Just east of New Plymouth’s government buildings, in the yard behind the customs officer’s residence, sits an unremarkable hunk of rusted equipment. All but overgrown by tall grass, it’s easy to overlook. But it actually represents a window into early 20th-century life on Green Turtle Cay.
The years following the turn of the century were lean ones for the residents of New Plymouth. Just a few decades before, the settlement had been vibrant and prosperous. Some of its more adventurous residents made their fortunes as blockade runners during the American Civil War. Others harvested sponges or turtles, or cultivated sisal, citrus and pineapples.
With work plentiful, Green Turtle Cay’s population soared to nearly 2,000. Its streets were lined with large, gracious homes decorated with fine furniture and imported silks and linens.
By the dawn of the 20th century, however, many of these formerly elegant New Plymouth homes languished in disrepair, their furnishings worn and linens faded.
The Civil War was a distant memory. The annexation of Hawaii and the Philippines and the development of southern Florida provided the U.S. with domestic supplies of pineapples, citrus and sisal and had eliminated the primary market for Bahamian exports.
Many New Plymouth residents were forced to leave the cay in search of work on the Abaco mainland or in Nassau.
Those who remained struggled to feed and clothe their families. One of their few remaining revenue sources was sugarcane. Cane syrup, which could be locally produced from sugarcane juice, was a common substitute for sugar, which was a great deal more expensive and had to be imported.
My grandmother, Lurey (Curry) Albury recalled her mother baking cakes and making pie crusts with syrup made from the sugarcane her father grew at his farm on Munjack Cay. Sometimes, my grandmother said, when she and her sisters came home from school for lunch, all they had to eat was homemade bread dipped in cane syrup.
Sugarcane was farmed in small patches here on Green Turtle Cay and on larger plantations on the Abaco mainland. During the winter months, the long, woody stalks were harvested by hand and milled to extract the cane juice.
Once extracted, cane juice was boiled until it thickened. The resulting syrup was then sieved and packaged into five-gallon tins and half-gallon bottles.
“Before my time,” says Bahamian artist and historian Alton Lowe, “there was a mill behind our house in New Plymouth. A horse pulled the mill around.” As the horse walked, rollers would turn, crushing the cane and extracting juice. “Later, when I was a child, there was a mill next to Mrs. Sybil Hodgkins’ house.”
Mrs. Hodgkins’ husband Harold and his father boiled the cane juice right in their yard. Alton recalls passing them by on the way to school. “Sometimes, if we were good,” he says, “they’d give us a bit of syrup when we passed.”
Unfortunately, because of competition from imported corn syrup and maple sap, Bahamian sugarcane farming never achieved much in the way of commercial success. And as other industries — such as sharking and crawfishing — opened up, cane mills like the one whose remains lie behind the custom’s officer’s residence were abandoned and left to rust.
But they provided a modest living – and a bit of sweetness – for Green Turtle Cay families at a time when both were desperately needed.
For more about Green Turtle Cay’s sugarcane industry, or to learn more about the cay’s intriguing hidden past, see Those Who Stayed: The Tale of the Hardy Few Who Built Green Turtle Cay.