The Saba Islander

by Will Johnson



By: Will Johnson


The Vineyard in the nineteen fifties with cattle roaming on the grounds.

Obviously, looking for a house was to be my first job. While aboard our ship [schooner Estelle]  we had seen shining above the green manzanille around the eastern bay corner, a little white housetop adorned with a big yellow star, looking very inviting from a distance. The estate belonging to it bore the sonorous name of “The Vineyard”, and it proved to be untenanted – although regrettably  we  could not find any grapevines.

I had to put up with a fairly stiff rent by St. Maarten’s standard but was not sorry because it happened to be the most suitable home imaginable. Our house was situated on the face of a steep hill, richly grown and strewn with boulders. When walking home through Front Street we often fell under the spell of the spot, especially so in bright moonlight, enhanced by the mysteriousness of the sounds of the living creatures in the wild darkness of the hills.

Because of its location, slightly elevated, the house afforded a splendid and varied view from our front veranda. Both of the green-walled village streets ran between the bay, always vivid and fidgety with the wide sea looming in the background, and the darker, nearly purple, water of the large salt pond.


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Looking from the hills above to the ‘Vineyard’ and the harbor the ‘Great Bay’ beyond.

“Fort Amsterdam, situated in a narrow neck of land, manifested itself as a boundary between the Bay and the Caribbean. Casting a glance from there to the right you could follow the upward line of the hills, resting finally on the highest summits of Sentry Hills, Mont des Accords and Flagstaff Hill. Their contours were shaped like a reclining giant in the background of the salt pond and, further up north, we saw the plantation house of “Madams Estate” and the hills of Prince’s Quarter.

Imagine ‘The Vineyard’ being no less than a ten-minute walk from this cozy corner! I now shake my head at such youthful obstinacy, but at the time we, the reckless newlyweds, had no objections.

“With regrets, we left St. Maarten on the March voyage of the ‘Estelle” [schooner of Capt. Tommy Vanterpool] in 1920. My wife and also my daughter, even though she was only one year old, had made many friends. Living in such a remote spot for some years may bring on a longing to return to civilization, yet farewell seemed to be hard. There was a feeling of leaving behind something special, a fine experience never to be relived.

“Our passage to Curacao, in the company of our little daughter, went before the wind and lasted about four days. Willemstad, its capital, looked like a metropolis. The year spent there slipped by quickly. Via Trinidad and Paramaribo, the ‘Nickerie’ took us back to the port of Amsterdam on Easter Monday, 1921.

Life went on, as life does. Nevertheless, we would not have liked doing without those years in St. Maarten.”

[ Far from the World’s Turmoil, St. Maarten 1918-1920 By F.S. Langemeyer C.E.]

The most memorable story I remember about the Vineyard is the one told to me by my boss Fons O’Connor. It was the introduction of the flush toilet inside the house. Back in the day the ‘outhouse’ was located a distance from one’s home where you ate and slept. It was sanitized from time to time with coal dust to keep down the odor as much as possible. I was told by my boss that when the ‘Vineyard’ was built that Mr. L.A. van Romondt had a flush toilet installed inside the house. What a to do among the population at the time. “Who would have thought that Mr. Van Romondt was a man like that. Doing he business inside the house, where he have to cook and sleep?”

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L.A. van Romondt with his wife “Poppie” Brouwer and their children Fritz, Lewis and Kees 1929, ‘The Vineyard’ St. Martin.

In those days it was customary for those who did not have an outhouse to carry the ‘night soil’ down to the beach and throw it into the sea. The belief I heard to justify this practice was that the sea cleaned itself every twenty-four hours. No need to worry except if you were a person who liked an early morning sea bath.

From the point of ‘doing his business inside the house’ the ‘Vineyard’ was a sensation at the time.

But for those who appreciated beautiful architecture and especially the then unspoiled setting would certainly have admired the ‘Vineyard’ from the very beginning. That is why I started this article with the memories of civil engineer F.S. Langemeyer who in later years considered it to have been a great privilege for him to have lived there.

Not only the building but the entire property located at the head of town demanded respect. The land extended to the very tops of the hills while the old town of Philipsburg lay at its feet. From the veranda one could enjoy the view of the beautiful town with the Great Salt Pond then full of activity spread out before it with the hills in the distance enclosing it like the oyster holding a precious pearl in its embrace.


The ‘Vineyard’ while to the head of town was more of a country house than a town house.

The closest neighbour was the Huith family further up the dirt road on the road to Pointe Blanche which remained unspoiled until the end of 1959 when construction started in that area.

The house was imported from Baltimore between 1871 and 1873. I have heard it told that the house was prefabricated and modeled after a home on the island of Martha’s Vineyard therefore the name ‘The Vineyard’.  It was imported by Mr. L.A. van Romondt. It was built by the by now well-known wooden frame construction. For those who may not know the van Romondt  family,they practically owned the whole of St. Martin from the beginning of the nineteenth century to the waning days of the mid twentieth century when Mr. D.C. van Romondt passed away in 1948 at his estate ‘Mary’s Fancy’. In my book “For the love of St. Maarten” several chapters were dedicated to this family. After that I established relations with many of their descendants living all over the world. Just a few nights ago before writing this article I had a call from a lady in upstate New York whose mother was by me many years ago. She wanted to get information on where she should stay and how she and her husband could get together to discuss ‘family’. And you can never tell. The first van Romondt came out from Holland a bachelor and ended up marrying Ann Hassell the granddaughter of the rebel Peter Hassell from Saba. I have several Hassell ancestors so you can never tell.


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Elize Buncamper (Miss Babe), Daisy Hoven van Romondt and Coralie (Miss Coxie) Buncamper. The Vineyard 1965. I corresponded with “Miss Daisy” who lived in Alberta Canada until she passed away in her nineties.

The ‘Vineyard’ changed hands to Mayor Louis Constant Fleming, who at the time along with Mr. Cyrus W.Wathey were buying out the van Romondt family as they left the island and/or were dying out. In 1938 he sold it to Ms. J.C. Buncamper. It is still owned by a member of the Buncamper family and has been largely restored since the damage caused by hurricane Irma in 2017.

In my book ‘The Diary of a St. Martin Salt Checker’ I cover the history of the family and the Buncamper ownership of the “Vineyard’.  Regrettably people do not seem to read books anymore as I still have boxes of this book lying around. I am like the man in V.S. Naipaul’s book, ‘The Suffrage of Elvira’ I think. An illiterate man dictated his thoughts on Hinduism to a publisher and had fifteen hundred booklets printed and put on shelves in his humble abode in the countryside of Trinidad. Never sold a copy of course, but the equally illiterate country folks thought he must be brilliant to have fifteen hundred books in his house. When he thought he had enough admirers he followed the route of so many islanders today and decided to run for Senator. But that is another story. So, besides the unsold books I have written and the large collection of other books I have people must have believed me literarily equipped enough to vote for me over five decades.


Looking from another side of The Vineyard in the direction of the Great Salt Pond and beyond.

In Joan D. van Andel’s book ‘Caribbean Traditional Architecture’ published in 1985 she reports more on the structure, “The design of the outside of the large house known as the ‘Vineyard’ on the outside of Philipsburg, differs very much from the traditional domestic building. Yet there are also many similarities. Its exclusive situation on the present W.G. Buncamper Street and its glamour give the house a special place within the traditional architecture of the island.

Although nothing is certain, this house probably owes its name to the fact that grapes once surrounded the house. The Caribbean [sea] grape is a succulent {Ipomea pescaprae) growing near the sea, a salty plant with small grapes which are not edible. [ Sorry to disagree but I would have been out of here already from a boy. Love sea grapes]. From the principal entrance of the estate, a drive leads to the front staircase leading up to the house. Where today we see flat pieces of land on either side of the drive and cows grazing in the short green grass, formerly the ‘grapes’ must have been grown, or perhaps other tropical plants. Now there is some vegetation on both sides of the front stairs, close to the house in a garden surrounded by a wooden fence.



My friends the late Bernadette Buncamper of The Vineyard with Lt. Governor Theodore M. Pandt her adviser and accountant for the various Buncamper businesses and holdings.


The location of the façade on the short side is striking. The rooms are situated on the long side, round a staircase and a passage. On the upper “floor” on both sides of the passage, there are bedrooms. In most houses in Philipsburg, the façade is on the long side and the rooms are divided along the width of this façade.

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Philipsburg around 1900.

There is an outside staircase leading towards the façade. The plan of the house is more complicated than the plans of the traditional houses in town: there are more apartments, and the indoor staircase and the passages make the design more intricate.

Nowadays there is only a verandah on the side of the front façade: in former times there was another at the back of the houses. In contrast to most houses in Philipsburg, where the verandah is often part of the roof construction, the verandah of the ‘Vineyard’ is built as an independent structure onto the floor of the façade. This is evident as the verandah is built against a gable.

The book goes on to describe several aspects of the buildings design. It goes on to state:” The Vineyard has been described separately because being on the east side of the town it occupies rather an isolated position in relation to the other domestic houses in Philipsburg, which are all situated on Front or Back Street. Moreover, owing to its size, it is not a townhouse, but has more the character of a country house.”


The Vineyard was a good setting for all kinds of social events.

My first visit to The Vineyard was in 1955. I had not made 14 yet. Teacher Frank Hassell took me there to see Miss Coxie (Coralie Buncamper) who had been a teacher on Saba at one time and was friends with my mother. She would visit my mother in the St. Rose Hospital when she had breast surgery for cancer and had to stay there for quite some time. I recall seeing their mother a lady of Dutch descent. Born Johanna Christine Lemke (January 31st 1866 and died May 16th 1961). That day holds a particular memory as we went with a car to have lunch with Mr. Emilio Wilson at his estate. No traffic back then. I believe it was Miss Coxie doing the driving knocking off a speed of perhaps five miles an hour with no traffic coming or going and Miss Babe cautioning Coxie to ‘slow down’.  In 1960 when I started working and living on St. Maarten I was always in the company of the Buncamper family. In my mind’s eye now, I can see Mr. Walter Granville Buncamper, a tall stately figure walking up the street on his way to the Vineyard to visit his sisters. I remember a number of times  sitting with ‘Uncle’ Carl Buncamper and the others, on the verandah with he giving me details of the former important families in the Eastern Caribbean.

I would like to end this article as I started it with the quote from civil engineer F.S. Langemeyer . “There was a feeling of leaving behind something special “Though I spend much time on St. Maarten still, I often dream of those wonderful years I spent there with the people of St. Martin treating me as one of their own. And I regret that so much of what I loved was sacrificed in the name of prosperity.


The hills were still not developed when this photo was taken in the 1980’s.


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