Blog Schedule

I post on Monday with an occasional random blog thrown in for good measure. I do my best to answer all comments via email and visit around on the days I post.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Remembrances of Gifft Hill - Herber Thomas

We were the first white people to live up at Gifft Hill, a rather isolated place, three miles from Cruz Bay. The road to Gifft Hill was a mile long dirt track with deep ruts and places that were more like a rocky stream-bed than a road. We had to use four-wheel drive, low transfer the whole way.

Our nearest neighbors were the Thomases who lived about a quarter of a mile away.

Old Man Heber Thomas was a tall lanky man. He talked very fast and as if he had small pebbles in his mouth. It was often difficult to understand him. It may surprise many to learn that on an island only nine miles long and five miles wide we could tell where a person was from by the way he or she spoke. People from Coral Bay sounded different from those who were from Bethany or Cruz Bay or Gifft Hill.

Heber Thomas lived in a two room shack with his wife Victoria, and Erla a girl who lived with them and helped with chores. They had a glorious view of St. Thomas and Pillsbury Sound. Victoria was bed-ridden. I think it was due to arthritis. Sometimes she was placed in a chair in the doorway to catch the sun, but most of the time she was propped up in bed. Hers was the first "old lady" smell I remember smelling. There was something musky about it, something sour and something sharp. She must have been, in her youth, a pretty woman because I remember her as having traces of pretty still lingering in her round face, peeking out from behind the wrinkles of her smile, and hiding in the tight braids of her thick white hair.

The Thomases shack, like most every one's (for most of the population, including us, lived in tiny wooden homes. We called our shack The Castle) was spotlessly clean. And their clothes, though worn and well patched, were also clean and ironed with a "goose," an iron into which you put charcoal embers.

Old Man Herber ran goats on his property along with a few cows and chickens. He also had a mule. One time either his dogs or someone elses killed one of his pregnant nannies. For some reason I was there a short time after he'd started butchering the goat, which he'd strung up in a tree. I remember seeing the pair of nearly ready to be born kids, still in their watery sacs lying on the ground. It was a sad sight, and Herber Thomas was obviously (even to me at 8 or 9 years old) very upset.

Because we had a kerosene refrigerator we had ice, a luxury back then. Almost every day Erla would walk the quarter mile to our shack with a rum bottle full of cow's milk in exchange for a tray of ice cubes. Sometimes we exchanged ice for eggs.

The Thomases didn't have a cistern, like we did, for catching rain water. What they had were four or five 55 gallon drums covered with cheese cloth and/or lids to keep the mosquitoes from laying their eggs in the water. Another of Erla's jobs was to go down to the "Monte reservoir" or catchment once a week to bring back water if there hadn't been enough rain to keep their barrels full. It was only about 1/2 or 3/4 of a mile away, but the road was very steep and rocky. Going down was easy, but coming back was tough. Once we got our donkey, Erasmus, Erva and I helped Erla with the water hauling. Herber's mule and Erasmus were loaded with dumb boxes each of which carried four, five gallon tins. The tins were lidless. To keep from losing water on the return trip we put branches of genip leaves on top of the water. The leaves acted like a shock absorber and kept the water from sloshing over the sides of the tins. If memory serves me right, we set out fairly early in the morning and got back by noon.

Water was a precious commodity. Conserving it was something everyone did, not because it was the cool thing to do, but because we had to. Rain was our only source. There were no wells or springs, and if it didn't rain for a while, if there was a drought, everyone suffered.

So, when Old Man Herber Thomas told my sister and me that before the catchment had been build there was a place, a ghut with pools, where people had gone year round to get water, we were incredulous. He said slaves had hidden out there when they went maroon and that there were trails to it off of the Gifft Hill road.

Erva and I wanted to know where those trails were, but Heber Thomas kept the secret to himself for sometime. Maybe he was testing us. Maybe he was making sure we were worthy of knowing the secret. But finally, after a certain amount of pestering, he showed us where the trail head was, hidden by spiky wild pineapples and barbed catch-n-keep. As soon as we knew where the trail began, Erva and I vowed that one day we would go exploring. The idea of a ghut with year-round pools of water was hard to believe.

Stay tuned for The Ghut.


  1. That is another fascinating story. You've enjoyed a lifestyle that very few people our age could imagine.

    In our area of Scotland, there are a number of pools fed by waterfalls out in the hills that no tourist knows about. Only the locals know about them. We really felt we'd arrived when someone told us where his secret pools were. We tend to keep them to ourselves too, so I can understand Heber Thomas not wanting to blab about the Ghut.

  2. Oh man what a cool story. I absolutely love reading about your life. It's fascinating.

    Down in the Keys there are a few places the tourists no nothing about. And I hope they never will!

    I can't wait to read about the Ghut. I already am imagining in my mind what you see when you arrive for the first time. =)

  3. I'm so captivated by stories of your childhood! Awesome!

  4. It amazes me that you recall so much detail of this rich childhood. I do hope that you are writing novels that draw upon this wealth, because it is unique and fascinating.

  5. You really take us to the place you grew up, Bish! I cannot imagine only getting water from the rain!

  6. As always, Bish, you had me spellbound. What a rich and unusual childhood.

  7. Your comment about water and how precious it is brought back memories of not having enough when I was growing up ... we had running water for about an hour each day and it was our job to fill up our large barrels for the day. My mom would then boil some of it for drinking.

    You paint such a vivid picture, and the picture of almost newborns not born is heartbreaking.

  8. I'm never disappointed when I read about your childhood but I'm always thrilled to learn more...Thanks for sharing...hugs...

  9. I am often in awe at the detail of your childhood memories. You manage to capture it so well it's like we were there with you, experiencing it too!

  10. Thanks Mary. To be shown a special place by the locals DOES mean you have arrived!

    Robyn as a "native" I'm sure you understand NOT wanting the tourists to find those special places.

    Thanks Christy. The story gets more awesome as it goes.

    Tricia, I didn't think I remembered much of my childhood until several years ago when I started writing down little snapshots of things I remembered. And then it all sort of came back to me. Plus, I have my sister's elephantine memory on which to draw.

    Kelly, we still get our water from the rain. Only now, instead of a 600 gallon cistern we have one that's 40,000. And...we'ver never run out!

    Yes MG, I was most certainly blessed with an unusual childhood.

    I figured you'd know about the preciousness of water Vijaya. I'm still conservative. I can't stand to see a tap running.

    Thanks Cynthia.

    Brenda, I guess as long as no one gets bored with my ramblings I'll keep writing about them until I run out.

    Yep, JA, a ghut. I don't know where the name came from either.

    Thanks Angela! Coming from you I take that as a special compliment.


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