A humble yet giant of a man, John “Johnnie” Tranberg lived as a Crucian man of the soil, a natural man surrounded by the creatures of the earth, and a farmer whose hands, mind and passion spanned generations.
Tranberg was born in 1916 at Estate Mt. Washington, Frederiksted to parents Lauritz Tranberg and Virginia Percival. He died Aug. 22 at the age of 103 years old.
Tranberg grew up and lived throughout his idyllic life on the huge family acreage that
prompted his longtime friend and neighbor, Ras-Lumumba, to dub him, “a Rasta with no locks.” He lived outside and cooked outside over fire; he breathed the oxygen surrounding the hills and he drank the rainwater from his roof and the milk straight from his cows. This kept him alive and healthy for 103 years, Lumumba said.
A haircut was sometimes welcomed, but a manicure and pedicure were not what Tranberg bargained for in his friendship with retired Lt. Col. Brian O’Reilly.
“I thought it was necessary for Johnnie to be groomed at all times, so I took him for those regular visits,” O’Reilly said. “We did a lot together and I always respected him as a senior member and my friend.”
Tranberg’s father raised Senegal bulls, which became the Senepol as a result of the crossbreed between the Senegal and the Red Pole. Tranberg won an award for one of his Senepol bulls, named Thomas, who was a product of the original breed of his father’s stock from many decades ago. Sadly, Thomas died when Hurricane Maria ravaged St. Croix in 2017.
Tranberg had a knack for remembering and telling stories about many of his life experiences. He had six siblings and they all helped on the farm, with the daily milk route taking turns going to town by horse to make deliveries. All of this was done before they went to school, Tranberg liked to tell.
The children were enrolled in the Danish Grammar School, which is now the Frederiksted Government House on Prince Street. They later attended Frederiksted High School.
Tranberg was born a year before the transfer from the Danish West Indies to the U.S. Virgin Islands. He was a draftee in the military in 1944 – the year before the end of World War II. Tranberg experienced segregation during his years in the U.S. Army and he told many stories of how he and his comrades stood up for themselves in the face of those experiences in the 872nd Company from the USVI. Tranberg always showed his pride and patriotism as a veteran in spite of the harsh treatment he experienced.
Tranberg and Cynthia Petersen were married and raised four children. His wife and two children preceded him in death, leaving two sons in New York.
Meridian Engineering hired Tranberg as a master operator of heavy machinery. Throughout the 1950s he contributed to a great deal of the infrastructure of the Virgin Islands through his work. He related stories of his work building roads across the island, and even on other islands across the region.
Remembered as a Crucian icon, Tranberg was committed to the land, his culture and the people of his community. He had a passion for the natural world, O’Reilly recounted. “His home was an open door policy for his animals. Chickens would fly inside and lay their eggs. Cows would stick their heads inside the windows.”
Great-great-nephew Larry remembers, “It was uncle Johnnie who taught me not to get attached to animals when it came time for human consumption. I was there for the cattle, pigs, and goats when it was time for the slaughter and time to bring mom a piece of meat for us to eat,” he said.
Tranberg was a livestock and crop farmer who passed on the love of farming to generations of Virgin Islanders. He devoted his life as a guardian of the rainforest on St. Croix’s west end and those who knew of his hard work over the years respect him for that.
Longtime friend and former resident Marsha Cole remembers Tranberg teaching her all about cows – how to milk them, how he’d bid them come, and they’d come running to him, how cows have a sweet tooth satisfied with mangoes, and how to hold a cow that is choking on a mango. He covered grass with molasses as a cow treat, she said.
He advocated land ownership, working the land, and holding onto the land. He would not consider selling to private interests, but was open and receptive to selling to the government for generations of Virgin Islanders to appreciate.
Tranberg witnessed so much during his lifetime and was recognized for so many good deeds. He remained a humble man, always looking to do something for his fellowman. He was always a workingman and with help, he took care of his property well up into his life as a centenarian.
Donald Garcia was Tranberg’s helper and caretaker for about 20 years, O’Reilly said.
“Garcia was also a humble human being, who lived in a tent on the farm, cut the grass, and would feed Johnnie every step of the way. Without Garcia, there would be no Johnnie.” O’Reilly said “He was his confidant and a big part of his day-to-day living. He stepped up to the plate.”
“I’ll cherish the experience of knowing Johnnie for the rest of my life,” O’Reilly added.
Tranberg’s indelible memory was a credit to him and it captured the hearts of so many, such as Aminah Saleem. She tells the story of visiting Tranberg with his third cousin Robin in December 2017.
It’s not every day you get to speak to someone who knew your grandparents, she said. He told her about her uncles and life on the north side of Frederiksted and of all the adventures he had with her uncles.
“On that glorious December day, we had stepped into his world of flora and fauna in Estate Nicholas surrounded by flowers, butterflies, caterpillars, birds, and cows. I suddenly realized why he loved the land so much and its untouched beauty and tranquility. Imagine, living one hundred years on the ground where you were born and lived until your dying day. Rest in peace, Johnnie Tranberg,” Aminah said.
Robin Barlow Jones is Tranberg’s third cousin. Her grandmother is Carmen Tranberg. Robin said it was God’s plan or it was destiny that she would assure that Johnnie was well taken care of in his last years. Robin’s main responsibilities were making sure his kitchen was stocked with Nacho’s Bakery whole wheat buns to be stuffed with American cheese, plenty of “Nestle’s Quick” for his “Coco Tea” and containers of coffee ice cream in the freezer. Robin said, “It was indeed a pleasure and an honor to take care and spend time with this distinguished yet simple man, I met only six years ago.”
“The Virgin Islands has lost a great Crucian icon,” Olasee Davis said. “His knowledge of the Virgin Islands culture, history, and cultural resources is deep going back to the transition of the Danish West Indies to early American rule of these islands. He is probably the last native Crucian farmer of his generation in the Virgin Islands, particularly on the island of St. Croix.”
Jones said her cousin Johnnie was given full military honors at his funeral on Sept. 5. Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. opened the service with remarks that “this is the end of an era.”
“It was a beautiful sendoff for Johnnie, with Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights playing as we walked from St. Patrick’s Catholic Church to the Frederiksted Cemetery for his interment,” Jones said.