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HomeNewsArchivesOn Island Profile: Charlie Leonard, aka 'Sweetman Bordeaux'

On Island Profile: Charlie Leonard, aka 'Sweetman Bordeaux'

July 30, 2006 – A typical day for Charlie Leonard, or "Sweetman Bordeaux," might start out at 5 a.m. to gather eggs and then fix breakfast for his five-year-old daughter, Brittany. Then maybe a look at the sorrel slips he recently planted, a check on his bees, watering the plants and fruit trees, then, on certain afternoons, it's off to teach karate.
During the evenings, the 63-year-old may be brushing up on his computer skills at the University of the Virgin Islands or perhaps answering a call to clear bees out of a home or a business.
And if it's a Saturday, it's off to Market Square at 4 a.m. to set up his produce stand, where he sells fresh brown eggs, chickens, hot sauce, homemade honey "direct from the bee to you," fresh basil, lemongrass and whatever is in season for produce – okra, squash, pumpkin, peppers, cucumbers, soursop.
And now that it's summer, Leonard and his brother, Joseph, teach summer school karate classes at the Methodist Summer school four days a week.
In the meantime, Leonard is building his own house. "I tiled the kitchen counter today – I do a little bit at a time," he says.
Leonard has won so many prizes for his produce, he can't remember them all. "I don't know; I've stopped counting," he says. "I used to win all the time, once for five years in a row. It's nice. They used to give out cash, but now it's ribbons. I got $300 special prize one year for my honey."
Most recently Leonard took the produce first prize in the 2005 Agriculture Fair and the 2006 Carnival Food Fair.
"I haven't missed a fair — the Ag fair, Carnival food fair, the Rastafarian fair — since 1980," Leonard says. "Rain, whatever, I'm there."
It's been a circuitous route to becoming a farmer, beekeeper and karate teacher. Leonard's natural curiosity about the world around him and a desire for more comfort brought him to the Virgin Islands in the '60s.
"I was born in here but raised in Connecticut," he says. "I joined the Air Force during Vietnam, and when I got out and went back home, I just couldn't take the cold weather, so I took a vacation to St. Thomas. I noticed the Grumman gooses flying out of the harbor, and I got an idea. I had serviced fighter planes in the Air Force. So, I went back home and said, 'Mom, I'm moving to St. Thomas.'"
Leonard got a job at Antilles Airboats as a mechanic's helper, but he didn't have his airline mechanic's license. He then moved to Florida, got his A & P (airframe/power plant) license and went back to work for the airboats for five years, and another five at Aero V.I. before setting off in a new direction: living off the solid earth, instead of the sky.
Living off the land has been Leonard's gift and his joy, but today he wants to talk about bees.
He has just returned from the Heartland Apicultural Society's Fifth Annual Conference at Vicennes University in Vicennes, Ind.
The conference offered a three-day course in everything you ever wanted to know about bees, and then some: bee management, swarming, queen bee panel discussions, drone saturation for mating control, wax rendering and honey basics, to name just a few.
"It was really an adventure," Leonard says. "Three of us went from here – Eldridge Thomas, Hugh Clarke from St. Croix and me."
"We were the only black people out of 300 except for one guy from Kentucky," Leonard says. "And I was never treated so good. The average age of the people was about 75. Some of them were in their 80s, up to 90. No young people, really. It's too bad all that wisdom isn't being passed on." He ponders, "I guess maybe farming is an old person's thing. It's the heartland; maybe the young people are all going to college now."
The trip was funded by a grant to the UVI Extension Service and the V.I. Resource Conservation and Development Council Inc.
Leonard's interest in bees was instigated by his pal, Thomas, who also started him in farming. Thomas learned from Horatio Millin. "Millin was old then, but he taught us everything," Leonard says. "There really wasn't anyone else who kept bees then. He lived on Crown Mountain and did lectures at UVI workshops back in the '80s. We'd go by his house and borrow his honey extractor because we didn't own one." Leonard shakes his head at the memory of his mentor. "He was in his 80s, and he was building his own house out of blue bitch rock."
Leonard says the Virgin Islands is ideal for beekeeping. "We have a year-round growing season, where bees can be active and produce honey." Leonard says his bees dine on (or pollinate) cucumber, guava berry, genips, wild grape, and ketch and keep. "It's a pretty sight to watch them in the trees," he says.
"I have four hives now, that's 30,000 bees in each hive." He says the island has some of what are called the Africanized bees. "They came here via Brazil, about a 40-year trip. The bees here are probably mixed from the Africanized. But they are much gentler."
[Africanized bees have gotten a bad rap from Hollywood as "killer bees."]
"More than likely," Leonard says, "I have some in the hives, but they are not aggressive." Leonard checks the hives once every two weeks. "They have to be re-queened. There's a technique where you take a queen, she is always larger, and put her in a cylinder with a plunger and color code her wings, so you can identify her."
He has no fear of bees. "I have learned techniques," he says. "When I handle them now, they are like kittens."
Leonard's evenings are frequently spent clearing bees out of homes and businesses. "People are afraid of the bees, and they don't know how to handle them," he says. " I got a call yesterday from somebody in Contant. They wanted me to come up right away. I told them you have to do it in the evenings, when the bees come home."
He says people tell him he is welcome to the honey. "I tell them, no, you don't eat that. The hives are usually in treated wood, and that wood may have been treated with arsenic. It's poison."
Going back to farming, Leonard says, "Actually, Elridge had cleared some land in Bordeaux. Nobody knew he was back there. He had such a large banana field – it fascinated me. It looked green like Dominica. There was so much rain back then, not like today. The trees looked so nice. He was selling slips wholesale.
"He suggested I clear some land, too. So, I planted banana trees and other fruit trees, about a quarter of an acre. We tried to get legal, but we couldn't. After about six years, the Legislature zoned about 40 acres for farming, 109 plots, and I got a lease on a plot. It was a one-year lease, but it was a stepping stone for a 20-year lease, with the option of 10 more."
Now, Leonard farms two acres. "I'm potting sorrel now, chervil, thyme basil, mint and lemongrass, and mostly okra now. And I'm starting the cucumbers."
Leonard holds a black belt in karate, and it looks like it runs in the family. His daughter, Brittany, has become something of an expert, too.
"She's already gotten a trophy," he beams. "I just wanted her to learn not to cry." Brittany is the youngest of Leonard's children. He has two grown daughters – Teshanee, 22, who has just graduated from North Carolina State University and is about to enter Harvard to study dentistry, and Natasha, 32, who designs costumes between conducting fashion shows.
Leonard looks forward to the day when he is merely a beekeeper, but he doesn't see that happening any time soon. "I have a five-year-old to raise now," he muses.
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