July 19, 2003 – Way back in 1900 most Coral Bay residents were born on St. John of parents also born on St. John. Today the area is a mix of natives and transplants from the U.S. mainland, with the number of transplants exceeding that of the natives.
Crystal Fortwangler, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan who has been exploring St. John's past for several years, said, "In the late 1970s, you started to see an additional community come to Coral Bay from the states."
She and a team of local researchers made a presentation Friday on the last 100 years of Coral Bay's history at the John's Folly Learning Institute to about 50 people.
Using maps and charts to present the hard facts, Fortwangler wove a story of a community that grew from strictly farming and fishing to one where the mix of occupations matches the make-up of the residents.
In 1917, the Coral Bay area, called a quarter, had 345 residents. The 1930 census showed 280 people; this number rose to 316 by the time the census takers counted in 1940. In 1950, the number hit 395. However, the population dropped to 260 in 1960 and 172 in 1970, which Fortwangler said happened because Coral Bay residents moved to Cruz Bay so they could work at Caneel Bay Plantation, now called Caneel Bay Resort.
They had to make this move because transportation to Caneel Bay from Coral Bay was difficult. Roads were minimal and few people had cars, she said.
Resident Les Anderson added that many residents also moved to St. Thomas during those years to work as taxi drivers, which further depleted the Coral Bay population.
The population began to increase in 1980, when the U.S. Census Bureau counted 256 people. Fortwangler said this reflects the start of the mainland transplants moving to the area. In 1990, there were 363 people and 649 people in 2000. Coral Bay continues to boom, mainly because it is the only area on St. John with land still available to build houses.
Zahur Anthony, a member of the research team, noted that the 1917 transfer of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States bought only a change of government, not lifestyle.
He said that only men held jobs, most associated with farming. All families had a small garden kept growing by the frequent rains. "Those days were rainy days," Anthony said.
Anthony's remarks prompted Coral Bay resident George January to recall the 1924 hurricane, which occurred when he was 4. He said all the little houses were gone.
In fact, many in the audience had information to contribute. Anderson noted that the buildings, now ruins, located next to Emmaus Moravian Church, served as a place for the Moravians to teach trades to the residents.
"The church was what kept the island going," he said.
Retired teacher Melville Samuel, who lives at the other end of the island in Bethany, told how the Baptist church came to St. John. It was 1953, and there were only Moravian churches at Emmaus in Coral Bay and at Bethany as well as Nazareth Lutheran Church in Cruz Bay.
He said that two missionaries, George and Rennie Sterling, were passing through on their way to Barbados when they began preaching all over St. John. About a dozen St. John residents heard their call, including Samuel, and started the first Baptist church.
Samuel also noted that his wife, Mercedes, was the manager and teller at St. John's first bank. West Indies Bank and Trust opened in 1958 on the bottom floor of a building located next to what is now Lemon Tree Mall in Cruz Bay.
Guy Benjamin explained the connection between St. John and the Dominican Republic. In the old days, workers went to Santo Domingo to find jobs.
"We left many families in Santo Domingo with our names and our features," he said. Today, immigrants from the Dominican Republic add to St. John's growing population. Samuel also noted that Benjamin was his first-grade teacher.
While the population spent the older days in subsistence pursuits, the residents also were quite literate. Fortwangler said that of the 230 people of reading age living in Coral Bay in 1930, only 18 could not read or write.
Coral Bay got its first grocery store in 1946, located where the Agriculture Department is now.
Fortwangler said she and the team are still adding to their information, and if they get another grant, will publish a booklet on the project. Their research was funded by a grant from the V.I. Humanities Council.
Alvis Christian, who serves as the director of the John's Folly Learning Institute and the history project, was delighted to see so many people interested in the area's past.
He said that learning and education were the institute’s purposes.
"This is all about getting together with the community," he said after the presentation as the audience sampled home-cooked turkey, potato salad, cake and other treats prepared by John's Folly members.

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