Polish Captain Wladek Wagner and his wife Mabel — who lived in Trellis Bay in the mid-20th Century — had discussed writing “his” and “her” versions of their life together. So when she wrote her book Lest I Forget after his death, she felt obligated to incorporate extracts from his large collection of personal documents — like logbooks and letters — within her own memories. However, her selection sometimes hinted at facts which she did not consider suitable to include or he may not have shared with her.
For example, she mentions that chartering their sailboat Rubicon to some scientists from the United States Navy was lucrative enough to repay some of their loans, as I recounted in my Jan. 11 commentary “History of Trellis Bay captain continues.” It seems extraordinary that the US Navy had chosen an alien captain and crew on a British yacht to conduct secretive manoeuvres at the height of the Cold War. I hope that the editor of a revised edition will be able to discover more about the project and the sources of the loans he had used to fund his dreams.
In late 1954, Mr. Wagner told his wife that he planned to build them a real home at Conch Shell Point. She was delighted that it would include a schoolroom for their children Suzanne and Michael, but she worried about its additional expense. However, he explained that they already had much of the materials needed, like the rocks left over from the dock for its walls and old steel rods he had acquired in St. Thomas.
They named their new home Tamarind House after a large gnarled tree that would have to be cut down. While clearing the ground, the men uncovered the foundations of an old one-roomed house and defence wall, possibly built by buccaneers. However, Ms. Wagner had also heard that Beef Island was once called Great Manor Island and had served as the seat of government. They found two rusty cannonballs and other bits and pieces, but no real treasure.
Mr. Wagner hired six more men from East End to build the house: two masons; two carpenters (Lawrence Penn, whom he was to commend for his work on the roof, and Hugh Varlack); and two other helpers, including Obel Penn, whose loyalty and hard work the Wagners later singled out for special praise. Mr. Wagner taught the main work crew special building skills like how to construct the wall by cementing smaller stones between the rocks in a stone mosaic.
When he ran out of money, he had to persuade a Mr. Christiansen on St. Thomas to accept even $50 as a deposit for $1,000 worth of roofing material “for the Wagners’ family home.” It seemed ironic that his development of this territory depended on income and financial aid from the US Virgin Islands. The British colonial government were subject to too many restrictions, while the commercial enterprises in the USVI admired his vision and hard work.
The USVI also benefitted from advances in technology introduced from the US. The old boatyard was accidentally destroyed after a skipper radioed the coast guard in St. Thomas for help, while the Wagner family had no way of telling their friends there when their food stocks ran low. CCT Boatphone had not yet been established, and they depended on written notes being carried to Road Town on the Islander ferry.
When Mr. Wagner was away on Rubicon, Ms. Wagner supervised the men planting tufts of Bermuda grass from East End on the bare earth. Hubert Frett planted pineapple slips, while Lawrence Penn and his helpers built wooden furniture. After some good charters, Mr. Wagner brought back some goodies like basket chairs and an English tea service. He was also able to clear all their remaining debts and buy a butane gas stove and refrigerator and gasoline generator from Mr. Christiansen’s store in St. Thomas.
After Mr. Wagner wired electric light to the boatyard and house, they enjoyed iced drinks on the veranda together while viewing Trellis Bay after the children were in bed.
The first boat the team serviced at the new boatyard was the Lystria, whose size and weight presented a challenge, but Mr. Wagner was authorised to work on its electrical system and do any other maintenance required — a very valuable work order.
The captain had viewed Bellamy Cay, a small island in Trellis Bay, as the ideal site on which to build his club house and guest cottages back in 1951, but it turned out to be crown land. His protracted negations with the administrator tasked to buy it were not completed until he bought it for $75 on Feb. 4, 1954. By that time, the administrator had become very interested in his proposals to build on Bellamy Cay and to build an airstrip on Beef Island.
Mr. Wagner became a regular visitor to Road Town afterwards, despite his wife’s earlier confession that the townspeople might have viewed them as unfriendly, as their rush to get back to Trellis Bay from trips to St. Thomas after clearing customs had left them little time to socialise in Road Town.