Caribbean mansion preserves 250-year-old way of life

The Estate Whim Museum on the Virgin Islands includes the plantation house, slave quarters and the remains of a sugar cane factory.

  • Sep. 3, 2012 11:00 a.m.
The 12-acre Estate Whim Museum on St. Croix offers a look at what life was like 250 years ago on sugar-cane plantations that dominated the island. The restored Great House was built about 1760 and was rebuilt several times. It is 95 feet long and 35 feet wide with 16-foot ceilings. Its walls are 30 inches thick.

The 12-acre Estate Whim Museum on St. Croix offers a look at what life was like 250 years ago on sugar-cane plantations that dominated the island. The restored Great House was built about 1760 and was rebuilt several times. It is 95 feet long and 35 feet wide with 16-foot ceilings. Its walls are 30 inches thick.

Bob Downing


FREDERIKSTED, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands—The Estate Whim Museum provides a look at what life was like 250 years ago on a sugar-cane island.

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.

In addition to the factory, there was a boiling house, curing houses for drying sugar and draining off molasses, warehouses and a distillery for turning molasses into rum.

Cane juice flowed from the wind mill to the boiling house, where it was reduced to a moist brown sugar called muscovado. That work was directed by a slave known as the boiling master.

On a wall stood a receiving vat and battery of smaller cauldrons called coppers over furnaces fueled by bagasse, or dried crushed cane stalks. On the opposite wall were shallow cooling pans. After skimming off impurities and adding lime, workers ladled the juice from copper to copper, stirring and skimming.

At the last and hottest copper, the rapidly thickening liquid was carefully watched. If the boiling master could produce a sugary thread between his fingers, the cooking was done. Workers then turned the moist crystals into wooden pans to cool. This sugar was packed in 1,600-pound barrels, put on racks and the molasses was drained off.

After a few weeks, when the sugar was dry, the barrels were topped off with fresh sugar, sealed and loaded on oxcarts for transport to the wharf.

Molasses was a lucrative by-product; rum was made by fermenting water and molasses with skimmings, oranges and herbs.

In 1932, Whim was purchased by the U.S. government. It had purchased the Virgin Islands in 1917 from Denmark.

It became a federal Homestead site and the land was resold to residents who promised to raise sugar cane for the central factory. That effort failed.

In 1954, Whim was deeded to the St. Croix Landmarks Society for preservation. It was in bad shape but restoration efforts got under way.

Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for senior citizens and $4 for children 7 to 12. Hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, extended when cruise ships are in port.

For information, contact the St. Croix Landmarks Society at 52 Estate Whim, Frederiksted, Virgin Islands, 00840, 340-772-0598,

Not far from Whim is the 16-acre St. George Village Botanical Garden, built around the ruins of another old plantation: the Estate St. George. It, too, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Estate St. George at its peak had more than 150 slaves. The slave quarters have been recycled into the Great Hall, a meeting place.

The Water Mill was built around 1830 and destroyed in an 1867 earthquake. Surviving are the blacksmith shop, the village bakery, lime kilns, water flumes and the ruins of the sugar cane factory. Today the grounds are dominated by more than 1,500 species of native and exotic plants.

Attractions include a tropical rain forest, orchids, cactus gardens, palms, fruit trees and medicinal plants.

Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for senior citizens and $1 for children under 12. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

For information, contact St. George Village Botanical Garden, 127 Estate St. George, Frederiksted, Virgin Islands 00840, 340-692-2874,

St. Croix is the largest and least-developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands. It covers 84 square miles and has about 51,500 residents. The western part of the island is rain forest; the eastern end is rocky and arid.

It often is overlooked next to its more famous sister islands, St. Thomas and St. John. They are about 40 miles to the north.

St. Croix is celebrated for its laid-back attitude, diving, beaches like Sandy Point on the island’s southwest corner and funky beach bars. It’s hard not to like a place where the average high temperature is 82 degrees and the water temperature is 80 degrees.

In 1493, Christopher Columbus landed at Salt River, now a national historic site on the north coast. He was greeted by spears and arrows from the native Caribs.

Colorful Christiansted on the north coast is the largest city on St. Croix. It features a historic district on the waterfront with more than 100 brightly painted buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries. It is one of the best-preserved towns in the Caribbean. An old fortress, Fort Christiansvaern, was completed by the Danes in 1749 to protect the island from pirates, privateers and slave uprisings.

Buck Island Reef National Monument off the north coast is one of the premier diving-snorkeling spots in the Caribbean and the No. 1 tourist attraction on St. Croix.

It covers more than 19,000 acres, mostly below water, and preserves one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean. It features imposing walls and gardens of coral, concentrations of red, purple and blue sea fans, spectacular elkhorn and brain corals and colorful fish. It is five miles from Christiansted and 1.5 miles offshore.

For St. Croix tourist information, contact P.O. Box 6400, St. Thomas, VI 00804, 800-372-USVI,

Bob Downing is a

reporter with the Akron Beacon Journal.

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