Salt Cay Brown House History
One of the last Colonial Salt Merchants Homes in the Caribbean
Salt Cay History
As early as 1500’s the island was a port of call for early Spanish mariners, as it lay along the homeward course of ships that stopped for precious salt on their way out of the Caribbean. In the 1700’s salt trading was further developed by Bermudans who attained a monopoly on the Caribbean salt trade, creating ponds linked to the sea by canals and sluice gates, with windmills controlling water flow. The Bermudan influence remains on Salt Cay to this day even though in the late 1700’s the salt islands were being claimed by the Bahamas, France, Spain and England . . .
1714 to 1830 – Georgian Era
Succeeding the House of Stuart in Great Britain was the House of Hanover, a deposed German Dynasty that from 1714 to 1830 spanned the reigns of Kings George 1, George11, George 111 and George V1.This period in British history became known as the ‘Georgian era’ characterized by distinctive trends in culture, literature, fashion and architecture.
And so it was that while George 111 was King and sat on the throne of Great Britain and Ireland that half way round the world in the year 1820 on the salt producing island of Salt Cay in the Turks Islands, a large wooden and stone salt merchants house was being built on the ocean by an adventurer by the name of Captain Jones from Bemuda
He was intent on making his fortune exporting the salt which was seasonally raked from the vast Salinas and loaded on sloops and carried out to the large sailing vessels that carried this sought after commodity to the traders that eagerly awaited on the wharfs of many ports around the world.
Captain Jones like all seafaring men knew his ‘timbers’ and the ‘Brown House’ so called because of its brown cedar shingle roof was built over many years from felled trees, drift and ships masts from salvaged shipwrecks. These huge masts were erected in the basement and provided frames for the high ceilings under which the vast quantities of salt was stored protecting the precious white gold from the rains and winds.
The walls were constructed of wide lengths of yellow cypress planking and held together by hand chiseled pegs…a long time consuming process known as ‘mortise and tenon’ which had been used by woodworkers for thousands of years.
Life as a Salt Merchant
Salt Wagons ready to load piles of raked salt, Salt Cay, Turks and Caicos IslandsOn the second level with extensive views over the ocean to the west and the salt raking ponds to the East were the living quarters. The families would sleep and dine enjoying the constant breezes that would blow through the many windows and Bermudan style shutters indicative of the colonial period and common to the large homes owned by merchants in the Americas and colonies of the new world..
While the white women crocheted with their native servants in attendance, the lord and master of the ponds would scour the horizon for the sailing ships and patrol the long verandas that encircled the house giving excellent scrutiny of the workers raking the ponds and hauling the salt in donkey drawn carts to the huge doors that gave access to the storage area.
While the workers loaded and unloaded the salt the scullery maids would be baking bread in the brick oven located in the ‘buttery” which was an adjacent Burmudan style kitchen built away from the main house. Made of thick stone walls the kitchen was used to store the bails of flour and other food items.
With no refrigeration and using wood fires to cook the daily supper the separate kitchen made sense. The smoke and rats and mice would be kept away from the genteel quarters of the family living on the upper level of the Brown House.
Tracking the History
Little is known of Captain Jones, Perhaps he drowned at sea or perhaps he found the profits from salt raking a slow and tedious way to make a fortune and could not compete with the stiff competition from the Harriott family, an already well established salt merchant family on Salt Cay.
Whatever the reason the daughter of Captain Jones sold the house in 1898 to Alexis Harriott, son of Olivia Hyat and Daniel Harriott a strict merchant that run the salt raking trade from the ‘White House’ the most prominent salt merchant home just a few minutes’ walk from the ‘Brown House’ and so called because of its white limestone roof.
Even though the ‘Brown House’ was built before the ‘White House’ the latter had many advantages especially the man made harbor that allowed sloops to pull up to the dock, a small railroad to move the salt, a boat house, donkey sheds and a blacksmith that could make the wheels to pull the carts. It was stiff competition indeed!
Never the less Alexis Harriott was probably quite happy to be living away from his father and settled into the ‘Brown House’ with his wife Alice Coles. He had five children one of which was Howard Harriott better known as ‘Skipper who inherited the ‘Brown House’ and lived there for many years.
Catching up with the present
Some of the old timers still living on Salt Cay have memories of old Skipper who was married to Winifred. They remember him as a crotchety old man unlike his friendly wife who was kind to the locals. Anyway Skipper enjoyed sailing around in his favorite sloop the ‘Lloyd George’ named after the British President of the Board of Trade and Chancellor of the Exchequer during World War 1.
One evening however, in the year 1944 Skipper was out in one of his boats on his way back from Grand Turk with the saltraker’s payroll and hit Crescent Reef off Cotton Cay and was never seen again. Winifred in despair packed her bags and left for Grand Turk leaving a deserted house and a superstition behind that old man Skippers ghost roamed the upstairs verandas…’the Phantom of the Brown House’
The house remained vacant for a long while and caretakers came and went with few attempts to restore the old home but it wasn’t until the latest owner Ms Helen Krieble an entrepreneur from the States bought the ‘Brown House’ in 2003 that the old Colonial salt merchants home was lovingly restored to its former glory preserving one of the most unique and fascinating homes in the Turks and Caicos Islands and in fact throughout the whole Caribbean region.