St. John history is now more vibrant, alive and accessible than ever thanks to the St. John Historical Society’s beautiful 215-page, stitch-binded publication.
St. John: Life in Five Quarters was officially unveiled last week to overwhelming support and encouragement.
A labor of love for about a year for four editors, Life in Five Quarters brings together 66 articles culled from the pages of the SJHS’s monthly newsletter. The group has been issuing a newsletter for the past 10 years, many of which are summaries of presentations from SJHS monthly meetings.
SJHS archivist Eleanor Gibney, board advisor David Knight, SJHS president Robin Swank, and newsletter editor Bruce Schoonover, set about slogging through 115 collected articles from the decade of newsletters about a year ago.
“It was a full year of work and I think it took us all by surprise how much editing and formatting and time it was going to take on all our parts,” said Knight.
“We were in overdrive for a while there,” said Gibney.
The foursome were helped along in the process by their drive to include pieces that dealt with the history of St. John exclusively, Gibney added.
“Choosing some of the articles was a matter of a lot of debate, but we were really trying to focus on the articles that were purely about St. John,” said Gibney. “In the newsletter we’ve published many things that had regional or broader interest than just St. John. So that helped guide us.”
By staying true to the St. John-specific content, the group was able to cover a large range of history, from the first attempted Danish settlement in 1675 through the present day.
“We managed to cover a lot of aspects and a long range of history,” said Gibney. “There is scholarly stuff, lighter stuff, material that covers the Danish Colonial period and a good deal that covers the post-colonial period.”
“We tried to choose really diverse pieces and tried to be very inclusive as far as subjects and the people involved,” said Knight. “We tried to make the book as rich and unique and diverse as St. John.”
SJHS’s Life in Five Quarters is organized into seven chapters which cover everything from culture, trade and industry (chapter five) to hikes and presentations. The subject matters alone, the book spans more than 325 years of information.
“Again, part of the diversity contained in the book is not just the diversity of people and perspectives, but also time diversity,” said Knight. “We have first hand accounts in the book from people who lived on St. John who share their voices and perspectives with us from the 1800s and right up until today.”
For Knight, one voice sharing his perspective of recent history of the island resonated on a very personal level.
“I am tickled that my son, David Knight Jr.’s article was chosen to be included,” said Knight. “Here is the voice of a student, a young person, to go along with all those voices from the past. There really is just great representation all around.”
Another part of what makes Life in Five Quarters so engaging are the many high-quality images which leap from its pages, bringing the articles to life.
“Getting a lot of the images together was a major thing,” said Gibney. “In many cases we had most of the originals, but when they were published in the newsletter they were pretty low quality. We were fortunate to work with a publisher who did such fine work.”
“The photos are amazing,” said SJHS president Swank. “I think people can relate to the individual stories and especially with the images. The history of St. John is not so easily told and this is a better way to tell the history.”
Such photographic gems as stereoscopic images of the Cruz Bay Battery from 1898 — among the oldest known photographs of St. John — and one of the earliest known Kodachrome postcards of the island dating from around 1940 are featured in the pages of Life in Five Quarters.
The editors were fortunate to have a vast collection of records and images from which to select the featured articles, explained Knight.
“To begin with, the St. John Historical Society is a great organization and one of the things that makes it unique and wonderful is that it has preserved its records and archives and continues to,” Knight said. “One question we’ve all had is finding the best way to get all this accumulated knowledge out there and have it serve the public and disseminate the information so that people learn from it. We were really lucky that we had such a rich collection of writing and things that we could choose from.”
Looking over their year’s worth of effort, the editors were elated with the outcome, from the cover image of Robert Schomburgk’s hand-painted watercolor of Coral Bay in 1833 to Bishop Levin Reichel’s drawing of the Bethany Moravian Church in 1852 which graces the back cover.
“So far, everyone is really excited by this,” said Gibney. “We really did spend a lot of time on this and I think there really is something for everyone in there.”
“I think we’re all really pleased with the results and I hope that the people of St. John are as well,” said Knight.
“We’re very proud of it,” said Swank. “It’s a nice compliment to the other activities that the board is conducting this year. We now have something that is fact-based and research-based to tell a more complete story of St. John.”
SJHS’s Life in Five Quarters is available from the group’s website, www.stjohnhistoricalsociety.org, at Concordia, Maho Bay Campground, Tall Ship Trading Company, Keep Me Posted, Papaya Cafe, Connections, St. John Spice Company, and additional retail outlets across the island.