation back to California from Miami. Once home, he returned to his profession as a salesman selling everything from candied nuts to plaster figures. During the war, he worked at the Norris Stamping & Mfg. Co. making shell casings. Richard continued his fight against socialism, becoming the chairman of the Constitution Party of California. He received 153 write-in votes for governor in the November 1962 election.  Richard died in 1997 at age 100.

Louise Irvine suffered from poor health over the years. Asthma she developed while on East Caicos remained with her for the rest of her life. She died from a heart attack in 1991.

Jane Irvine was 17 years old when she went to East Caicos with her family. She was supposed to marry her high school sweetheart, Ned Read, once they reached the island. Ned’s parents agreed to let Ned join the Irvine expedition and wrote a letter to Richard Irvine assigning responsibility for their son’s well-being over to him. Ned and Jane never married—their romance ended by the time they landed on East Caicos. Jane returned to California with her parents in May 1940 and married Robert MacQuarrie seven months later. They had three children. Jane and Robert were divorced in 1968. She passed away in 1988.

Helene Irvine was just seven years old when she returned to California. She was married three times, had two children and completed college receiving an advanced degree. She taught at the University of California at Irvine. Helene died in 2008.

Dawn Irvine was nine when she left for East Caicos. Little is know other than she married Melvin Thompson in March 1945. Dawn is alive today.

James Irvine, or “King” as he was known as a child, was 18 months old when he went to the East Caicos. He suffered from infected insect bites and the lack of appropriate food while there. James worked as a policeman in Torrence, California and later in the insurance business in Fresno. Little else is known about James.

James and Grace Lake were the last people on East Caicos. Grace left in 1942—James left 14 months later. Both returned to Massachusetts, their home before moving out West. Sometime between 1943 and 1949, Grace conveyed ownership of the land she had inherited on East Caicos to her daughter Alice Christensen, a Bermudian by marriage. James Lake may have returned to the insurance business when he returned home in 1943, however, he would have been 72 years old. Both James and Grace died in 1950 and were buried near Boston.

Ned Read returned to California in April 1940. He went to trade school and then worked as a riveter at Lockheed Martin. In 1941 he enlisted in the Army Air Corps. Ned met his wife-to-be, Cindy Morgan, while stationed in Ohio—they were married in 1943. 

After the military, Ned completed his education at Ohio State University, obtaining an engineering degree. Ned and Cindy moved back to California where Ned worked at Lockheed as an efficiency engineer. After he retired, they moved to Oregon and raised Christmas trees and built energy-efficient homes. Later, looking for a warmer climate, the couple moved to a retirement community in Southern California. Cindy passed away in 2008. Ned died in 2015.

Ned Read’s granddaughter said that her grandfather did not talk about his experience on East Caicos, perhaps because it was such an unpleasant one. She said that he despised seafood for the rest of his life. 

The Lorntsen family left East Caicos by August 7, 1940, leaving Grace and James Lake the only remaining members of the group on the island. Mr. and Mrs. Lorntsen and their daughter traveled

to Nassau where they took up permanent residency. They remained there until at least 1959 when

Andreas passed away. In 1941, Sam Robinson of Grand Turk wrote in a letter to the Irvine family that Olaf, the Lorntsen’s 22-year-old son, was working on a Norwegian salt vessel, a job he probably secured before his parents left East Caicos. Olaf registered for the draft in New York in February, 1942.

The other six members of the East Caicos Trading Company returned to California after leaving East Caicos. The men registered for the military and most served in the army. Later, many of them returned to the professions they left behind when they departed California on January 17, 1940 for what they thought would be a new life on a deserted island in the British West Indies. Little else is known about them.

Author Jeffrey Dodge has published a fascinating book detailing the story of the modern Crusoes entitled, Californians Seek Utopia on East Caicos Island. If you are interested in a copy, please contact Mr. Dodge at           tinqua1512@gmail.com.



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On the Cover

Agile LeVin—photographer, explorer and chronicler of everything TCI on his website www.visittci.com—took this drone photo of the multi-textured wetlands of West Caicos. He was part of the expedition that investigated the site of the historic pirate attack in the area. For more information and photos, go to page 48.

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