Exciting tales bring Brac’s past to life

As part of an ongoing project to document the Brac’s early days, Saskia Edwards of the Cayman Brac Heritage Committee recently sat down with Leonardi Orlando Carter, whose family history spans many interesting periods of the island’s development. The original interview referenced below will be included in a special memory bank being created just for the Sister Islands.

Best known as Mr. Leo to his fellow Brackers, Leonardi Orlando Carter is the son of the late Edwin Adolphus Carter, a well-known merchant and fisherman of the Brac community for many years. Born during a stormy night in the wee morning hours of Sept. 6, 1941, Mr. Leo grew up in the district of the Creek, and has witnessed many changes take place on the Sister Islands during his 70 plus years of life.

Leonardi Carter in front of the restored Carter House on Cayman Brac. – Photo: Saskia Edwards
Leonardi Carter in front of the restored Carter House on Cayman Brac. – Photo: Saskia Edwards

Mr. Leo still resides in the Creek district today, behind the house his father originally built back in the 1920s. It was in this same house that he and his wife, Evelyn Carter, raised Mr. Leo and his 10 siblings. The picturesque upstairs Carter home, which now proudly serves as a popular historical landmark on the Brac, has undergone various renovations over the years. It is a manor construction, originally built as a wattle and daub cottage on the first floor which was later rebuilt with ship lap, and a timber cabin on the second floor. It was featured on the 25 cent Cayman Islands postage stamp in 2014.

A variety of goods such as provisions, paint, furniture, and clothing could all once be purchased at Edwin Carter’s business, The Fair E.A. Carter & Co., store.

“He also sold bicycles made in England – the Hercules and Coventry brands,” said Mr. Leo.

“There was also a back part addition where he used to have an ice-cream parlor shop.”

Storm of ‘32

The existing store building was rebuilt in its current location, further from the sea than the original, which was destroyed during a strong hurricane.

“Before the ‘32 storm, my dad had another shop where the road is now. The road was further north back then,” said Mr. Leo.

Like all families living on the Brac during the early 1930s, the Carter family was heavily impacted by that infamous 1932 hurricane, which claimed many lives and caused unprecedented damage. In addition to destroying the family business building, the storm almost resulted in the loss of one of his immediate family members. Although he was not born when the storm occurred, he has been told many stories of that fateful night.

“Just to tell you how bad it was, you see that same upstairs house?” Mr. Leo pointed out.

“[The storm] built up the sand level to the top floor.”

All of the family members living in the house at the time were swept out of the dining room by a ferocious wave. His brother, Lyman Ashmole Carter, who was then only 3 years of age, sheltered in a tree. When he was washed out of the house, he felt the root of a guinep tree in the back, and climbed up it and stayed there till the next day.

Mr. Leo said his mother later heard some crying nearby.

“This time the water was pretty high. There were two cisterns on the west side and the tops had wash[ed] off. My father said he would leave and try [to] get on top of them and swim out to see who it was. He said about 15 feet away he saw my brother hanging on to this tree, and he saw where he just let go from exhaustion, and he quickly dove down and got him. That was how he was saved.”

Other people also took to this method and held on to a fig tree to save their lives as well.

“They said even the snakes were in the trees,” remarked Mr. Leo.

“The night the storm struck, [my father] had just put in a full stock and everything was destroyed. He also had a garage built on the side of the shop and had a Model ‘A’ Ford vehicle [in there]. In those days, to close the windows, we had what you called roll up curtains.”

The prized family vehicle would succumb to the effects of the storm, as Mr. Leo stated: “The car was in the back yard rolled up into the sand after the storm.”

Before opening his shop, Mr. Leo’s father was also engaged in numerous seagoing ventures and business arrangements.

“He sold turtle shells to England, and he used to go out to the Cays to pick bird eggs, trap fish and that sort of thing.”

As Mr. Carter reminisced on his childhood, he highlighted the high regard for work ethics, and the sound teachings of parents, which were instilled into children from a young age.

“In them times like that especially mine, [they] would put you to work in the yard to clean up, and put a broom in each hand. One for in the house, and one for around the yard. I still prefer it like that today actually.”

He also reflected on the various modes of transportation that were around during that era.

“In those times they had very few vehicles, [there weren’t] many cars. [It was] very rare you see a car passed on the road. We mostly had bicycles and motorcycles. We had what you call Cyclemasters. They had a[n] engine in the back wheel of the bicycle. I had two motorcycles in my time too, in my ‘20s growing up. Mr. Britton Grant used to sell motorcycles. The make of them was Cyrus.”

Communications advances

Late advances in the development of communication technology was a challenge at times.

“We hardly had any good communication. They only had a few telephones on island. They had one at Stake Bay, by the Museum area there, one at West End, and Captain Edwin Walton had one in Spot Bay. I called it a coffee grinder,” he playfully joked, describing it as a noisy piece of equipment that involved a lot of winding and a rather intricate answering system.

“You had to holler and talk on that. You could stay in the street and hear them talk. The poles weren’t square, just one wire across and that was a raw wire that wasn’t insulated. Up until some time ago there was one pole still standing by where you call the Rocks, but I don’t know what ever happened to it.”

Radios were another typical type of communication equipment that were available and among the merchandise items that his father sold.

“My father ordered radios from Jamaica. They carried a dry cell battery and that would last six months. The maker of these was Espy and Ecko. He would also sell them in Grand Cayman as Mr. Warren Conolly was his agent down there.”

Disaster averted

These radios proved to be quite useful and one night in particular, helped to detect a plane in distress flying over Cayman Brac. His brother Lyman was listening to his radio, which could pick up planes communicating with Jamaican stationed air traffic controllers.

“The plane was en route from Venezuela, heading to Kingston, Jamaica, caring merchandise goods like refrigerators and washing machines,” said Mr. Leo.

“My brother heard the pilot mention that his navigational detector went out and he didn’t want to risk flying through the mountains of Jamaica.”

Mr. Leo explained how the pilot told the air traffic controller that he was over a small island south of Cuba, which was actually Cayman Brac, and the air traffic controller told him that he was probably seeing one of the Cays off the coast of Jamaica. Mr. Lyman however, having recognized that the island the pilot was seeing was in fact Cayman Brac, quickly made contact with the appropriate local aviation personnel.

“So my brother got a hold of Captain Keith [Tibbetts]. In those days he was in charge of the airport terminal, and told him about this plane that was in trouble,” said Mr. Leo.

“So Captain Keith was able to get in touch with the pilot, and good thing too, cause he was running low on fuel, and he told him the coordinates of where he was to land. Captain Keith got it arranged for two cars on each end of the runway, to shine their car lights facing each other, cause them days you never had any lights on the runway. There was an electrical storm on that night too. Anyway the pilot landed the plane safely. He said he had seen a sandy area where he was thinking of trying to land on but he changed his mind. The next day the Captain needed fuel so they also arranged for him to get gas.”

The pilot was reportedly very grateful for the help and hospitality extended to him and his copilot by the people of the Brac community, and boasted that Cayman Brac was his “lucky island.”

The waters surrounding the Brac were also busy with activity. Mr. Leo recalls that many different vessels could often be seen sailing on the open waters.

“When they would see the olden ships coming from Jamaica, [people] would come out and holler ‘Sailor–ho! Sailor-ho!’” said Mr. Leo. “After a while that just died out.”

Mr. Leo recounted one of his own exciting adventures, when he got to experience the thrill of traveling on the open waters on board one of these captivating vessels, when sailed on the Caymanian for his first trip to Jamaica.

“She was a lovely boat – steam, no diesel. I was 7 years old. My father, mother, sister and myself – the four of us went on that trip.”

During that postwar era it was common to travel to Jamaica by boat for supplies and to seek medical care.

“My first trip up there, we went to a doctor. My father was taking us to an Adventist hospital for a check-up. Father would buy merchandise for the shops, things like files and machetes.”

Today Mr. Leo is enjoying his retirement years, living the simple life. He takes delight in reflecting on yesteryear, and is quite happy to enlighten those who are willing to lend a listening ear.