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St. Croix Landmarks Society | Lawaetz Family | Research | Preserving the History and Culture of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands

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Lawaetz Family

Lawaetz Family Museum Estate Little La Grange
St. Croix Virgin Islands

 

from "Preserving the Legacy" by Priscilla Watkins 1998 Priscilla Watkins on behalf of St. Croix Landmarks Society

 

The establishment of the Lawaetz clan in the Danish West Indies is a romantic tale, a mixture of dreams, optimism and vision. That St. Croix was even considered by a 26 year old cattle farmer from Denmark is surprising. The Crucian cane sugar industry was dying due to lack of laborers, high costs, horrible weather and not least, depletion of the land. At the time he immigrated, Carl Lawaetz was a highly disciplined, religious young man with almost 11 years of apprenticeship in farm management; Denmark was thriving and was the leading exporter of farm products in the world. The problem with Denmark was a lack of land and opportunity, for the population had grown as quickly as its expertise following the Napoleonic Wars. Carl left to secure a future for himself, as so many other young Danes did at that time, but instead of America, he took his cousin's advice and gambled on coming to St. Croix.

His first job was as assistant overseer at the sugar cane estates at Sion Farm and Peter's Rest, earning about $13 a month. By Christmas of that first year, 1891, he was promoted to head overseer at $16 month. Enough of a raise for him to buy his first "very own nice bed." Carl's real love was cattle, and when cattleman Nelthropp of Granard died, he agreed to work for Nelthropp's widow as manager of Granard and Cane Garden, with a fee of $25 a month, starting in January, 1894. Closer to town now, and to conserve funds for the eventual purchase of his own farm, Carl gratefully took his meals with his cousin Herman, pastor of the Lutheran Church in Christiansted. Herman and his wife Ingeborg provided what little social life Carl allowed himself during those years. Carl spent much of his free time looking at estates likely to be put up for auction. The second half of the 19th century was financially hard on most owners, and lands which had absentee owners changed hands with much regularity. Because of his active interest in buying a good estate, Carl was finally offered a two-estate purchase, sight unseen, on April 7, 1896; he took it. The mortgage was affordable, $12,000 for 450 acres, $2,000 down, and $1,000 annually thereafter, and his confidence was high. Carl also trusted the seller, but in fact, Little La Grange and Jolly Hill were not in good condition at all. He stated in his children's baby books, "I moved down from Granard on April 9th and on April 11, 1896, took over full operation of Little La Grange." At the age of 31, Carl was finally his own boss.

Little La Grange had ten different recorded owners before Carl, all of whom grew sugar cane. The first, Jakob Fibiger in 1776, lasted just ten years. The longest to hold it were the fourth and fifth owners: first Mesdames Hester Stevens and Elizabeth Yard from 1803 through 1833, then Major Adam Logan and several partners until 1866. The ladies saw both the peak of King Cane and its decline through adversity. Logan was there through Emancipation, earthquakes and droughts. After his death, it moved through the hands of Major William Moore, 1866-79; John Russel 1880-84; and then to H. MacDonald between 1884-1895, who lost it at auction to J. P. Jorgensen of St. Thomas. Jorgensen kept MacDonald on to farm his purchase, but it was unsuccessful. When Carl bought the estates, all of the roofs were a shambles, the overseer's house not rented, and the new government experiment with pineapples was a failure. Furthermore, a world wide depression in effect between 1893 and 1897 kept markets depressed in sugar cane and its products.

By the end of 1898, tax records on Carl's properties showed the effect of good management and frugal living. He had invested in Senegal cattle from St. Thomas. The greathouse at Jolly Hill with its five horse stables was repaired and rented; he was selling milk, grasses and wood to town, and had income from the sale of fruits, pigs and cane. All of the village houses had new roofs, windows and doors; their walls and floors were repaired. Because of that work, 18 village units were rented and the overseer's three apartments were as well.

Carl was ready for a wife and looking when, 8 months later, on August 8, 1899, a terrible hurricane ripped through the island and tore away the last two roofs scheduled to be replaced: that of his own house and that of the sugar factory. He was over his limit for borrowing and suffered hard times to get galvanized sheeting for his home. The factory roof was never rebuilt, he hauled his cane to Sprat Hall instead. But he had recovered by the end of 1899, and the estates were valued at $16,000, although he wrote he would take no less than $24,000 for them, double his purchase price just four years before.

Carl found the wife he was looking for on his first visit home in 1901-02: an artist and teacher, Marie Nyeborg was eight years younger than he. Their families were close: Carl's eldest sister had been the second wife of Marie's father. They became engaged in Copenhagen on January 17, 1902. Marie and Carl were married in Christiansted by Carl's cousin, Pastor Herman Lawaetz, on September 30, 1902. The clan on St. Croix was begun.

Between 1904 and 1917, Marie gave birth to seven Danish children, all in Carl's "very own nice bed." Carl began to keep intensive cattle breeding records in 1901, and had one of the most productive milk herds on the island. He began buying a few Red Pol mixed with Senegal from the Nelthropps, a more docile and drought resistant breed. Through good times and bad, the five children who survived childhood began raising gardens and livestock as soon as they could toddle. All of the children could ride, and each took care of their own donkeys. The family were very active in their church and its social events, and Carl served as a member of the Colonial Council as well. Marie's young sister lived with them, and Carl's brother was a pharmacist in Frederiksted for many years. The children in the village and in the overseer's apartments played with the Lawaetz children all the usual games of childhood: cricket, tag, foot and donkey races and of course, cart races with goats in the traces. Marie always managed to find enough sandwiches and punch to cool them off at the end of the day's play no matter how the economy behaved. And Christmas was as much a church event as was the roast bull party for all of the estate.

In 1922, the three eldest were sent for further education to Denmark. Anna went to study nursing, Else, household management. Frits, then 14, was sent to Stenhus Academy in Denmark for higher education (St. Croix classes ended at 8th grade), and then apprenticeship training. Two years later, Kai followed and then Erik, in 1928. Marie's household emptied quickly.

Frits had a love of cattle and farming from infancy; he would return to the islands, working first in Puerto Rico before returning to St. Croix. He signed on as manager of Annaly Farms in 1940, and perfected the breeding characteristics of the Senegal-Red Pol mix into Senepol cattle for Ward Canaday at Annaly before buying the operation out in 1973. Kai studied horticulture and planned to work in the United States, but he returned temporarily to Little La Grange. Erik, trained in the merchant marine service, eventually returned to pioneer the conversion of estates into home sites and build his hotel called St. Croix By the Sea. Anna completed her education, and came back to St. Croix, but a bad time with malaria left her unable to handle the intensity of hospital nursing. Eventually she moved to the United States and into child care. Else stayed in Copenhagen.

By the late 1930's, three main factors were killing the small farmers: increased wages due to American labor laws; mechanization in farms meant they no longer sold steers to Puerto Rico for plowing; and the availability and popularity of canned milk. The family was forced to consider more drastic measures. A hundred acres of land were sold, for a mere $5,000. Kai had been delayed in moving to Florida to work in horticulture there, but as Carl was feeling his age, Kai finally cleared land belonging to his parents and began raising vegetables for the local market. To make ends meet, most of the cattle were slowly sold off. As she had done in earlier years, Marie again hand painted cards, made doorstops, dolls and cushions and carved calabash into an assortment of holders for extra cash. Carl became ill with cancer during the second world war, and died on May 20, 1945, at the age of 80. Anna returned to the island shortly before his death. The family farm was kept going, this time under Kai, growing fruits and vegetables.

Kai was married in 1956 to Irene Magras, a lady of horticultural interests from St. Barths, and within months they began a successful secondary career in hybrid hibiscus at Little La Grange. Their work was more a labor of love than of profit, although many superior crosses were bred at the farm. Their daughter Susie was the second Lawaetz generation born at Little La Grange, in May, 1957. At the end of 1964, Marie died at the age of 91 and was buried beside her husband in the garden. In her will, she left individual parcels of land to each of her children, but the house was left in joint ownership. This arrangement worked for a time as Kai and Irene took care of ailing Anna.

When supermarkets came to the islands in the 1960's, it meant some drastic changes. Unable to compete in price, Kai switched to ornamentals, and in 1972 added extensive gardens of herbs to satisfy the needs of the down islanders who had moved to St. Croix. By the 1980's, Kai and his wife Irene wanted to slow down, the estate was planted mainly in fruit trees. Then one large hurricane in 1989 did what many smaller ones had not: devastated the land and ripped off the roof Carl had put on himself in 1898.

Irene and Kai moved into the little cottage for the next years. Luckily insurance covered the repairs to the farm house. However, as Kai tried to get his financial house in order, settling the family ownership status with multiple heirs in the second generation was necessary. The Cousins met over Christmas in 1989, and soon after Else and her son came in from Denmark to confer with her siblings over the division of property. After many discussions, the two sisters settled for property, and the three brothers took over the farm house. As Irene and Kai determined to build their own house next to the mill, Anna was installed in the farm house with Irene primary caretaker and the others taking turns.

Else died in Denmark in July, 1993, followed by Anna that October. With an empty house and much interest from Danish visitors in seeing it, the brothers Kai and Erik voted to convert it into a memorial to their parents, in recognition of one hundred years tenure on their land. In 1996, the Lawaetz family signed a management agreement with the St. Croix Landmarks Society to operate the house and surrounding land as a farmstead museum. Visitors see the house just as it was under the fine management of Carl and his son Kai, with the now antique furnishings lovingly cared for first by Marie, then Irene: a wonderful legacy that was begun with a dream.




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