Digging up the past of Salt Cay’s most famous house.
Imposing from the air and on the ground, the White House stands as both a sentinel and icon to the history of tiny Salt Cay, of the Turks Islands themselves.
Built in the early 1800s by ancestors of the last salt proprietors, this historic home of the Harriott family has been both very public, and very private. Few visitors have ever heard its true stories and history, let alone seen the interior. The White House is not a public museum or tour open to viewing by any visitor to Salt Cay. It is certainly a curiosity and the subject of much lore, speculation, bad information and sketchy history.
I shared that same curiosity and heard all the various stories of “salt barons” and slavery; the fantasies of imaginations gone wild and storyteller embellishments; Islanders’ recollections from their perspective in the salt ponds; the memories of a young woman who grew up in the White House; and the men and women who worked in and around the house itself.
Among the last people to live in the White House during the salt proprietorship days was Rosalie K. Harriott. Now living in a tiny mountain town in Canada, Rosalie has collected the photographs, history, documents and heritage of her family, and of a very tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean. (Much of Salt Cay’s history is preserved by passing on stories and incidents, and little is written down or photographed in historic detail.)
The eldest child of Franklyn Harriott and Marjorie Durham Harriott, Rosalie lived in the White House from her birth in 1933 to 1949 when she left for school in Canada. In 1950, Rosalie and her parents, brother Hyatt and young sister Blyth left Salt Cay. Her parents never returned.
The history of Salt Cay is not just the Harriott recordations, but also the memories of the same events by the people who worked for the various salt businesses, and those who lived and otherwise worked on Salt Cay during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s.
There were three classes of people on Salt Cay: the Whites, the Lights and the working class. The Lights, usually mulatto, were the middle class, who owned shops and businesses that catered to the working class of Salt Cay, sailed on foreign ships around the world, or owned smaller salt ponds. Each has their unique perspective of Salt Cay’s history.
Being from Salt Cay was “saying something.” Saturday night was like “Christmas Eve every week,” says Antoinette “Nettie” Talbot, a lifelong resident.
But everyday life on Salt Cay (and the Turks Islands, themselves) was no easy feat for any member of any class. The Whites, meaning the Harriotts, just had more “stuff” than anyone else, and so it all was relative to the other Islanders. The Harriotts were believed, and perceived, to be rich and powerful. “Powerful,” yes. “Rich,” was apparently fleeting and rare.
It is this dichotomy of life on Salt Cay, looking through the windows of the White House and the eyes of the people who worked there, that is so fascinating to me and many visitors to this tiny island of less than 100 souls. It is through these eyes and the photographic collection of Rosalie Harriott, as well as aging Turks Islanders, that we can explore and revisit this grand old home and learn what life in the White House, Salt Cay style, was really like.
Imagining the past
The house does exhibit the wear and tear of two centuries and a multitude of hurricanes, wind and rain. As I shot photographs, took notes and wrote parts of this article, the shutters banged away, the ocean hissed and lapped over the old stone walls and wharves in the background, the tradewinds blew through and I tried to absorb all I could of life in this old house.
For those anxious to know if the spirits of Harriotts past spoke to me, haunt the house or otherwise make themselves known, the answer is “no.” But truly this house does speak to you in its own way as you see the added electricity, antique furnishings, beds where numerous babies were born and proprietors died, windows where once Mary Olivia Harriott watched the workers and stamped her cane on the floor, and verandas letting in cool tradewinds and providing a window on the world going by.
What it must have been like to have young children playing about, no television or stereo blaring; folks singing simple songs to entertain themselves while they worked; the smell of bread baking in a fire-stoked brick oven; a bell ringing the time of day; the sounds of men at work in the salt; breezes cooling the house to the constant sound of the sea. To sit here for a few hours and let your imagination wander is sheer delight.
Four generations of Harriotts
Prior to 1800, the Salt Cay, Grand Turk and South Caicos triangle was one of the major sea salt producing areas of the world. Bermudan salt rakers had come to the Turks Islands, settling it with slaves and proprietors and establishing a trade with Bermuda.
Slaves came to the Turks Islands from Bermuda and the Bahamas, having been sold. They lived a hard and difficult life in the salt industry. Others were free workers, slaves who had managed to obtain their freedom by work, gift or, eventually, legal edict.
Daniel Harriott was an early salt proprietor. Born around 1807, Harriott was a Bermudan who came to Salt Cay for a future. Apparently not a man of wealth, he acquired money with his marriage to Mary Olivia Hyatt, daughter of Captain James Hyatt. It was during this marriage that the White House was built and the Harriott family, as the leading salt proprietors, was born. The Harriott salt producing and exporting business was formally begun in 1829.
In approximately 1825, work on the White House began and went on for 10 years. The two story house is made of Bermuda limestone and built in the Bermudan style of architecture. The upstairs originally consisted of a large living room and dining room, with six bedrooms and two verandas on the eastern and western sides. Downstairs was the larder and traditional kitchen, consisting of a large brick fireplace and smaller baking oven. There were several large rooms and a huge cellar for salt storage. The entry foyer housed Mr. Harriott’s office.
The White House was built as the center of a compound of buildings that included warehouse, offices, home, stables, mill, cistern, farm and garden. Though large in appearance, the house is surprisingly small when it comes to usable living space on the top floor. The entire ground floor, with its large green doors all around and dug-out basement, could hold an enormous amount of salt, safe from rain and hurricanes. There was always salt in the bank, so to speak.
Mary Olivia Harriott, Daniel’s wife, was apparently a woman who spoke her mind and protected her investment. When she looked out a window, there was no part of the salt operation that was not visible. If Mary Olivia thought someone was slacking off, right or wrong she would stomp her cane and make her displeasure known. Mary Olivia did not yell though, for ladies did not yell out of windows.
Islanders felt this behavior, and that of later proprietors, was wrong, as the work was hard and hot and the day long. But taking a break could raise their ire easily. If you lost your work in the salt, you lost your ability to feed your family.
After Daniel Harriott’s death in 1859, his eldest son, Alexis Wynns Harriott, known as “the Skipper”, became the next resident proprietor with his wife Alice Cowles of Connecticut. Alexis Harriott had a long reign, and his wife bore him five children, three of whom were sons who also became salt proprietors on Salt Cay. If any one Harriott enjoyed financial success in the salt industry, it was Alexis. The time was right in terms of demand and world stability for the industry to prosper.
Alexis and Alice’s three sons were Daniel (Niel), Edmund and Howard. Two daughters were not part of the industry, one having died in childhood and the other going to England to live after her marriage.
Niel became the resident Harriott in the White House until his death in 1910. Niel Harriott is buried at St. John’s Church just up Victoria Street in the plot he set forth in his will. A low white wall surrounds his grave, under a tree he planted, to the north of the chancel he desired be built, and his grave is that of clean white sand.
Niel’s brother Howard Fessenden Harriott was first married to Rosalie Hinson Harriott, who bore him three children: Franklyn, Gladys and Natalie. Rosalie died in about 1912, from tuberculosis at a young age. Her letters apologize to her family for being sickly and leaving young children without a mother. Howard later married Winnie Rigby of Grand Turk in 1917. As the elder salt proprietor, Howard Harriott lived at “Sunnyside” (known today as the Brown House), another wood and stone Bermudan great house. In 1931, Howard released the reins of everyday operations to his only son Franklyn.
From Niel’s death until 1931, the White House sat empty. But when he returned to Salt Cay with his bride, Marjorie Durham Harriott of South Caicos, Franklyn Harriott installed the necessary “modern” conveniences. This included electricity from their own generator as well as indoor plumbing. The master bedroom has a private bathroom, though a tall man such as Franklyn Harriott would have had to stoop, it seems, to shower.
The original kitchen was a typical wood burning, attached stone building on the ground floor. The chimney is reminiscent of Portuguese and Moorish styles. Known in the Caribbean as a “Bermudan chimney,” the style apparently originated with Portuguese fishermen who settled in Bermuda after the arrival of Christopher Columbus. The same style chimney is seen at the Residency on Salt Cay as well as St. John’s Church’s kitchen.
When I first toured the White House five years ago, I wondered why a house with such a large formal dining area had such a small, inadequate upstairs kitchen. I wrongly assumed that the upstairs kitchen was part of the original plan. The truth is that the present kitchen is a converted bedroom and butler’s pantry. It was made part of the upstairs living quarters after one of the cooks accidently set fire to the old kitchen in the late 1930s/early 1940s.
After the near disaster, Marjorie Harriott decided she should keep a closer eye on the daily workings of the kitchen and installed a kerosene stove upstairs for the family’s cooking use. Islanders, working in the kitchen, used the traditional coal pot on which to cook.
The original stone kitchen is now in disrepair and unused, except to store roof tiles needing reinstallation. All that remains are the old ovens. Also, an equipment room with generator, circa 1930, was put in the old kitchen area to modernize the house for electricity and plumbing.
The living quarters on the second floor connected with a bridge to a salt warehouse and living quarters immediately next door. Given English real estate law, public rights of way existed (as they still do) allowing access to water and beaches.
The alley between the White House and the wooden building known variously as the Paymaster’s Office, Warehouse or Treasury building, is a public right of way and cannot be blocked or eased. All that remains of this wood and stone building is the foundation, the wooden structure having fallen victim to Hurricane Frances in 2004. What is left of the bridge is now an observation deck at the back, upper door.
The earliest known photograph of the White House compound is from the 1890s. The “aeromoters,” large windmills that worked salt grinding machinery, are present. These were obtained during the Chicago Exposition of 1893 by the Harriotts and serve as a landmark in photographs thereafter. The other wind machines were for pumping water through the salinas and for grinding salt. When kerosene became difficult to get, Franklyn Harriott obtained a roof top “wind charger” which charged the huge batteries for lights in the White House. But this device damaged the roof tiles.
The White House today
The White House is now owned by Ian Dunn and his late brother Michael’s estate. Michael Dunn passed away in the summer of 2005. The Dunn family are the heirs of Natalie Harriott Dunn, the youngest daughter of Howard and Rosalie Hinson Harriott. After the death of Franklyn Harriott in 1960, his widow, Marjorie, inherited the White House. Believing the property should stay in the Harriot family, she traded the White House to her sister-in-law, Gladys Harriott, in approximately 1968, for Gladys’ inherited interest in Sunnyside. Marjorie Harriott, a strong proponent of the inheritance of property, wanted to be sure the White House stayed in the Harriott family and was loathe to sell it.
The salt industry was nationalized in 1952 and the property surrounding the White House, including outbuildings, became part of the business known as Turks Islands Salt Company. The White House remained the property of the Harriott family, but sat idle for a good many years.
It then took the salt industry another 10 years to become extinct. With that, Salt Cay lost its primary industry, its population and its means of livelihood. Once the home of approximately 600Ð900 people, the island is now home to approximately 80 full time residents. There is no real industry other than tourism.
The White House still stands as the largest stone building in the Turks Islands, but is in growing disrepair. The limestone roof needs refurbishing and reinstallation. Large, six inch thick limestone tiles wait in the basement for reinstallation by expert masons. Shutters need repair and replacement. Termite infestations need addressing. Water damage to walls, floors and furnishings from roof leakage is taking its toll as well.
Repairs are not simple under the best of conditions on Salt Cay. This is an island with no hardware store, no natural building materials and no deep water harbor. Nothing is easy on Salt Cay. The work force is limited. Grand Turk is nine miles by boat and any large deliveries come by ferry or barge in good weather.
A tour back in time
Without doubt though, a tour of the old White House is a tour back in time. The furnishings impart the beauty that the house once had, the style and grace of the women who lived there and the care that allowed it to remain intact for so long.
Photos of family patriarchs and matriarchs adorn the walls, as do photos of the salt industry and the people of the island. Books and photo albums fill a large glass-fronted bookcase in the living room as well as a large double-sided hutch between the rooms. A whale’s rib hangs above on the wall. Many books reflect the fact that children were taught not just in school, but at home, with geometry, English history and other educational titles in the library. There is also Captain Hyatt’s handwritten account of his early 1800s California sailing trip.
The greenery that Marjorie Harriott used to decorate the house is long gone. Chaises and decrepit chairs grace the verandas, side by side with modern plastic lawn chairs. The piano is now an electric keyboard and a stereo sits incongruously on a centuries old mahogany table.
Electric wire snakes down corners and the edges of crown molding, visible now due to the rusting of the staples that held it in place. The dining table awaits eight guests for dinner and the sideboard is empty save for its lace runner, sitting under a double electric wall sconce, with other sconces dotting the walls. Here too is the barometer – so necessary to know if a hurricane was coming – evidencing a touch of green on its brass face and frame. It and the thermometer are at the eye level of a tall man.
The bedrooms hold old four poster beds, double in size. Canopies were added by a later inhabitant, as they were unheard of during Rosalie’s residency.
Several rooms have privacy curtains on frames, with pegs in the walls to hold clothes and towels and a small washstand with flowered enamel basin and jug. Large armoires are in each room to hold clothing as there are no built-in closets.
The floors are wood, and showing their age (almost 200 years) along with the wear and tear of leaky roofs, and lack of care and maintenance. Overall, though, they are in surprisingly good shape for bearing the traffic of so many generations and decades of salt-filled air.
The walls are about two feet thick. Few cracks appear, except over the occasional window frame. Each frame affords a deep place to sit and look out through the multi-pane, double hung windows. Each window has an exterior pair of shutters which can lock open or lock shut. Each shutter is louvered so light filters in even when closed and air can circulate.
The veranda to the west, where the shoreline is, consists of jalousie windows. These are large louvers that open and close with the placement of a wedge in a holder. From the veranda, the Harriotts could watch the comings and goings of the Islanders at the end of their day or on Saturday night or Sunday. Who went to church? Who didn’t? Who was seeing who? Was a ship on the horizon?
The veranda on the eastern side is fronted with glass windows and shutters. The banister for the stairway to the entrance still stands, but without the scarf of greenery with which Marjorie Harriott once draped it.
A taste of Hollywood
I remember a scene in the movie Bahama Passage where stars Sterling Hayden and Madeline Carroll are standing on the stairs, talking. In the bedrooms, I visualize Leo G. Carroll sitting in his rocker with the privacy screen behind him, just as it appears in the first bedroom to the east. I can picture Madeline Carroll with Dorothy Dandridge, the maid, trying on high heels for the first time, stumbling across the room. I think of sisters Ruth and Louise Simmons, who worked in the White House at the time and what they might have thought of the black actress playing their role.
But other than some stair and doorway shots from this 1941 movie, little of what is depicted as being the White House really existed, and is mostly a Hollywood movie set, not the actual house. However, the exterior shots really are how the island and White House appeared in 1941. Very little has changed over the years.
Madeline Carroll stayed in a White House bedroom during filming. She was not allowed to live in a tent, as the rest of the actors and crew did. Rosalie Harriott was then a precocious eight year old and remembers the filming quite well.
One of Rosalie’s memories is that the Harriotts were very angry at being the basis for the book Dildo Cay by Nelson Hayes, on which the movie was based. Lawsuits were threatened. Winnie Harriott thought the best- selling book “scandalous.” Rosalie recalls, “Granny said ÔI cannot for the life of me understand how a woman like Miss Carroll could consent to be in such an immoral movie’.” This was all learned while the Paramount people sat around the Harriott living room in the evenings talking and little Rosalie kept her ears peeled for adult news.
The Harriotts were invited to the Paramount camp each evening to dinner, and the children could watch Mickey Mouse movies and the adults a feature film. Scenes from the movie were shown as well.
The day’s film was rushed off to Miami in one of Paramount’s sea planes. “It was all completely new and interesting; nothing like this had ever happened in the entire history of Turks Islands,” says Rosalie. She recalls, “My parents knew a thing or two about the Hollywood film industry. When I told the assembled company at dinner how Miss Carroll helped me swim from Dunscombe’s Point all the way to the White House dock, the Paramount publicity man suddenly became very interested in me and wrote a story. My father refused to okay this account as the family did not want to see me in a movie magazine having been Ôsaved from drowning’ by a famous movie star. Granny and Grandpa certainly would not have liked it. But I did not care one way or the other because Miss Carroll was my friend.”
Different points of view
People who worked in the salt industry for the Harriotts still remember the stories and legends, and the difficult working conditions. Not every Harriott is remembered fondly, though hindsight and time have made many stories poignant and humorous over a layer of resentment.
As one son of Salt Cay who no longer lives on island said, “The history of Salt Cay is not the Harriotts’ alone, it is the history of everyone on the island. The Harriotts were there, but not necessarily a part of the island’s culture.” And that is the pivotal point of the stories of the White House, the Harriotts and Salt Cay. Everyone has a recollection, and everyone’s recollection is part of the history and fabric of this small place in the sun.
In the 1940s and ’50s, many men left the island for steamships to avoid the tedious, laborious and debilitating work in the salt pans. Raking salt in brine to your knees, barefoot, on clay bottom pans, in blinding hot sun from sunrise to sunset was extremely difficult work. Only “whompers,” sandals made of cut up tires and rope, helped to protect the rakers’ feet to a small degree.
Holton “Poley” Dickenson is now in his 70s. When he was 19, his father drowned on a Saturday. On Monday, his father already buried, Poley went to work raking salt to provide for his family. The first chance he had, he left for the steamships and became a ship’s steward. When he retired from the steamships, with his background in carpentry, he became an island contractor and the Catechist of St. John’s Anglican Church. His feet still bear the scars of raking salt.
Rosalie Harriott remembers her grandfather, Howard Harriott, as a retired, elderly man. He did the books in the old Paymaster’s Office while Franklyn managed the business. He would read aloud to his grandchildren, and was always much in demand. He had a beautiful blue china eye that he popped in and out at night, and put in a bedside drawer. He had a bad leg and walked with a cane.
Poley Dickenson and Percy Talbot remember him as a stern man who had little tolerance for children – the black children – of his workers.
Howard’s wife Winnie Harriott is remembered by many as a kind and gentle lady. Winnie regularly gave the children extra food, eggs, candy, whatever she had to spare. Howard objected to this spoiling of the children, which apparently fed Winnie’s desire to sneak treats even more.
Holton Dickenson recalls that Winnie would say, “Come child,” and indicate they come around to the blind side of Howard Harriott so he couldn’t see what she was doing. Going to Howard’s blind side became a regular game with the children who were around him regularly. Percy Talbot got into trouble more than once for his blind-side mischief. But however gruff Howard Harriott may have been, and however stern he was with his workers, the memories of such shenanigans brings laughter to many of the men who remain on Salt Cay today. For some, there remains a bitterness that will never fade.
The death of Howard Harriott
In the spring of 1945, just prior to the end of the war, the salt proprietors of the Turks Islands met on Grand Turk. Among them was Howard Harriott. Franklyn Harriott was not amongst them, being in Jamaica.
The Morgans had gone by sailboat to Grand Turk, leaving from the eastern shore of Salt Cay. Howard, with three oarsmen, took a boat without a sail and also departed from the eastern shore, rowing. At the conclusion of the meeting, the afternoon brought a rough sea and the threat of weather. To return to Salt Cay that day the boats had to return to the eastern shore, where protective creeks allowed a safe arrival. To get there, one had to cross the foot of the reef, a dangerous place even on a calm day.
Lillian Kennedy recalls that her father was at the meeting, but stayed on Grand Turk with her and husband Ned. “It was not weather to go back to Salt Cay in. My daddy stayed with me,” she related. Franklyn Harriott would never have allowed any of his family or employees to leave had he been there . . . but he was not.
Howard, in three piece suit and dress shoes, set out with his three oarsmen, Jamer Smith, Thomas “Tomboli” Morgan and Manuel Simmons. Simmons was a top notch seaman and ship’s pilot and knew the waters well. Morgan was a noted seaman, who had already survived one harrowing disaster off the Silver Banks and was a spinner of great yarns.
The boat capsized crossing the foot of the reef and could not be righted. The oarsmen kept telling each other and Mr. Harriott to “hang on.” But the rough side of the boat was not easy to hold onto and Howard Harriott, in less than ideal swimwear and with a bad leg, could not hang tight. Manuel Simmons (a strong swimmer believed to be trying to save Harriott) and he perished from sight, never to be found. The two remaining oarsmen swam the capsized boat the remaining five miles to Salt Cay.
After this, “Tomboli” was involved in another capsizing off the Salt Cay lighthouse. This third time, his sons swam to safety and Tomboli’s luck ended with his drowning.
The missing false teeth
When Howard Harriott and his wife Winnie resided in Sunnyside, rats were a fact of life. They love a big, old, wood-framed house that has food and goodies in it. One morning Winnie awoke to find her false teeth missing from the bedside table. False teeth are not something one usually misplaces and all members of the family were enlisted to find the teeth, to no avail.
Many years later following Howard’s death, Winnie moved out of Sunnyside to return to her family’s home in Grand Turk. When a large armoire was removed from the bedroom, the workers found amidst a rat’s nest a number of bright and shining trinkets, jewelry, and Winnie’s missing false teeth – all part of one rat’s lifetime collection of Harriott memorabilia.
The goat project
The White House had its own stables, animal pens and fenced garden area. Marjorie Harriott was a determined grower of plants and animals to feed her family. In the 1930s, especially during the war years, food stores were not easy to come by. Everyone tried to grow what they could on an island known for producing salt, not potatoes.
One of Marjorie’s early endeavors was raising goats. As Rosalie Harriott recalls, “My mother decided that a goat was the thing – smaller, easier to feed than a cow. So Nanny and her twins, Ajax and Hector arrived. In no time the goats must have realized they had hit upon that very rare type of human, an goat-loving owner.”
Apparently Nanny didn’t much like being milked by anyone and the holding pen for milking became a dueling ground between Marjorie Harriott and Nanny. “Mummy and Felix Lightbourne attempted to milk a stamping, whirling Nanny. They never got more than a shot glass of milk,” says Rosalie.
Soon, Ajax butted Marjorie from behind while she was attending to a small papaya tree, causing her to fall head-first into the sand. Ajax then sealed the fate of the goats when he got into the enclosure where laundry was hung and ate a precious sheet.
This brought an end to the goat experiment. Unwilling to slaughter them for food, Marjorie Harriott exiled the goats to Cotton Cay where they freely multiplied, with Ajax as head billy goat.
However, according to Percy Talbot, the goats were not forgotten by the people of Salt Cay. The population was eaten into extinction, usually as part of cricket match celebrations involving roasted goat with peas and rice. Though Nanny and the kids may have failed to provide for the Harriotts, they did provide years of feasting.
World War II
The final straw in the death of the salt industry was World War II. Wracked by the Great Depression of the 1920s and early ’30s, the salt industry took further blows with the entry of England into the war with Germany. Being a British colony, the Turks Islands rolled from Depression to feeling the effects of war.
By 1939, the Turks Islands became even more isolated as war in Europe raged. Coming and going were not really an option, as German U-Boats were known to attack the smallest of ships in these British waters just to record a sinking. Food and supplies were even more precious.
To wile away the hours, Marjorie Harriott would intercept coded radio transmissions between Grand Turk, Salt Cay and South Caicos. Being intelligent and prone to problem solving, Marjorie figured out the encoding being used and decoded the messages. This allowed her and Franklyn to know what was going on in the war and, most important, which ships were in port. Otherwise, they were in the dark except for what they could glean off the telex, which was heavily censored. Unfortunately, this came to a halt when word got out that Marjorie had broken the code. The code then changed almost daily and her problem solving hobby could not keep up.
For almost the entire war, the Harriotts remained on Salt Cay with the occasional trip to Grand Turk or South Caicos on the Kathleen, a small sailing ship which carried mail between Salt Cay and South Caicos.
The war brought fear to people unused to world war and the problems of other countries. Young Rosalie Harriott feared the Japanese landing on island, and could just “hear their boots up the back stairs, come to capture and torture Salt Cay people.” Her child’s imagination was assisted at night when as she recalls, “On calm nights I could hear, along with the quiet lapping of wavelets on the seawall, the thrum of engines. They said you could hear the U-boat engines going through the Turks Island Passage.” Trying to be courageous, Rosalie said nothing of her fears.
The U-boats were real enough to the Islanders. They knew ships which were torpedoed and small sloops that were sunk. A Harriott order from the Montgomery Ward catalogue went to the bottom of the sea, their new beds, clothes and toys gone forever.
On a night passage across the channel in the Kathleen, Rosalie’s grandmother Winnie was almost run down by an American sub-chaser. Out of the dark, there was, as Winnie recounted to her granddaughter, “the roar of powerful engines, a sweep of searchlights bearing down on the Kathleen and little time to do anything. The sub-chaser suddenly changed course and roared off, leaving the sloop to plunge about in its wake, trying to stay afloat.”
In reality though, the Islands were mostly on their own, with England far away. Cable & Wireless employees who had been on Grand Turk, relaying communications from undersea cable transmissions, were friends of the Harriotts. Moving on to Singapore and Hong Kong, they became prisoners of war.
Gladys Harriott went to England to work in the war effort in the NAFFI canteen in London. Everyone waited for letters, “torn to tatters by the censor’s scissors, to read aloud and discuss the war and read of the bombings in London”, says Rosalie Harriott now.
For entertainment, the Harriotts would sit round the piano at Sunnyside and sing old songs, or go to concerts on island where a collection would be taken up for the War Effort. The stage at the Benevolent Hall was Rosalie Harriott’s first singing engagement.
After two months on Salt Cay, I am sitting on the western veranda of the White House, looking out through the shutters. The surf is pounding onto the old, crumbling wharf and sea walls of the White House. I walk around the house, wishing I could have been a fly on the wall so many years ago.
The sound of the ocean waves breaking is a constant here, and very real. What is missing are the sounds of children at play; many workers talking, whistling, singing; the hustle and bustle of a busy island made of salt; the ring of the bell. And then the smells emanating from the old kitchen, the sight of schooners and steamers just off shore at anchor. If only a short wave radio was scratching out Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood.”
The Boat House, once a large, two story building, fights to save its last pieces of wooden structure. Where once captains stepped their lighters’ masts to embark on another day of hauling salt to steamers and schooners, there are now several fishing boats moored. The old stanchion where boats tied off, so prominent in old wharf photos, is almost rusted to nothing.
Dunscombe Point, once a vital milling, grinding and bagging building, is now the shell of an old stone building. The jetty is still there, but fading fast. The beach there is beautiful and the white sand plentiful.
No workers surround the White House and, thank goodness, no one is in a pond, raking salt, anymore. Where once 900 people lived, shopped, walked Victoria Street in front of the White House and crossed the Follies across the salinas, now 80 people look for something to do; grow old and remember times past.
Diving and tourism are the industry now. Not even gourmet salt is made here. Donkeys and cows, once penned and used for carts and food, now roam free, grazing off the land. No Harriotts live on Salt Cay anymore. One ancestor is a divemaster on Grand Turk.
The White House slowly but surely loses a little of itself with each day and each storm. How long will it tell its history? One constant remains: the azure blue waters of Salt Cay, patiently waiting to take back the shores, the wharves and sea walls. Ever patient, always there.
Story & Photos By Michele Belanger-McNair ~ Historic Photos Courtesy the Rosalie K. Harriott Collection