Aug. 6, 2006 – The French Heritage Museum crept up on its second anniversary this summer with no fanfare, but with a deep satisfaction by those that maintain it that it is fulfilling its purpose – to provide an authentic glimpse into the French community's rich history.
The stone building housing the museum also has a rich history. For years the building sat bereft, until a group of Frenchtown citizens – the Frenchtown Civic Organization – worked determinedly to obtain a lease on the building to bring a museum to the community.
After more than four years of effort by the FTCO, the Senate approved a $1-a-year lease agreement with the government in January 2002. After another two years of intensive renovation, the building's mahogany cathedral doors were thrown open to the public with much fanfare in a Bastille week celebration in late in June 2004.
The building was originally constructed as a fire station in 1944, but there was a serious problem: "The fire truck wouldn't fit through the doors," Henry Richardson, FTCO president, says, so the station was abandoned."
Richardson grew up right around the corner from the building and has witnessed its various metamorphoses – from abandoned fire station to kindergarten to meeting hall to health center. For years it was the Olive-Bernier Clinic — until its roof was destroyed by Hurricane Marilyn in 1995.
The building is literally stuffed with artifacts that rekindle fond memories in the French community and inform others of a fascinating local culture.
Upon entering the small structure, you are greeted by a manikin dressed in an old French-style dress donated by Henry Louis, the deputy mayor of St. Barts. Just beyond the French faux lady is an enormous mahogany four-poster bed on loan from Ellen Murraine Boschulte. The little room is packed with treasures. Every inch of the room is utilized. From the ceiling hang fish pots filled with colorful fish replicas and a mold of sprat and fry nets. There is a display of "gooses," or old irons, sewing machines, an old-fashioned toaster, a multitude of photographs, and hats, hats, hats. Plaiting the straw hats, purses, and baskets was once part and parcel of the lives of French women, wives of the fishermen. In fact, it is not a lost art; Elizabeth "Lille" Ebon can be seen most any day on Frenchtown streets, her hands busy weaving as she chats with neighbors.
Occupying places of special honor were the musical instruments of two of Frenchtown's late and well-loved musicians – the accordion of Gustave Quetel and the tambourine of Sebastian Greaux, which he made himself, which both used to play in a pick-up scratch band at the late Bar Normandie.
Family portraits fill the walls – Magrases, Danets, Greaux's and Olives, to name a few – filled with ancestors going way back. Some of the portraits are fading; most of them look solemnly at their audiences. From the looks of it, the French took picture-taking very seriously.
And there is a moving picture. It's a 1938 five-minute newsreel clip from Universal Studios, and it's a great hit with the public, unintentionally quite funny and totally politically incorrect in its descriptions of the local French people, referring to them as "funny, little people." It highlights a fashion show on what looks like the old Grand Hotel steps with the glamour girls of the day, none of whom are West Indian, and all of them self-conscious and gaudily made up. The museum sells copies of the tape for $20.
Richardson says the museum is supported by FTCO fund-raising activities, in addition to what is collected in the donation "box," a brightly decorated mailbox in the building's tiny lobby.
The museum has one permanent employee, curator Beatrice Selkridge, on loan from the Department of Human Services, which pays her salary. She works five hours a day, five days a week. Volunteers and students supplement Selkridge's hours. The museum is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Selkridge, who is retired from a 30-year sales career downtown, clearly takes enjoyment in her new post. "I'm learning what a curator has to know," she says. "Mostly, visitors who aren't French want to know how the French got here and how the communities started. I explain the travels from France to St. Martin and to St. Barts and St. Thomas." Selkridge has an intimate knowledge of her immediate surroundings. "I grew up here in Frenchtown," she says. With a glance at the paved street outside, she says, "I remember when this was a dirt road. We didn't have cars then; we had horses buggies. Only the rich people had cars."
Richardson chips in, "There was an old man, Peter Carty I think was his name, anyhow he lived around the corner and up the road. He had a cart and a donkey and he would haul provisions, whatever we needed." And, with a laugh, Richardson seconds what Selkridge said: "Oh no, no cars for us – just for the rich people." That was in 1958, he says.
Richardson, one of 10 sons, grew up just around the corner. His mother, Josephine, just celebrated her 94th birthday with all her sons, five of whom live here and five from the states.
Snuggled in a corner under a handmade replica of St. Anne's Chapel sits something new – a French library – which was cause for a small celebration last week. The Friends of French Culture and the local L'Alliance Francaise officially inaugurated the petite "library" at a Friends gathering at the museum. The library is actually a large bookcase filled with French volumes, literature, history and fiction. And they are free for taking, after filling out a regular library receipt.
Martine Nicolosi, of the alliance, says the library, though small, provides a venue for students and for the French-speaking community, where they can check out volumes not available in the schools. "We have had some UVI students who were surprised to find this. And we have newspapers and magazines, as well."
Honorary French consul Odile de Lyrot, and head of the Friends of French Culture, expressed her enthusiasm, thanking Richardson for supplying the space. "It's a wonderful opportunity to read actual French," she says.
Something else new is in the works, but Richardson says it is still in negotiations, so he doesn't want to elaborate right now. However, he says the museum is set to inherit a small French wooden house, now located by St. Anne's Chapel. "We can put it next to this building and show people what the homes actually looked like. And, we can put the four-poster in it, too." The bed now takes up a large amount of museum's limited space.
Groups of all sorts visit the museum, from school children to senior citizens. The St. Thomas Historical Trust holds quarterly tours around Frenchtown which start at the museum, with a look around, and a viewing of the inimitable Universal film.
"Of all the groups," Richardson says, "I like senior citizens best. They really relate to so many of the things they see because they've used them, the irons, the old toasters, the washboards."
Though the community has been generous in donating items – there are even some in storage now – Richardson says his main joy in the museum is not tangible. "The biggest thing to me," he says, "is seeing people recognize their families. People come back from the states for birthdays, anniversaries, and they come and they look at a picture and they recognize somebody, a relative.
Richardson continues: "There's an old guy we used to call "Mr. T., Theodore Olive. He would come down to live here every year from October to May, sitting with Deacon Olive on his front porch. His family was here, and they looked up at a picture of the St. Anne's Chapel boys' choir, and saw Olive there, as a boy. They were so excited."
"For people to be able to look at their heritage, to be able to provide that
connection, makes me feel such satisfaction," Richardson muses. "It makes it all worthwhile.
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