Archive for May, 2011

The Strawcraft of the People of French Heritage (Pt. 1)

Just recently, I read a passage which claims that the ladies of the Carenage were self-taught in the art of strawcraft. This statement is not true It is most likely the personal opinion of the writer.

On Saint-Barthelemy, since the early days of settlement, the ladies practiced the art of braiding straw and sewing the braid into hats.

The straw used was from the red Latania palm. At that time, only hats were made from the straw on Saint-Barthelemy. When the migrant French came to St. Thomas, they also practiced using the straw to weave braids which they sewed into hats.

Back on Saint-Barthelemy, in 1902, the Rev. Father Morvan introduced the Blue Latania palm which he imported from other islands. It is not certain which islands.

Father Morvan encouraged the ladies to start using the Blue Latania, which is more substantial than the Red Latania. And so the new straw was put into use for braiding and sewing into hats.

According to information on the Internet, the Blue Latania palms  are native to Mauritius. The Blue Latania can achieve heights of 40 feet.

Preparing the straw for weaving: First, the “head” or frond was severed from the tree before it opens. When workers in straw received the head of straw, they separated the leaves each from  the  other, while still on the frond. Then the whole head of straw was hung on a line, in the sun, to bleach until white.

Enterprising French immigrants to St. Thomas, brought seedlings and planted them on the Northside, where there are acres of land available for farming.

While the seedlings grew, the residents continued to import the Latania straw from Saint-Barthelemy and continued making hats for themselves and for sale to the tourists.

During the last four years of Navy Rule in the new territory of the Virgin Islands of the United States, from 1927 t0 March, 1931, the wife of the second in command, on St. Thomas, Lieutenant Commander,  Elsworth Van Patten, USN, took a special interest in the French ladies of the Carenage. (The village was not known as Frenchtown until years later). Mrs. Evelyn Hartford Van Patten was fascinated by the weaving of straw into hats. She wanted to learn more and to encourage the ladies to create new forms straw work.

Mrs. Van Patten organized the younger ladies into a sort of social club, which she named, “The French Colony Girls’ Club”. She induced her husband to ask the Navy to build  a club house so there would be a special place for meetings and activities. The ladies even wore a special uniform for their meetings.

When the club house was ready, Mrs. Van Patten furnished it with tables, chairs and benches. She provided books for the adult ladies and for their children. She provided a tea set of fine china so the ladies could have tea parties in the afternoons. This club was almost like a finishing school for the ladies of the Carenage.

Mrs. Van Patten even furnished a Victrola record player and records.  She taught new dance steps to the ladies. Besides the hats, Mrs. Van Patten ecouraged the ladies to sew the braids into bags of many shapes. She taught them to make a bag in which to carry a thermos bottle. This bag had a cover, which together with the bottom part, covered the whole thermos bottle.

Other bags evolved into many shapes and forms. Mrs. Van Patten taught the ladies to weave the straw into place mats and into ladies’ hand bags and clutches. These went over big with the tourists.

It is amazing how Mrs. Evelyn Hartford Van Patten helped transform the straw craft of the French ladies of the Carenage.

Mrs. Van Patten had been in Hawaii before coming to St. Thomas. She had bought some Hawaiian Hula skirts Now she brought one to the clubhouse and encouraged the ladies of the French Colony Girls’ Club” to fashion a hula skirt out of the Latania straw. The result was an immediate success with the tourists, the Virgin Islands Cooperative and years later, with Carnival troupes in the 1950’s.

Anne-Marie Danet

(To be continued in part two)

The Strawcraft of the people of French heritage (Pt. 2)

As I wrote in the first article, the art has been practiced on Saint-Barthelemy for the last couple centuries.

When the French migrants came to St. Thomas, they brought the knowledge of the art with them. The parents had taught the children, who in turn taught their children. The women of the Carenage did not self-teach themselves. They had brought the art with them, when they came to St. Thomas.

It took years for the Latania seedlings planted on the North side to grow to maturity. Meanwhile, the latania straw was imported from Saint-Barthelemy, by the boatload.

In order to brighten the strawwork, some of the leaves were dyed in various colors. The dye was imported from Saint-Barthelemy, by Mrs. Amalia Duzant. She brought it in bulk and sold it to the workers, in small quantities.

Mrs. Duzant was terrified of travelling in the small sailing vessels but she did it because that was part of her livlihood.

Going back to the social aspect of the “French Colony Girls’ Club”, on days when the ladies met, they worked at their craft, learned new uses and methods for several hours and then they relaxed drinking tea or cocoa and
eating home-baked scones.

At Christmastime, parties were organized by Mrs. Van Patten. But first, let us tell of this lady’s caring for the education of the French children.

Mrs. Van Patten filled the shelves of the clubhouse with books. I remember “Black Beauty”; “The Glass Mountain”; and East of the Sun and West of the Moon” Of course there was Pinocchio, Cinderella, Snowwhite and the Seven Dwarfs, The Brave Little Taylor and others.

There were also the books of poetry, which we learned to read with feeling. The book my mother loved best was “Evangeline” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The entire story was written in poetry.

My very first book, was gifted to me by Mrs. Van Petten. It was called, “A Child’s Garden of Verses.” I have treasured that little book, all the days of my life.

Following is a list of some of the original members of
“The French Colony Girls’ Club”:
Florina Magras Olive; Mercelita Bernier; Marie Helene Bernier Danet; Marie Inger Quetel; Francelia and Margaret Greaux; Annicia Cerge Quetel, Pauline, nee Greaux; Margaret Duzant; Anne Sylvanie Simeon; Anne-Rose Bernier Greaux, AKA “Pauline”; Marie Lucina Aubin; Marie Elisabeth Danet AKA Emilienne; Josephine Danet AKA Urise and several others.

Christmastime with the Van Pattens was like a world of wonder to a little French girl. The Van Pattens lived at Villa Olga in a beautiful white cottage, surrounded by flowers and fruit trees.

The entrance to Villa Olga was an arched gate. Each year at Christmas the arch was festooned with holly and lights. All along the path to the home of the Van Pattens, both sides were strung with lights and holly. Lights were hung on date palms and other fruit trees, creating a world of
fantasy.

Each year a huge Christmas tree was imported from Mainland, USA. This tree was brightly decorated with all sorts of ornaments, tinsel, candy canes, and small toys. To me, as a child, it was a fairy world.

When the Navy was leaving St. Thomas, the clubhouse was donated to the Catholic Chapel of St. Anne. The building was not moved immediately and the Virgin Islands Cooperative was allowed to use it as a station where the ladies of the Carenage could deliver their strawwork and get paid.

Miss Aimee Estornel was in charge of the station and the people of the Village loved her. She became Godmother to many a child born in the Carenage, including one of my brothers.

When the new owners of the land demanded that the building be removed, it was relocated on church property, next to St. Anne’s Chapel.

Anne-Marie Danet