Oct. 20, 2003 – On Thursday, St. Croix Farmers in Action will hold an orientation session that will kick off its educational initiative to involve high school students in a year of research into the history of the Bethlehem Sugar Factory — and to offer some of them jobs as visitor guides at the site in a project to promote heritage tourism on the island.
"Our cultural and historical richness is just waiting for us to market [it] to the world," Kendall Peterson, Farmers in Action vice president, said. The Bethlehem project is the pilot program in what is envisioned as an expanding emphasis on historical research to be carried out by students that is aimed at enhancing St. Croix's positioning as a center of heritage tourism.
Farmers in Action's Education and History Committee is coordinating the project. At 10 a.m. Thursday in the Education Complex, representatives will introduce the plans and discuss their purpose with the students, their teachers and 10 local historians who have agreed to serve as advisers.
"Our goal is to develop a repeatable high school program that can, year after year, be applied to other historical sites on St. Croix," Kelly Gloger, project coordinator and Farmers in Action secretary, said. "This program is designed to lay the foundation for the development of professional historical tour guides."
Students will earn community service hours for their work, will be able to fulfill their senior social studies project requirements, and will get a chance to audition for paid positions as guides at the sugar factory when historical tours begin, probably next spring.
And, if all goes according to plan, they will do something else essential to the long-term success of tourism destinations — they will buy into the idea as something of value to the community.
"The students will be researching all year long, but they'll have enough information for us to launch the tours in this coming winter season," Gloger said. "We've got all those Danish visitors coming starting in April. We're starting this week, and we expect to put together a one-hour tour and audition and train the tour guides" by the time the Danes begin arriving.
Six high schools are involved — Central, Country Day, Education Complex, Good Hope, Manor and St. Joseph's. Three research teams will be formed, each comprising about four to six students from each of two schools. The teams will utilize the information they gather "to produce a series of multimedia curriculum units for elementary, middle and high school level students," according to a release.
"These multimedia curriculum projects will be incorporated into the Virgin Islands and Caribbean history programs of all the schools on St. Croix," Percival Edwards, Farmers in Action president, said. "Many young people growing up on St. Croix today have never heard of" the Bethlehem works "and don't know the important role it played in St. Croix history," he said,
"In its day, it was the Hovensa of St. Croix's sugar industry," Edwards added.
Factory closed its doors in 1966
The central factory in Estate Lower Bethlehem that processed sugar cane into raw brown sugar was the territory's largest sugar works and the last close its doors, in 1966 (ironically, the year that Hess Oil Virgin Islands Corp., the precursor of Hovensa, was formed). The Bethlehem Middle Works was designated a Historic District in the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
At the start of the 20th century, the island had a number of small, struggling sugar factories. In 1904, the Lachmann family purchased and renovated the old Bethlehem works "and brought the 20th century centralized approach to the industry on St. Croix and ran it until 1933," Gloger said. "Then, the U.S. Interior Department took it over and ran it until 1966," he said. "It was the only business the government got into other than postal service."
He noted that St. Croix had developed a lucrative commercial rum industry by the mid-1930s, too.
However, the growth of the beet sugar industry in Europe eventually decimated the cane market throughout the Caribbean.
Thursday will bring the first meeting of the committee members, the students, their teachers and their history advisers all together. "It will be an orientation session," Gloger said. "We don't know how many students signed up for the program, but we've been told there's been a lot of interest in it. We'll find out on Thursday."
At the meeting, he said, "the teens from the different schools will meet for the first time and huddle. They'll sit down, exchange e-mail addresses and phone numbers, and sit with one or more of the history advisers and map out their research strategy for the year."
Farmers in Action has arranged for three students and one historian to travel to Washington, D.C., early next year to conduct three days of research at the National Archives, which has thousands of documents on and photographs of the Bethlehem site.
A program with the potential to bring about change
According to Peterson, "This program has the ability to change the face of St. Croix's tourism industry. In todays tourism market, you have to have more than just sand and surf to attract tourists. By developing a group of professional historical tour guides and bringing our hidden historical treasures out of the bush, we can show the world what makes St. Croix a unique and wonderful place to visit."
Gloger said the St. Croix Landmarks Society with grant funding "did a full assessment of all the historical sites on St. Croix in 1997 and rated them in terms of their tourism value, prioritizing them." He said Farmers in Action plans to draw on those findings in determining the focus of next year's project, and others to come.
According to Gloger, what Farmers in Action is doing and what the newly formed St. Croix group Cultural Heritage And Nature Tourism Inc. recently announced as its mission go hand in hand. (See "Group to promote heritage and nature tourism".) He is in a position to know, as he serves on the boards of both organizations.
"CHANT is seeking to be a marketing mechanism" for the island's heritage, nature and cultural attractions, he said. "The farmers are trying to provide experiences for tourists — as other groups are trying to do in the arts, cuisine, nature walks and so on. CHANT will be in the business of bringing visitors to the island who want to experience our heritage. We will be one of the tour providers.
"Once the students complete their work on a historical site," Gloger said, "the multimedia CD's they produce can be used by anyone to learn the information and get into the guide business. St. Croix has hundred of historical sites, all gold mines waiting for us to mine them."
The committee "invites anyone in the community interested in helping to make this program a success to call us and get involved," Gloger said. (The number is 778-4266.) "If you've complained about St. Croix's tourism situation, here is an excellent, well-organized opportunity to do something positive about it," he said.
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