Rafe Boulon and Eleanor Gibney captivate audience with memories of growing up on St. John

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This photo of the Gibney, Boulon and Knight families on Trunk Bay beach was taken in 1955. Top row, from left to right, are Jane Boulon, Billy Knight and Nancy Gibney. Bottom row, from left to right, are David Knight, Rafe Boulon, Ed Gibney and John Gibney.

Rafe Boulon and Eleanor Gibney captivated an audience of more than 100 people at a Tuesday evening, March 14, Historical Society meeting, as they shared photos, videos and stories of their childhoods on St. John.

Boulon, who now works as the V.I. National Park’s chief of resource management, said he was surprised at the turnout.

“Who would’ve thought there would be this many people interested in our childhoods?” he said. “It’s kind of scary.”

100 Acres at Trunk Bay for $5,000
The Boulon family made their mark on St. John when they purchased approximately 100 acres at Trunk Bay in 1927, for $5,000.

The family sold all but three acres, known as Windswept Beach, to Laurance Rockefeller in 1951, “for less than what you would pay for a quarter acre now,” said Boulon.

Although many would imagine that Boulon would be upset about the sale, considering how much the land would be worth today, he said that it doesn’t bother him too much.

“If we did still own the land, I’d probably have more gray hair, or no hair,” he said. “I’d have to hold down three jobs just to pay the property taxes.”

The Boulon family had offers from hotels to buy the land at Trunk Bay, which they declined.

The family knew they were going to continue to live on a small portion of the land, and they knew they did not want to overlook a hotel.

The Boulon family did hold on to one very valuable piece of land, however.

Boulon’s aunt, who lives on St. Thomas, still owns approximately an acre of land in Cruz Bay, where Morgan’s Mango is now. “People tried to talk her out of buying it,” said Boulon. “They said it was too far out of town.”

Hiking Was Favorite Pastime
Boulon, who was born in 1952 on St. Thomas and brought back to St. John on a Tortola sloop when he was just two days old, said that he and his friends, Ed and John Gibney, used to love to hike.

The boys would open a map of St. John and decide where to hike by closing their eyes and placing a finger on the map.

Boulon said he rarely wore shoes. He would sit down and dig shells and other debris out of his feet every few weeks, he explained.

The first time he wore shoes was at four years old, and the unfamiliar sensation of not being barefoot caused him to “walk like a cat with tape on its feet,” he said.

Boulon said his parents did not worry when he didn’t come home at night.

He would sometimes spend the day fishing off Mary Point with John Gibney, he explained. They would then go to Francis Bay to cook that day’s catch, and would sleep on the beach.

This was sometimes made difficult by the donkeys running up and down the beach, and by land crabs pulling at the boys’ sheets, added Boulon.

Jailed for Swimming
As Boulon grew into a teenager, he found enjoyment by swimming in the water catchment above Caneel Bay, which was like a “million gallon fresh water pool,” he said.

This got him and six of his friends in trouble one night.

An off-duty police offer who saw the boys swimming went to town to get the police sergeant, who came to the scene and called to the boys to get out of the catchment.

“Five boys responded, but the officer realized that two boys were missing,” said Boulon. “He saw our motorcycles there, and yelled out ‘Gibney! Boulon!’”

The boys spent the night in jail at the Battery, and were given a tin can to use as their “bathroom,” he recalled.

Rockefeller dropped the charges against the boys, because he didn’t want people knowing that they were swimming in the resort’s water supply, according to Boulon.

Pave Paradise
Boulon described some of the changes he has seen on the island in the last 50 years.

“The North Shore Road, from Trunk Bay to Cruz Bay, used to be a dirt trail, more suitable for donkeys than cars,” he said.

He also witnessed the construction of the parking lot at Trunk Bay.

“The parking lot at Trunk used to be known as ‘The Grove,’ because of all the fruit trees there,” he said.

The song “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell, with those familiar lyrics, “pave paradise, put up a parking lot,” ironically came out around the same time “The Grove” was being taken over by Trunk’s parking lot, said Boulon.

Despite the changes that Boulon has seen, “a lot of things have stayed the same,” he said.

Gibney, who shared rare home movies from 1947-1960, spoke about her parents, and how they ended up on St. John.

They came to the island in 1946 on their honeymoon.

“They more or less never left,” said Gibney. “They were very unusual people.”

Gibney’s father was “not comfortable in mid-century America,” she said. “He was dismayed by development on Long Island, where he was born. He was looking for a society that was simpler.”

During the couple’s first three months on the island, they stayed in a Cruz Bay cottage, where Every Ting is located today.

First Snow Birds
They then stayed at Denis Bay, taking care of the property for the Wadsworth family, who were the “first snow birds on St. John,” said Gibney.

Her parents then lived on Henley Cay for a while, and when her father’s father died and left some money to the family, they bought the property that the family still owns today, which was then known as Hawsknest.

Gibney’s home movies included shots of the house at Denis Bay, which was “the height of luxury on St. John back then,” she said.

Also shown in the video are two palm trees, which were blown and bent in a hurricane, causing them to grow horizontally, out and over what is now Gibney Beach.

“At that time, they were the most photographed trees in the Virgin Islands,” said Gibney.

Health care on the island was very different than what is offered today.

“Going to St. Thomas to have babies was what you did,” said Gibney. “They kept you for a whole week, and you were charged $15.”

A doctor came to the island from St. Thomas once a week. For Ed Gibney’s first check-up, his mother walked two-and-a-half miles with the infant to Cruz Bay to see the doctor.

Boat for Transportation
The family always traveled by boat, said Gibney, but the boat happened to be out of commission that day.

“We didn’t bother with donkeys or horses,” said Gibney. “We always used the boat.”

The North Shore has not drastically changed since she was a child, said Gibney.

“Thanks to the National Park, the North Shore does not look all that different,” she said.