Just a short drive down a precarious road to a location where the sea meets dense undergrowth, there are dusty historical relics enveloped in lush vegetation, hidden to the naked eye but containing secrets that hark back to the 17th century.
St. Thomas’ Neltjeberg Estate contains within its grounds ruins that were once a thriving sugar plantation complete with a factory, animal mill, stable, cemetery and slave quarters. Fruit trees dot the expansive hillside acreage and lapping waves line the edge of the property, where a sandy beach beckons visitors to swim.
While the property’s intrigue is undeniable, it is privately owned by the Moolenaar family. But since the 1970s, when the Virgin Islands government, “told us all that none of the beaches were private and you had to allow all of the public to come to your beach, and you had to provide access to the beach,” Gwen Moolenaar said, the property has never been the same.
Gwen is the great-great-granddaughter of Jacob Roger Maalenaar (Moolenaar), who purchased the estate in 1850, and it has passed down by inheritance ever since, remaining in the family. She said although the property is called Neltjeberg Estate, it is no longer a single estate but divided into sections and distributed between three family lines.
“When Jacob came to the then-called Danish West Indies, he came with two sons and he and his wife subsequently gave birth to a third son. On his death, the property was divided into sections so that each son received a portion of the estate, which was rather large. It extended from the beach all the way up to the top of the hill and across the road. They sold portions of it to pay off taxes and so forth. But each one of those three lines have offspring today who have portions of the property,” Moolenaar said.
She described her childhood growing up with the property as “like a fairy tale.”
“We all grew up seeing little goats running through the bushes, swimming in the water of one of those most beautiful beaches you could ever swim in. What a glorious childhood we had with all of those acres, hundreds of acres. It was beautiful,” Moolenaar said. “I remember the fruit trees and coconut trees we had out there. There is one portion of the beach where the hermit crabs come to roost and nest during certain times of the year. We would see thousands of these hermit crabs … a spectacular sight.”
But this all changed when the law mandated the family provide public access. Now it is a common sight to find trash strewn through the sand, large trucks that park directly on the beach, and the family has experienced treasure hunters who have desecrated the family’s gravesites.
“We have not been happy about it at all,” Moolenaar said. “The descendants of Jacob Moolenaar, we all grew up knowing that that was our beach and that was our estate … So, the hurt we had when we saw people coming in and using our beach and throwing trash and not picking it up. I don’t know what the government’s plan was, but who is going to clean the beach?”
Not only did the descendants have to share their beloved family property with the public, but Moolenaar said they had to sell portions of it to comply with the law which requires owners to provide access to the beach.
“We had to sell a sizeable portion of the beach to put in an access road. It was over $250,000 worth of land that we had to sell to pay to excavate a road down to the beach,” she said.
“It’s a hurtful thing,” she said. “I can understand that it is a small island, and the government wants everyone to have access to the shorelines, but at the same time does everything have to be public?”
She said she felt the intention of the original beach access legislation was to “prevent some of the wealthy statesiders who come down and buy major and then say no one can come to my beach, or something terrible.” But Moolenaar said the locals who owned beaches already allowed people to come down, and that the family had always been very generous in offering the beach to those who wanted to come and soak in the property’s beauty.
Much of what remains on the property today is just a shadow of what it once was. There are the ruins of a once-thriving plantation, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service’s Register of Historic Places.
The factory, a two-story L-shaped structure with an east and west wing, is now little more than rubble. But at one time, documents reveal, it had a gable roof and was complete with a boiler room. The walls were masonry with the interior wall face plastered and the corners of the factory finished with the yellow brick.
An additional three-level structure can still be found but has nearly been reclaimed by overgrown foliage. The building once bore barred windows and board shutters and was likely used to store rum.
The remnants of an animal mill can still be found some 10 feet from the factory and once consisted of a circular terrace 35 feet in diameter, five feet above grade at most points and enclosed by a dry stone wall.
The property may never again be as Moolenaar recalls it from her childhood, a place of magic where she tells of rowing to Inner Brass from her family’s beach and warm summers spent with cousins playing games in the bush.
While the family has experienced distasteful acts on their property since public beach access was given, Moolenaar’s sentiments towards the family’s beach have remained the same.
“It’s long and pristine and when you are there you say, ‘This now, this is an island beach.’”