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Garden of Miracles, History of Despair

An article from The St. Croix Avis, by M.A. Dworkin September 5, 2023

6th in a series on the Beauty of St. Croix

The moment you step foot inside the environs of the St. George Village Botanical Garden you feel as if you have entered a magical corner of heaven. Your mind whisks you away to a place that is so overflowing with natural beauty, so blanketed with peace and tranquility, that you instinctively feel, deep down inside, that if you were trapped here for all of eternity it wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.

And yet Estate St. George did not always bring to mind such fanciful thoughts. Its past was troubled, spotted with indifferent, absentee owners, none of whom appeared to think much about its raw natural splendor or the potential of eventually fleshing out its God-given beauty. Commerce ruled the plantation of St. George. Sugar cane and the commerce of sugar cane stamped its ugly mark on beautiful St. George.

Encampments of slave quarters were spread out over St. George. The call of the day during the 1800’s was that of profit, how much could be made out of each acreage of land. It would seem in those days, only a fool might look at a beautiful mahogany tree, a wild growing orchid, a field of sunflowers, and think it might in any way be a cause for enlightenment of the spirit, enhancement of one’s sense of esthetics, a quest for a better quality of life. Only a fool might envision a paradise of plants and trees and flowers.

The Oxholm family controlled St. George during the early part of the 1800’s, via ownership and rental of the property, partly through a sweetheart deal that involved the Danish King and the Governor of the islands Peter von Scholten. In 1852, Frederik von Oxholm wound up purchasing St. George along with Sally’s Fancy and the adjoining Hope, Mint, Mountain and Waldberggaard plantations for $74,650.00. During the Oxholm family’s long proprietorship they made a number of major improvements by increasing the operational size of the holding from 300 acres to 750 acres. The Oxholm brothers, Waldemar and Frederik, also sought to increase productivity through technological innovations, and built a water mill for crushing the cane, together with a reservoir and aqueduct. They also added a steam engine and made improvements to the sugar factory. To further their commercial desires on St. George, between 1827 and 1836, they built 33 stone cottages and 4 stone row houses to accommodate a slave labor force that their father had increased from 65 to 187 between 1822 and 1824. None of the Oxholms lived at St. George, they relied on resident managers to administer the plantation on their behalf.

Despite all the Oxholm’s efforts and improvements, it would almost seem that under their ownership, St. George was cursed. The value of the property depreciated dramatically during their ownership. In 1863 Henry C. Ratcliffe and George Walker purchased St. George for just $33,483.04, amounting to less than half of what the Oxholms paid for it. Yet, once again, disaster struck. In 1867 an earthquake damaged most of the St. George buildings and destroyed the original steam mill chimney. The two men were forced to rebuild many structures including the sugar factory, the manager’s house and many of the slave’s quarters. These unexpected expenses, coupled with several years of drought caught up to them and the property of St. George was thrown into foreclosure.

In 1873, an Irish planter, Alexander Fleming, with several plantation holdings on St. Croix acquired the St. George plantation complex at public auction. Being a planter, he proved to be a better steward for the land and retained ownership until 1897 when he sold St. George to his nephew and son-in-law George Latimer, who had been resident manager for several years.

Latimer retained title until 1921, when he sold the property to the West India Sugar Company. In 1931, when the West India Sugar Factory went bankrupt, Latimer reclaimed St. George. In 1940, he sold the estate to his relative John Albert Fleming Sr for $20,000.00

Although it could not have been known at the time, the seeds of St. George Village Botanical Garden had been planted in the rich soil of Estate St. George. In 1948 Fleming deeded Hope, Mint, Mountain and Waldbarggaard to his son John Jr. He retained the title to St. George and Sally’s Fancy, which he sold to an investment group in 1951. In 1963 the property was acquired by Lakeland Manufacturing, Inc, which began parceling out the land, a process that eventually led to the establishment of St. George Village Botanical Garden (SGVBG) in 1973.

By the early 1970’s much of the land had fallen into disuse, dense tropical vegetation began to reclaim much of the property and buildings. In the mid 1970’s the Moon and deChabert families donated the land to the St. Croix Garden Club to establish the St. George Botanical Garden.

An account of the early days was brought forth by P.Z.G Hilder in April 1980:

“Colorful characters build unique Caribbean Garden, the St. George Village Botanical Garden,..Dreamed up as a Garden Club project in 1971, dirty jeaned members, men, women and children, cleaned out 16 acres of a hundred loads of trash from toothpaste tubes to old auto parts; even a bus, that is now buried under the parking lot that was the ruins of a 19th century sugar cane workers’ village, with sugar factory, blacksmith shop, bull pen, bakery, even a cemetery, is now a blooming tropical garden. Thanks to physical work, talents and expertise drawn from previous careers all over the globe, a miracle took place.”

Hilder went on: “Gifts of plants have come from local and distant areas. Birds of Paradise plants from Los Angeles, a Nile Date Palm was brought as a seed from the University of Cairo, Egypt in 1974. The largest seed known, a 35 pound “coco de mer” from the Seychelles Isles is mounted as a sculpture in the library when it failed to sprout on St. Croix after a 7 year try…A curved entrance drive is handsome with 50 Royal Palms raised from seedlings by a member.”

Miracles apparently do happen once in a while. Slave plantations can be transformed into beautiful gardens, heavenly places that sit beside the great wonders of the world. All it takes is a group of dedicated people willing to devote their time and energy and love for the land they call home.

Estate St. George Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.The listing included eight contributing buildings, nine contributing sites, and seven contributing structures.

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