Christmas is coming and the St. Croix Seashell Society is busy creating exotic designs for seashell ornaments to decorate a Christmas tree for the “Christmas Spoken Here” event.
“I’m really excited by the ornaments I’m creating because the lines of the shells create their own geometrical shapes,” said Elizabeth Robb.
In 2014, four women formed the St. Croix Seashell Society, dedicated to preserving and protecting seashells by educating the public, and through cooperation with the Department of Planning and Natural Resources. They created a seashell museum, and with an agreement with the Fort Frederik officials, made the fort their first location.
Along with Robb, the women who founded the group are Sharon Grimes, Marcia Taylor and Zaraida Jacobs.
“When I was a child in Texas, I started collecting seashells,” Grimes said. “As I grew up, I started studying everything I could about them. I bought books about shells. I found out about National Seashell organizations, such as the Conchologists of America, an international organization for anyone with an interest in shells and mollusks. I started going to conventions once a year. Did you know there are seashell vendors, dealers of specimen seashells, dealers of seashell books?”
Grimes went on to say that when she moved to St. Croix, she brought her personal collection and displayed the seashells around her home. A visitor to her home, Will Coles of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources, suggested that she meet another seashell enthusiast. Grimes said she put off making contact and put the thought from her mind.
A few years later, she decided to take piano lessons and was introduced to Robb, who is a piano instructor and professional musician. Robb taught Grimes for a few months at Robb’s Music Studio in La Grange.
However, Grimes asked if lessons could be given at her home. When Robb visited Grimes’ home, and saw her cases of shells, Robb said, “After the lesson, we have something very important to talk about.” That’s when Grimes found out that Robb was the seashell enthusiast Coles had referred her to four years earlier.
Grimes and Robb talked about how they could create a museum for seashells. They decided to bring in other seashell enthusiasts. Grimes invited Taylor, a marine biologist who teaches at the University of the Virgin Islands. Robb invited Jacobs, whom she knew would be a welcome addition to the group.
Grimes recalls, “It was amazing to me what we accomplished in just a few months. We got nonprofit status. We got approved to be under the St. Croix Foundation umbrella. We met with Fort Frederik officials and secured a place for the seashell museum with Fort Frederik, our first location. We got a grant by VICA. We had our grand opening the end of January 2015. These ladies accomplished a lot in just a short time.”
The society offered membership to the general public. They decided to put together programs to educate school children and to involve the society in island activities.
As the public interest in the Seashell Society grew, the board decided to expand and added seashell enthusiasts Debbie Worden and Patti Rymer.
Worden remembers obtaining a membership for the price of one dollar. She said she answered an ad about the St. Croix Seashell Society in the local paper. She had been collecting seashells since she was a child and was curious about the society. She was surprised to find out that there were laws protecting seashells.
Jacobs, the only founding member native to St. Croix came to the society as an enthusiast who appreciated seashells, but never collected them.
The four parts of the presentations are music, art, education and museum tours. Jacobs is responsible for the education component.
“I schedule all the presentations for the schools during the school year,” she said. “This has carried over into the summer. Our presentations include the conch shell, echinoderms. The conch shell presentation is for junior and senior high school students, preferably, for music students. They learn how to take the shell off the conch, and learn how to turn it into an instrument. We also have a presentation on the history of the seashell and their uses.”
In teaching youth about seashells, Jacobs hopes to help students see career opportunities in science.
She explains the history of the uses of the conch shell. In the Caribbean of the past, it has been used as a form of communication, much like Africans and Native Americans used the drums. The conch shell was used to call the fisherman and to call together those revolting against governments. Within other regions, like Egypt, the conch is used to signal the call to prayer. Recently, it has been used like a trumpet.
Jacobs said the society is looking to revive the conch shell orchestra that existed 30 years ago. The orchestra grew out of the conch shell workshops presented by Wilfred “Junie Bomba” Allick, master artist and percussionist, and Brian Bishop, master jeweler and founder of Crucian Gold. These workshops are held once a month for schools, starting in January.
The society moved its museum to St. George Botanical Gardens in 2016, where they donate a Christmas tree decorated with seashells, for the Christmas Tree Auction held at the Garden’s annual gala fundraising event. For the past two years, the highest bids have been on the St. Croix Seashell Society Christmas tree.
All the members agree that when tourists visit the Botanical Gardens, they never fail to visit the Seashell Collection Museum. The Society estimates that a couple thousand visit the Botanical Gardens during the big Christmas event “Christmas Spoken Here.”
Worden, who often conducts the tours of the museum, creates West Indian Sailor’s Valentine boxes, a tradition started in the 1800’s. She says the eight-sided boxes were designed for sailors who stopped on the island. Keepsakes and shells were placed in the box, which was kept by the sailor’s female host, until the sailor’s return.
A swimmer, diver and sailor, Taylor loves the sea. She calls seashells “little treasures.” Taylor does community outreach related to marine environment, and operates the Reef Responsible program, which teaches about fish necessary to healthy ocean environments.
The society is maintained by grant funding from the St. Croix Foundation for Community Development, Virgin Islands Council on the Arts and donations. They sell seashell items, such as postcards, notecards, t-shirts and nightlights. They sell much of their merchandise at the St. Croix Mango Melee.
The society plans to create a seashell mosaic wall outside the entrance to their museum at the Gardens. This project is open to community participation, volunteers and donations.
The society invites all with an interest in seashells to visit their museum at the Botanical Gardens, and to come to the event “Christmas Spoken Here.”