Island Elders Share Stories of Old Time St. John Life

Tales were spun at the Tuesday evening, November 10, St. John Historical Society meeting at the Bethany Moravian Church;  tales of a different St. John, one where life was more difficult, yet somehow more rich and fulfilling.

The stories were shared by seven elder women who grew up on St. John many decades ago, at the St. John Historical Society’s first meeting of its 35th season.

Andro Childs, daughter of Myrah Keating Smith, acted as moderator to the panel, which included Alice Rhymer O’Connor, the eldest of the group; Alice’s daughters, Edna O’Connor Freeman and Naomi O’Connor Varlack; Yvonne Hodge Wells, who grew up in Coral Bay; Shirley Frazer Sewer and Eulita Jacobs.

Most of the women attended school at the very Moravian Church where the Historical Society meeting convened, and most lived in Cruz Bay during their childhoods. Jacobs and Sewer grew up in Pastory.

The St. John the women knew growing up was very different than the island of today.

“We didn’t think it would be looking like it is,” said Childs. “If our ancestors came back, they would be lost. They’d think they were in the states.”

One aspect of growing up on St. John in the early- and mid-1900s that the women discussed over and over was how island residents took care of one another.

“I would love to go back and live the way we did,” said Jacobs. “We had all the food we wanted from the ground. When we reaped our crops, we shared.”

Goats and cows were killed on special occasions, such as holidays, and the meat was passed around to all the neighbors. One never left a friend’s house empty-handed.

“Nothing was too small to share,” said Childs. “I treasure the thought of it.”

The sense of community was also evident when someone died, the women explained. Upon the death, a member of the family who was both fast and trustworthy was sent out to spread the word of their loved one’s passing. The family would begin cooking, and friends and extended family would spend the evening together, singing sacred songs and telling jokes about the deceased.

If the person passed away too late in the day to be interred that same day, the family took unique measures to preserve the body, explained Rhymer O’Connor.

“We would cut limes in seawater to preserve the dead until the next day,” she said.

Jacobs acted as the runner for her family, reporting deaths to the Battery, where wood was stored to build caskets.

Although the community looked after one another, growing up on St. John was not always so easy, thanks to a strict teacher and a terrifying dentist, the women explained. Clarice Thomas, who taught at the Bethany Moravian school, ensured her students were well groomed before they were allowed to enter the classroom, O’Connor Varlack explained.

“There was a basin of water outside the door, and your hands and nails had to be clean or you’d get a ruler slap to the hand,” she said. “If the boys’ hair wasn’t combed, Ms. Thomas would hold their head under her arm and comb their hair. If you weren’t dressed to the teacher’s satisfaction, you got sent home with a note and you knew you were going to get it.”

The women recalled their horror as children, still fresh many decades later, when they realized the dentist was coming from St. Thomas for checkups.

“When he came, the kids would go home,” said Rhymer O’Connor. “He was as cruel as could be.”

While some of the women left island to live in the states, Love City never left their hearts, and to this day, they look back happily on their childhoods, despite growing up without much money or material possessions.

“I lived in New York for 15 years, and I enjoyed it, but I grieved for home,” said Jacobs. “My kids want me to move to Gainesville, but I tell them, ‘no, no, no.’”

“If I had to live those days over again, I’d gladly do it,” echoed Sewer.