A reflection of life on Salt Cay “back in the days.” Story & Photos By Michele Belanger-McNair
Few women who were born, raised, married and reared families on Salt Cay remain today. Over the years they have left due to family demands, marriage, economic forces or desire and gone to the United States, Bahamas, Grand Turk or Providenciales to make a new life.
Some folks have stayed, and plan to stay, until they go to their grave on Salt Cay. These ladies and gentlemen are tough, determined, talented and humorous. Their moral code, religious beliefs and strength of family and friends are nearly extinct human arts in our modern world.
One woman who reflects the spirit and history of the women of Salt Cay is Antoinette Olivia Garland Talbot, known as by all as “Nettie.”
Nettie was born on December 22, 1939 in a home that still stands in the South District of Salt Cay. Her parents were Alvin James Garland and Isabella Elizabeth Simmons, of Salt Cay. She was raised with five sisters and two brothers, all but one of whom are still living.
Alvin Garland was a ship’s captain and sailing man. His Morgan Company lighter was the Nettie, and he nicknamed his young daughter after his boat. Nettie’s mother, Elizabeth, was an accomplished musician and taught all of her children to play the organ. (Her brother, Alvin Garland, is the “Music Man” of Providenciales and was known as “Melody”. As a child he made his first guitar out of a shingle and six threads.)
Growing up on Salt Cay
Nettie grew up in the South District of Salt Cay. Though only two+ miles in length, it was a long, hot walk between districts. Nettie spent much of her childhood with her aunt, who lived with Etoil Astwood, who ran a store on the island. Chores before school for Nettie required her to feed the ducks and other fowl, as well as cutting pear bushes to feed the cows each day.
When she went to school her aunt made her wait at the corner of the yard until the teacher arrived and the bell rang. Nettie says, “The old folks then were very strict. You didn’t play with the children at school if the teacher wasn’t there.” Nettie finished school, going through the Sixth Standard. To study further would have required her to go to Grand Turk. But her mother was very particular about her children leaving home at such a young age, and it was not allowed, especially for a 14 year old girl.
In school, Nettie participated in Brownies and Girl Guides. The Salt Cay troop was the first such organized in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Miss Jenny Morgan started the troop when she returned with the idea from a trip to Jamaica. Nettie’s father left the salt company to become a sailing man on Dutch and English ships and was gone for long stretches at a time. This afforded a man of color the opportunity to work outside the salt ponds and lighters, and to make more than the “two shillings six pence” a day offered by the salt companies. As a result, her family was among the more affluent of the 600 residents of Salt Cay in the 1940s and ’50s. In fact, Nettie’s mother had maids to do the daily work. Nettie describes her mother as “a kind and generous woman” who gave away the many things her father brought home from foreign ports. If a family had no tea, her mother gave tea. Whatever she had and whatever was needed, was shared.
It was during this time of her life that she met and, as she thoughtfully states, “fell in love with,” Sherlock Talbot, six years her senior. In 1956, while still living with her family on Salt Cay, Nettie would go to garden parties, one of the Baptist functions at private homes in the South District. Sherlock, known as ‘Rock,’ was one of six Talbot brothers who lived in the North District.
Sherlock then left Salt Cay for four years, sailing Dutch ships between New York and Curacao and stopping in Grand Turk on occasion. He came home in 1960 and Nettie returned to Salt Cay in June of the same year with plans to marry Sherlock. They were married at historic St. John’s Anglican Church.
Sherlock then began the typical cycle of being gone for twelve months and home for three months. This schedule produced seven children in all. It seemed, as Nettie says, “when he came in the door I handed him another baby.” Sherlock was home for the birth of just two of his children.
Many young men like Sherlock left Salt Cay to avoid the salt industry. Working in the salt was extremely hard and boring work. The older men were dying off and the young men did not want that life. As Nettie describes, “Salt work meant having your feet in the water at 6 AM, when the sun came up and working all day until 4 PM. It was hot, hot, hot.”
When the salt industry dried up for good in the early 1960s, Nettie and Sherlock did fine. Nettie says, “We never had it tough.” When the Dutch ships stopped running, Sherlock moved to the American west coast to sail out of Tacoma.
Nettie was a fortunate mother. All of her pregnancies were full term and all of her children lived through childhood. One son, Michael, drowned in his adult years. Another son, Lawrence, was severely electrocuted and suffered the loss of both arms. But these losses have not taken Nettie down. Lawrence has been a source of true inspiration to Nettie and many others, with his tenacity in living through the initial injury and coping with the results.
Raising seven children on Salt Cay, mostly alone, was not easy. After their marriage, the couple moved to the North District and bought the home they still own today. With the growth of the family, the stone and cement home expanded too, in typical salt raker style.
Getting to St. John’s, a mile down the road, for church services and events was not easy with seven children in tow and eventually was too much to handle alone. Making seven children behave during services was no easy task and as Nettie says, “Things were strict then. Your children were expected to behave in church and they went to Sunday School.”
But church was important to Nettie, and it was a great day when her brother-in-law, Oscar Talbot, came home from the Bahamas to start a new church, The Church of The Prophecy, in a little building almost next door to Nettie’s home. Finally she could have church and keep her children in sight and in line. She remains a pastor of the church to this day, preaching regularly and living a consecrated life.
When the church moved down the road to a larger space, Nettie turned its former building into a shop selling Dominican goods to Islanders. Now, ‘Nettie’s Store’ is a primary source of vegetables, eggs, chicken, canned goods, milk, groceries, fruit and Dominican goods on the island. And the bread! Nettie is one of several ladies still baking bread for Salt Cay. She provides Island Thyme Bistro and many tourists with their bread products. More than one person has raced home on their bicycle with warm bread to slather with butter and jam. French toast made with Nettie’s bread is about as good as it gets.
Nettie’s store is often the place where you’ll find many of the women of Salt Cay chatting and visiting. When the Dominican boat arrives, delivering everything from water tanks to pineapples, the shop hums. Islanders line up to get oranges, pears (avocados), pineapples, potatoes, plantains and other fresh food. The ladies then dole out the merchandise and accounts are kept for payment.
You may think this store is quite large. It is not. It is about the size of a large bedroom. Yet it is an island mainstay in the North District. Shopping on Salt Cay is very limited and requires supplies from Grand Turk, which is no small feat in itself. Many of the older folks of Salt Cay can no longer take the boat to Grand Turk to shop and the cost of flying is out of the question. So Nettie’s store is a vital part of everyday life on Salt Cay.
By far the worst hurricane was that of 1945. Though a small child, Nettie clearly recalls riding out the hurricane while hiding with her grandmother and two sisters under the dining table. The house was shaking, but all survived. When Nettie came out she recalls seeing a shop and trees blown down and the island fairly well torn up.
In the year of her marriage, 1960, was another major hurricane. Salt Cay did fine and their little house in the North District survived well. The roof blew off the house next door, but she and Sherlock stayed dry and safe.
In 2004, when Hurricane Frances blew over Salt Cay, she and Sherlock stayed in their home once again, suffering no damage. Many residents who left Salt Cay for Grand Turk regretted having left, going closer to the eye of the storm. No homes were damaged.
Salt Cay social life
Nettie recalls her early social life on Salt Cay with a smile. “Life was good. Salt Cay was ‘saying something’ when it came to social life and music.” Saturday nights were “like Christmas Eve.” The stores, especially the popular ones in the South District, were open and folks went out on donkey carts or foot to shop for Sunday and the week ahead. They traveled from store to store, visiting and shopping.
Salt Cay was well known for its music and bands. There were guitar players, accordion players, shakers, singers and entertainers. Mabel Wilson and her sister Katherine would sing, do ‘charades’ and dress up to entertain the folks of the Island.
There were boat races and cricket matches. Cricket was very important on Salt Cay, with matches against Grand Turk and Jamaica. The holidays meant cricket and mixers, practice and matches. Dancing was a very big part of Salt Cay’s social life as well. Everyone could ballroom dance, doing the Heel Toe Polka, Swing and other classic dances, with contests regularly held. The “old time people,” as Nettie calls them, could dance everything and taught the younger people to dance. Government officer Christopher ‘Christie’Jennings loved to dance and always chose Nettie to be his partner. She still blushes at the memory.
Each year the Police Jazz Band comes to Salt Cay in December to play a Christmas concert. As Nettie says, “the boys in the band loved the movement” when they performed on Salt Cay. The concert is a regular event now, not to be missed. Imagine Christmas carols to a Caribbean beat with Islanders, ex-pats and tourists swinging, rocking, and moving to the music. The children learn to dance with the older ladies who cannot sit still and dance with each other as well.
This Christmas was quite different for Nettie. Sherlock passed away in July, 2005, so now the big house is quiet. But Christmas on Salt Cay means children and grandchildren visiting, baking and cooking for the family again. Nettie has chosen to stay on Salt Cay, in her home, surrounded by the friends and family with whom she has spent her life.
Diane Russell, the new owner of Mt. Pleasant Guest House, learned early on about Nettie Talbot’s strength. She related how Nettie rode the ferry home with her after months off island while Sherlock was ill. She had boxes of groceries to restock her shelves. That evening, she set about restocking and getting her store organized. The next day she returned to Grand Turk to bury her beloved husband, then returned to Salt Cay to reopen the store and move on with her life.
Nettie Talbot truly reflects the Salt Cay woman. Look for more stories of other men and women of Salt Cay, a breed of Turks Islander that is truly “one of a kind.”