Technology Revives Agriculture on St. Croix's Prosperity Estate
Updated: Jan 11, 2022
Raising Cane's resident historian Susan Beach recounts the who's who of this historic 18th. Century property.
One of the most scenic properties on St. Croix is Estate Prosperity on the island's west end. Originally spanning 450 acres from the hills east to the Caribbean Sea, the farm is once again productive with over 200 acres of sugar cane waving in the breeze.
The Estate had been left to the elements and was overgrown with bush and weeds when its new owner began an aggressive effort of clearing and mulching the land. Today, the entire property has been rejuvenated, the workers' village renovated, and a fleet of modern farm equipment can be seen working the fields throughout the days.
Finance guy turns farmer
Robert Apfel of New York is well known in the securities and banking industries, but he knew little more of farming than the average house plant gardener until he visited St. Croix.
During a guided tour of Cruzan Rum Distillery, Mr. Apfel discovered that all the molasses for producing rum must be imported from as far as South America. In 2018 he purchased Estate Prosperity from the Christensen family to supply molasses to the island’s two rum distilleries from home-grown sugar cane. So began an exciting new chapter on St. Croix to bring back a way of life and to impact the economy of the Virgin Islands in a positive way.
Mr. Apfel sees Prosperity farm serving as a site for developing and demonstrating modern, socially responsible, hi-tech sugar cane agriculture methods.
A Little History
Estate Prosperity is shown on one of the earliest maps produced by Peter Oxholm (1794-99) as parcel #’s 34, 35, and 36. Since then a long succession of owners have left behind the evocative remains of their stone architecture and a wealth of information about the lives and productivity of the workers and other contributors to the economy of this self-contained estate.
Prosperity was first patented to Augustine Boyd of London sometime in the 1740s. It was sold to French Huguenot Isaac Markoe in 1751, and first referred to as Estate Prosperity in 1784. Isaac Markoe's heirs reported in 1792 that the farm consisted of 450 acres: 350 acres planted in cane and the rest in pasture for livestock and provisions, tended by 113 enslaved workers. Although there is little mention of the buildings at that time, we know that the villages of the enslaved changed dramatically between 1790 and 1830, transitioning from individual wattle and daub dwellings to multi-room masonry buildings.
An inventory of Estate Prosperity in 1808 by German owner William Krause shows the site remained the same in size at 450 acres, with a family dwelling house, which we believe is the great house structure; a manager’s house and boiling house; about 4,000 feet of stone walls built with clay and ashes; and 173 enslaved workers. The inventory describes “70 dwellings of the enslaved, several in stone," along with 5 carpenters, 4 coopers, 4 masons, 3 boilers, 1 distiller, 1 cook, 3 stable boys, and 2 drivers. The remainder were field workers.
Slow progress for emancipated workers
Prosperity's first Danish owner was Elmer August Heilbuth, who purchased the property shortly after Emancipation in 1848 and remained its owner until 1860. The size of the plantation was the same but with fewer workers. Heilbuth listed about 73 agricultural workers in the 1850 census. Comparing names of the workers in the 1846 and 1850 censuses, we find 53 of the inhabitants, or 72% of the plantation's population, stayed on after Emancipation.
Among those listed in both censuses were six children described as either “incapacitated” or as “small gang” in 1846. By 1850, they were described as“in school." Several men moved from the “big gang” to “stock minders”. Mary Aletta moved from the “big gang” to “house servant." Some even changed their religion, the most common change being from Lutheran to Moravian.
By 1860, Mr. Heilbuth’s heirs sold Prosperity to a Catholic priest from Ireland named Mr. O’Ryan. He in turn sold to another Irishman named Hugh Roberts in 1870. By 1890, reports show 75 acres were being taxed as under cane cultivation, and a total of 215,000 pounds of sugar was produced on the estate -- about 2,600 pounds of sugar per acre. With today’s modern techniques, Raising Cane can expect an acre to yield about 8,000 pounds of sugar.
Of modernization, a flock of sheep and a nightclub
By 1901, Prosperity had a second Danish owner, an engineer and businessman named Gustav Adolph Hagemann. Hageman also purchased Estates La Grange, Williams, Wheel of Fortune, and Punch, and was instrumental in improving sugar manufacturing with modern machinery.
Despite great investments made in the upgrading of the factories, these were very lean years filled with daunting droughts, ferocious hurricanes and dwindling sugar prices. Each estate carried on, eking out a living from its livestock, fruit, vegetables, and whatever they could get from their sugar cane. As Arthur Christensen recalled in a 1932 interview, the roof blew off the factory in a 1916 hurricane and was never rebuilt.
This factory picture taken sometime before 1916 shows it was producing cotton. As Christensen explained, the factory had produced sugar for a while, then just cane juice which was moved directly into ship holds through a long pipe. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo leveled the steam chimney shown on the right side of the photo.
There was still evidence in 1983 of the small gauge railroad at Prosperity, and nails were discovered by the manager’s house. These tracks went straight to La Grange factory, which was turning out 30 tons of sugar per day from several estates in the early 1900s. The other major factories for processing cane were Estate Bethlehem near the center of the island and Estate Richmond near Christiansted. Other small gauge railways connected those factories to estates in those quarters.
The third Dane to Purchase Estate Prosperity was Frederik J. Christensen and his wife Frances in 1940. Frederik had come to St. Croix from Copenhagen as a young man and worked as a bookkeeper for many clients. He also managed several other estates and met his wife Frances Elcock when she was seventeen. Together, the couple owned multiple estates and was able to purchase Estate Prosperity from the Hagemann group.
The sale was not without controversy. One of the financiers, a Mr. Knoll and his wife Beatrice, refused to sign legal papers to allow Frederik Christensen to purchase the property, because Mrs. Frances Christensen was of mixed race.
The Christensens prevailed. But after acquiring the property, the couple realized they could not pay the mortgage and feed themselves on agriculture products alone. They opened a highly successful restaurant and nightclub, the Tropicana at # 1 Strand Street in Frederiksted, and used the proceeds to fix the Prosperity great house, which was in extreme disrepair and need of electricity and plumbing.
By 1943, Prosperity was move-in ready, and along with the couple and their children came 600 sheep! To accomplish the move, the flock had to be walked from Estate Plessen, about 10 miles away. It took ten men and some young boys and dogs nearly 12 hours to herd the sheep to Prosperity. Less than a half a dozen of the livestock were lost. Some even gave birth along the way and were transported by truck.
After Frederik Christensen died in 1945, his son Arthur inherited Prosperity, and the nightclub was moved to the great house. It became the famed Plantation Nightclub: a lovely venue with a well-stocked bar, a spacious outdoor patio and a stage for a band. This author was fortunate enough to enjoy a few Saturday nights in the club's final year of operation in 1980. The Future
Since Mr. Apfel acquired the property in 2018, Prosperity has over 100 acres of cane in cultivation, a modern new barn, and a stable of 21st Century precision agriculture implements to work with, including GPS-guided tractors and an automated planter and harvester
The stone masonry workers cottages have been renovated with air conditioning and tasteful furnishings to house visiting consultants and engineers. About a dozen associates cultivate the fields, and a computerized, subsurface drip irrigation system keeps the cane plants evenly moist and nourished.
The great house has been stabilized with a new roof and is being renovated as an administrative center with classrooms and conference rooms to support training and research.
Once the entire farm is planted, Mr. Apfel plans to partner with community members to cooperatively plant an additional 9,850 acres of cane, supplying the local distillers with almost half of their molasses needs.
Soon to begin construction, a boutique rum distillery utilizing cane juice will produce premium “rhum agricole” as is done in Martinique and other French Caribbean islands. Visitors will be able to sample farm-made rum in a tasting lounge and tour the entire farm by golf cart, or, possibly, a replica of Prosperity's former small gauge railroad.
Look for more news and help for the Virgin Islands economy to come from this endeavor.
Author Susan K. Beach is Secretary for the Society of Virgin Islands Historians and a Raising Cane administrator. Special thanks to the staff of the St. Croix Landmarks Society Library for photos,Mona Lawaetz Roberts,and Michelle Moore for sharing their family history.
Sources: Krause, W. Inventory of Estate Prosperity, Office of the Recorder of Deeds,1807, pg 208-9 Bradley, Betsy. “Interview with Arthur (Arturo) Christensen.” 1983 (On file St. Croix Landmark’s Society Library)
Thurland, Karen C. The Sugar Industry on St. Croix. AuthorHouse, 2014. Christensen, Frances E. Me and Mine part 1 Manuscript 1980