Estate Rustenberg Was Once Site of Molasses, Sugar and Rum Production

St. John Historical Society members tour the ruins at Estate Rustenberg and Adventure on Monday, Dec. 19. At right is the horse mill with storage vault underneath.

The St. John Historical Society was transported back in time on Monday morning, Dec. 19, as it toured the ruins at Estate Rustenberg and Adventure. Led by local historian Chuck Pishko, the group toured the home, store house, horse mill, fire pit and other various structures on the estate, which was once a source of sugar, molasses and rum production.

Earliest records indicate that two adjacent 150-acre plots called Rustenberg A&B were occupied by the Jacob Magens family of St. Thomas. Jan Vlack, of the Danish West India & Guinea Co., occupied the adjacent Adventure plot, which was also 150 acres.

The wealthy Magens family lived on St. Thomas, and a manager oversaw the daily activities at the St. John plantation.

One of the buildings found among the ruins at Estate Rustenberg is an ox pound, or a corral where oxen were kept.

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The roads on St. John were very narrow, and a lot of supplies were moved throughout the island by oxen and narrow carts, according to Pishko.

Oxen may have also been used to run the mill, a large structure that can also be found at the historical site.

Animal Power
The horse mill, which is 75 feet in diameter, consisted of three vertical rollers in the center—one was turned by horses, which were tethered to a wooden arm connected to the roller, and the other two acted as gears. Sugarcane was placed in the middle of the rollers, which were used to squeeze juice out of the crop.

“It was real horsepower,” said Pishko.

Still visible beneath the mill is a storage vault, which also acted to relieve pressure from the surface of the mill.

Another structure at the Rustenberg site is the “Jamaican train fire,” according to Pishko.

This consisted of a sequence of copper pots which were actually made from iron. The pots rested in a line above a fire, and a chimney stood at the end of that line. A large pot still rests at the site of the fire pit.

This Jamaican train fire boiled down the sugarcane, which was then made into sugar, molasses and rum.

The plantation produced these goods until approximately 1852, according to Pishko.

Rustenberg and Adventure were combined in 1771, totaling 450 acres, and bought by William Turnbull of Tortola in 1792. At that time, it was the fourth largest plantation on St. John, excluding Annaberg and Carolina.

Around 1832, it was bought by Ernst Jacob Weinmar, a wealthy St. Thomian.

When Weinmar died in 1837, he left Rustenberg and Adventure to his sons, who went bankrupt in 1852.

Slavery was abolished in 1848, creating an island of small farmers who changed how the land’s resources were used. The production of sugarcane at the estate ceased before the hurricane of 1867, and goods such as coffee, cocoa, bay oil, guava and mangoes were then grown.

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St. John Historical Society historian Chuck Pishko leads tour of the ruins at Estate Rustenberg and Adventure on Monday, Dec. 19.
>Bay Oil Was Major Industry
“Bay oil was a major industry after the sugar went out,” said Pishko. “When the small-farmer culture started, bay oil was one of their major cash crops.”

Although Estate Rustenberg and Adventure was abandoned in 1898, bay leaves were still harvested in this area. The leaves were taken to a still, where the bay oil was extracted. The oil was then shipped to St. Thomas and made into bay rum and aftershave, and was even used as a medicinal treatment for sore backs and headaches.

“It was a big deal,” said Pishko. “They produced a lot of it here. They made 4,000 quarts of this oil around 1916 or 1917.”