On a quiet street in Frenchtown sits a small building housing a small museum. But it is not by any means a small thing; filled with more than memorabalia, it is a living, vital part of the community.
The French Heritage Museum will celebrate its 11th anniversary this July.
It is the pride and joy of the Frenchtown Civic Organization, which has been around since 1958, providing the esprit de corps and, indeed, the soul, of the community. As standard bearers of the French culture on St. Thomas, for more than 50 years the group has sponsored a Bastille Day celebration for everyone – of French descent or not, Virgin Islanders, down islanders, continentals, whatever.
Henry Richardson, Pierre "Pete" Ledee Allan Richardson, and until 2008 Louis "Quish” Greaux, helm the organization.
On Bastille Day in 2004, the museum opened with great fanfare, after finally obtaining a government lease in 2002. The stone building housing the museum was originally constructed as a fire station in 1944, but there was a serious problem.
"The fire truck wouldn’t fit through the doors," FTCO president Henry Richardson said at the Museum’s opening in 2004. So the station was abandoned. It became a kindergarten in the early ’50s under the guidance of Altergracia Wenner. In the ’70s it was converted to a health clinic named to honor of Florina Olive and Mercidita Bernier, public health nurse.
After the clinic closed, the building sat bereft, its roof replaced by a blue tarpaulin in the wake of Hurricane Marilyn in 1995. The FTCO replaced the tarp each year until the organization finally got a government lease in 2002.
Over the last decade the museum has earned its place of pride in the community. It has fast evolved into the most vibrant and active museum on the island.
For several years the museum had a curator, Beatrice Selkridge, on loan from DPNR and now retired.
Former volunteer Roy Magras has been permanently installed as manager since last year. Magras said he’s not really certain what his title is; it’s simply something he thinks he was meant to do.
Upon entering the bright yellow building, past the Eiffel Tower at the door created by Allan Richadson, visitors are greeted by a mannequin dressed in an old French-style dress.
"She was donated by Henry Louis, the deputy mayor of St. Barts,” said Magras, giving the faux lady an affectionate pat.
Magras has found his passion, and it is no coincidence, since he grew up a stone’s throw away.
He moved to the states at 17 to pursue his education, had a career there, retired and and moved back home about 13 years ago, where he worked on restoring his family home.
At one of the FTCO celebrations a couple of years ago he saw the need for another bartender and jumped in. Before he knew it, he was recruited as a member of the organization, volunteering a day or two a week at the museum, until it morphed into a full time job. He was hooked.
"There’s just so much here,” he marveled. "I’m constantly organizing. I’ve had to do so much research, reading so I’d know what was vital information, preserving, laminating photos, digitizing documents, images. Just the history of St. Anne’s Chapel alone is a full time research job."
With the help of social media, Magras has expanded the museum’s outreach.
"I’ve got people involved from all over the world. Someone will see a photo of someone on Facebook – say a friend’s mom, a relative – and it grows exponentially. People tell me how they found out about the museum – it’s either word of mouth or Facebook. People write all the time about how happy they are to see our history so well preserved. It’s very rewarding.”
Magras begins the tour pointing out the straw hats and baskets.
"These are made from the tyre palms which has very long fronds. They were cut when very young and allowed to dry in the sun."
It used to be that everyone wore a straw hat, he said. A black band on some signified mourning. As years went by, the mourning ribbon got smaller and smaller, but you never went totally out of mourning.
"And this bench,” he points out, "is a pew from St. Anne”s Chapel. The church celebrated its 90th anniversary three years ago and got new pews. But this pew is as a strong as the day it was made."
Dominating the back area of the museum is an enormous mahogany four-poster bed on loan from Ellen Murraine Boschulte. Magras notes how the bed is raised.
"That’s because the chamber pots fit underneath,” he said. "We had no indoor plumbing then.”
And there is cinema – of sorts. Actually, it’s a 1939 eight-minute newsreel clip from Universal Studios. It is unintentionally funny and beyond politically incorrect. It describes the local French community as "funny, little people." It makes almost no mention of a West Indian population, other than a reference to "dark-skinned cowboys,” and highlights a fashion show on what looks like the old Grand Hotel steps with the glamour girls of the day, none of whom are West Indian. Copies are available for $20.
Every inch of the room is utilized. From the ceiling hang fish pots filled with marine replicas and a mold of sprat and fry nets. There is a display of "gooses," old irons, sewing machines, an old-fashioned toaster, a multitude of photographs.
Occupying places of special honor are the musical instruments of two of Frenchtown’s late and well-loved musicians – the accordion of Gustav Quetel and the tambourine of Sebastian Greaux, which he made himself; both used to play in a pick-up scratch band at the late Bar Normandie.
Family portraits fill the walls – Magrases, Danets, Greauxs and Olives, to name a few. Some of the portraits are fading; most of them gaze solemnly at their audiences. Magras knows each and every one of them, and he delights in telling stories about them.
In 2007, the museum received an addition. The Frenchtown Civic Organization joined hands with the Committee for the Betterment of Carenage to dedicate a tiny two-room house donated by the family of the late Louis Phillipe Greaux.
The house was moved from its location atop the hill by St. Anne’s Chapel to the spot by the museum several months before the dedication The dwelling had been restored by Allan Richardson, with the advice of Lillian and Margaret Greaux, two of the seven children raised in the home.
The museum is basically self-supporting, with a small government subsidy. Donations of family memorabilia or cash are welcome.
The next celebration, a big one, is July 18, Bastille Day. There will be music, dancing and a traditional feast for all.
The museum, located on Altona adjacent to the Joseph Aubain Ballpark, is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Friday. The phone number is 340-714-2583.