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Bound by Sisal

The Carlton Williams Promenade makes connections.
By Jody Rathgeb ~ Photos By Tom Rathgeb

Views of the beautiful, shallow waters of Bottle Creek, North Caicos . . . a cold drink and hot meal at a local restaurant . . . handmade fanner grass baskets for sale . . . a celebration of an island with a rich agricultural history. What connects these things?

The cultivation of sisal, once an industry on North Caicos, is the focal point of the new Carlton Williams Promenade in Bottle Creek.

It’s sisal. The fiber of a tough, pointy plant known as Agave rigida var. sisalana twines through these disparate experiences, tying them together in the Carlton Williams Promenade in Bottle Creek, North Caicos.

The creekside complex, which was dedicated on June 13, 2023, is a collection of buildings and roads representing a coalition of several government offices and private enterprise, intended as a tourist destination that also celebrates Turks & Caicos history. The complex includes a café, gift shop, and room for other tourist enterprises such as watersports and tour operations. A sisal museum, however, is the focal point, the raison d’etre of this promenade.

Why sisal?

Until now, the sisal industry on North Caicos has received little attention. H.E. Sadler’s history of the Islands, Turks Islands Landfall, details the farming and production of sisal in the Islands by the East Caicos Sisal Co. Ltd. and West Caicos Fibre Co. Limited, which began operation in the late 1800s. That history, while focused elsewhere, includes plantations where sisal was grown on North and Middle Caicos, plus some small extraction operations on both islands. Altogether, the companies’ production gave the world a good supply of important sisal products such as nautical rope, plus twine for baskets and other domestic uses.

The TCI’s large-scale production of sisal declined as world economies found better value in manila hemp from the Philippines, but on North Caicos there was a small revival after World War II, when the government planted 600 acres of sisal in the Caicos settlements for a steady market with a Jamaica cordage factory. But the industry faded again, as politics shifted and other products replaced the natural fiber. This is the history told by the new sisal museum and the Carlton Williams Promenade.

The view from the top of the promenade area shows the sweep of Bottle Creek and includes some of the landscaping around the buildings.

The late Claudius Williams of Bottle Creek, who became the agricultural officer for the Islands, was key to this revival. He involved his son Carlton in the “new” sisal industry, which was aided by mechanisation with the raspidor, a device that made it easier to strip the plant down to its useable fiber. Carlton, unfortunately, lost his fingers to this device, giving some of his own self to the sisal industry.

Time to grow

The new museum is thus both local and countrywide, and, like sisal, a way to tie together past and future and the interests of government and private enterprise. Also like sisal, it needs some time to grow.

The coalition that brought the Carlton Williams Promenade together is an ambitious one. It is a site under the wing of the TCI Ministry of Tourism, but it also includes the support of the Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources (DECR) and the Turks & Caicos National Trust. Together they are the administrators for a project that offers leasing space to local businesses. Sisal weaves it all together.

The museum is the focal point of the promenade.

Its buildings, erected by contractor Steven Walkin, appear from the waterside as a pyramid, with the museum at the top. The area was beautifully landscaped by North Caicos farmer and entrepreneur Courtney Missick, and early leases include Miss B’s Bayside Café and D’s Native Gift Shop. There is room for growth, and an actual “promenade” area along the water. An existing, but crumbling, dock area is slated for improvement (although it should be noted that Bottle Creek is quite shallow and can accommodate only small, flat boats). The museum currently has only a few items relating to the sisal industry, but more artifacts and better explanations are planned, including an actual raspidor like the one that took Mr. Williams’ fingers.

Looking ahead

Despite the “more to come” nature of the promenade, the summer’s dedication of the site was both optimistic and forward-looking. Participants included Lormeka Williams, DECR director, as host; Ludwina Fulford, director of culture; Hon. Josephine Connolly, minister for tourism; Hon. Rhondalee Braithwaite, attorney general; Hon. Charles Washington Missick, premier; Hon. Arlington Musgrove; H.E. Anya Williams, then-acting governor; and Claudius Williams, son of Carlton Williams, who cut the ribbon on behalf of his father, the area’s namesake.

In addition to its use in rope, sisal was also used in domestic items.

The takeaway comment, however, was made by Jas Walkin, district commissioner for North Caicos: “North Caicos, your time has come.”

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