Virgin Islands mansion preserves 250-year-old way of life
The stone windmill at Estate Whim on St. Croix was built between 1768 and 1779. Initially, animals including horses, oxen and mules were used to crush juice from sugar cane. Slaves fed sugar cane between three wind-powered rollers and the juice drained down a sluice to a nearby factory for processing. (Bob Downing, Akron Beacon Journal, MCT / January 30, 2012)
It includes the plantation house, slave quarters, outlying buildings, a towering windmill and the remains of a factory where sugar cane was processed.
The restored Great House was built about 1760 and rebuilt several times. Its oval shape came about in 1793. It is 95 feet long and 35 feet wide with 16-foot ceilings, and sits next to tamarind trees.
It contains three large rooms, an office gallery and a wing that was originally a separate kitchen. It is flanked by numerous outbuildings. The walls are 30 inches thick, made of cut brain coral, limestone and rubble, bonded by a mortar containing molasses.
The tall windows and doors that ring the house provide cross-ventilation, and the windows could be shuttered during hurricanes. The ground floor of the Great House consists of a dry moat that rings the cellars and was used to cool the building.
No original furniture survives, but it is filled with period items from the Caribbean.
It sits on 12 acres that remain of a once-thriving estate. Whim was occupied by 12 owner families from 1743 to 1932.
It is the oldest sugar plantation museum in the Virgin Islands, typical of the agricultural plantations laid out in the 1730s by the Danish West India and Guinea Company.
Whim is listed on the prestigious National Register of Historic Places and the U.N.'s Slave Route Sites of Remembrance. It is one of more than 50 sites on St. Croix where plantation remains may be found.
The plantation on the southwest corner of the island was surveyed in 1733-35 when it came under Danish rule. St. Croix was one of the richest sugar islands in the West Indies from 1760 to 1820, when production was high and sugar prices were stable.
In 1803, St. Croix's population was 30,000, of whom 26,500 were slaves who planted, harvested and processed cane on 218 island plantations. More than 100 windmills and almost as many animal mills ran day and night in season, converting sugar into wealth.
Most plantations were small communities of up to 300 acres, with sugar cane growing on two-thirds of the land. They were not self-sufficient; food, clothing and equipment had to be imported.
At first, Whim grew cotton, according to records from 1743. In 1754, sugar was introduced and that was grown until the 1920s.
Sugar cane is an Asian grass that was imported to the Caribbean by the Spanish as early as Columbus' second trip in 1493. It was a labor-intensive operation and the Danish brought in slaves to work the plantations.
The local economy boomed from 1760 to 1820. The golden age of sugar cane declined with the appearance of beet sugar in the United States and Europe. Slavery was abolished on St. Croix in 1848.
At first, animals, including horses, oxen and mules, were used to crush juice from sugar cane. A rebuilt horse-powered replica stands on the grounds of the Estate Whim.
The plantation also features an imposing stone windmill built between 1768 and 1779. Men lifted and moved a long pole to make the dome turn and move the sails to catch the wind. Slaves fed sugar cane between three rollers, and the juice drained down a sluice to the adjoining factory.
Foundations are all that remain of a large T-shaped, two-story structure that was built about 1797. Nearby is a lone chimney that dates to 1908.
The first steam engine was installed at Estate Whim in 1865. That increased production by 15 percent and made it possible to handle 20 to 30 tons of sugar cane in 12 hours.