by Larry Smith
ROCK SOUND, Eleuthera -- Other than sun, sand and sea, South Eleuthera's attractions are modest - a landlocked ocean hole where you can feed the snappers, an 87-year-old fig tree spreading along the highway, and an historic Methodist manse.
The Methodist Mission House dates back two centuries, and has been meticulously restored as a museum and community centre. A foundation, led by Chandra Sands (daughter of the late Rock Sound entrepeneur Albert Sands), raised over half a million dollars to support the project.
The Mission has seen a lot of history in its time. Among the items featured in its museum are obsolete medical equipment. That's because in 1942 the building became a community clinic, courtesy of American industrialist Arthur Vining Davis.
According to Albert Sands, in a 2002 speech, Eleuthera survived on small-scale farming and fishing before 1939 "when Arthur Vining Davis stepped onto the scene, introduced to the island by Sir Harold Christie. He bought all the land there was, and our forefathers went to work for him."
Looking to avoid taxes and enjoy warm winters, these three were part of a wave of wealthy migrants who swept into the islands from the 1930s onward. They included mining millionaire Sir Harry Oakes, who built Nassau's first airport, and Canadian beer baron E P Taylor, who developed the Lyford Cay enclave.
In fact, the flow of money was so great that the Royal Bank of Canada was moved to set up a trust company (later known as RoyWest) that pioneered tax shelters, with Arthur Vining Davis as its first president. After Davis retired from active management of Alcoa in the late 1940s, he became a land developer. And before his death in 1962, he had acquired some 30,000 acres on Eleuthera.
With fond memories of the Bahamas from his honeymoon, Austin Levy set up a dairy and poultry farm in 1936 on thousands of acres at Hatchet Bay. He took the place of a group of retired British officers who had started the original Hatchet Bay Company a decade earlier with the idea of quarrying limestone building blocks. It was this company that cut the channel from the sea to an inland lagoon, creating Hatchet Bay's hurricane-proof harbour.
Levy imported cattle from his Sherman Stock Farm in Massachusetts, and supplied milk, eggs and ice cream to the Nassau market for decades. Even after he died in 1951, his plantation continued to employ hundreds and provided much of the infrastructure for nearby Alice Town. In addition to agricultural facilities, the operation featured restaurants, stores, a yacht club and a power plant.
But Hatchet Bay Farm was taken over by the government in 1975 for political reasons. And it's much-lamented closure nine years later will forever be associated with former prime minister Sir Lynden Pindling's gloating remark that state ownership had made the farm "the greatest success story in Bahamian agricultural history".
Meanwhile, Davis had developed his own employment-generating Three Bays Farm at Rock Sound, as well as a second home estate for the wealthy called the Rock Sound Club. In 1952 he wanted to build a 300-room hotel at Half Sound, but the government turned him down. So he sold out to airline pioneer Juan Trippe, who set himself up on Davis' former estate.
Perhaps more than anyone, Trippe was responsible for the development of the commercial airline industry in the 1950s and 60s. And it was Trippe who transformed South Eleuthera into a destination of choice for the glitterati of North America and Europe.
As a young man he set up an air taxi service for well-heeled New Yorkers, before moving to Florida to launch Pan American Airways. Pan Am began flying from Key West to Havana in 1927 and from Miami to Nassau in 1929 (it went belly up in 1991). Trippe went on to persuade aircraft makers to build large passenger jets to bring the cost of air travel down. And he was instrumental in Boeing's decision to develop the 747 jumbo jet in the mid 60s.
After taking over Davis' holdings on South Eleuthera, Trippe built the Cotton Bay Club in 1959 as a private "cottage colony" for his wealthy friends. There are still about a dozen homes on the rise overlooking the ocean, owned by the wealthy families of the original purchasers like H. G. Searle, the drug manufacturer.
Trippe expanded the Rock Sound airport so Pan Am jets from New York and Miami could fly in daily - the most notable achievement in airlift to an out island in Bahamian history. In fact, the Rock Sound airport had US pre-clearance privileges even before Grand Bahama.
"And so Trippe came and bought the holdings of Arthur Vining Davis, and everything was going well," as Albert Sands described it. "We had two Pam Am flights a day and we thought Eleuthera had arrived."
In 1970 Trippe acquired several thousand acres at Powell Point, some 15 miles from Rock Sound, for a new resort in partnership with a big Florida land company called GAC Properties. The $35 million Cape Eleuthera Resort would be focused around a marina dredged from a salt pond, and included a clubhouse, villas, golf course, airstrip and hundreds of fully serviced homesites starting at $8,000. It opened in 1973 amid much fanfare.
At the time, GAC chairman S Haywood Wills said Cape Eleuthera was "the most thoughtfully planned resort community of its kind." As evidence, he noted that a third of the development would be "parkland" while insecticides and weed killers would be sprayed on the golf course "with great care".
The resort sponsored a massive clean-up of nearby settlements. Hundreds of gallons of paint were distributed to residents who went on a decorating frenzy, and government bigwigs were on hand to declare a public holiday.
But the excitement was short-lived. Within five years the resort was $140 million in debt. Hardly any homes had been built, and there were reports that the Pindling government was putting the screws to the owners. The demise of Cape Eleuthera marked the end of an era.
Trippe died in 1981 and Cape Eleuthera passed to a Saudi developer named Abdul Bougary who ran it half-heartedly for two years before shutting it down. Cotton Bay also went on the chopping block. The government closed Hatchet Bay in 1984, and Winding Bay went out of business soon after. Things were so bad that the opposition called for South Eleuthera to be declared a disaster area.
After years of negotiation a Michigan company called Landquest International stepped in to buy the Cape property for $10 million. Owned by the DeVos family, founders of the multi-billion-dollar Amway Corporation, Landquest had developed a shore facility for passing cruise ships near Bannerman Town and was interested in other properties.
But the Cape remained derelict until 2004, when construction finally got underway on a scaled-down redevelopment almost identical to Trippe's original concept - villas, marina, homesites, golfing and a small inn. My visit to the new Cape Eleuthera in 2008 recalled visits of 30 years past as a writer for the Bahamas News Bureau.
The marina has been completely rebuilt, with room for 200 slips and facilities for mega yachts, and there are plans to restore the golf course and re-open the airstrip. A dozen of so new villas line the marina with phone, Internet and cable TV service. The total investment so far is put at more than $85 million.
Trippe's other holdings on South Eleuthera were acquired in 1988 by a company headed by Nassau businessman Franklyn Wilson. In the 1990s about 1,000 acres of the old Cotton Bay estate was sold to a Colombian billionaire named Luis Carlos Sarmiento, who uses the resort as a private hideaway. Sarmiento has so far declined to reinvest in the property - much to the chagrin of the remaining wealthy homeowners.
Meanwhile, Wilson set about developing a new 200-acre Cotton Bay Club - with the usual villas, homesites, golf course, clubhouse and marina - on the remaining 2,000 acres of Trippe's South Eleuthera Properties estate. But the 2007 financial crisis brought this development to a virtual standstill.
Wilson is now involved in a quieting action before the Supreme Court. Nearly 600 people from South Eleuthera are claiming that the property belongs to them because it was willed to the descendants of Robert and Anne Millar, former plantation workers.
Like many other islands in the Bahamas, Eleuthera is littered with failed or stalled resorts dating back to the 1960s that never seem to gain traction - despite the spectacular natural environment that the island offers.
And now a new development is being proposed for hundreds of acres of unspoiled wilderness at Lighthouse Point, on the island's southernmost tip. This is slated to include the usual marina, golf course and condo community on canals that will be hacked out of the landscape - despite the fact that nearby Cape Eleuthera Resort already has one of the largest marinas in the country and is barely making it.
The One Eleuthera Foundation and the Bahamas National Trust are joining with other conservation groups and community activists in a campaign to make this unusual area a national park.
"This pristine place of outstanding beauty is currently not protected and is being marketed as a potential site for gated development," the Foundation's online petition says. "It is one of the most important unexplored archaeological and scientific sites in the Bahamas."
The site includes a largely undisturbed rare hyper-saline lake, the Millars Plantation (with artifacts that date back as early as the 1780’s), the ruins of old Bannerman Town, an historic lighthouse, and traces of a Lucayan presence at the point itself.
Surely yet another mega-resort on an island already littered with failed and half-developed resorts is not the best way to pursue economic development. We have to conserve our national assets and use them sensibly. Destroying priceless natural ecosystems is not the way to go.