Abaco Life Magazine

Abaco Life, An Island Magazine

 
   
       

The Road to Cherokee

The future has arrived overnight down a twisting new road
to a place where time seemed to stand still for 150 years

By Jim Kerr

Of all Abaco’s communites, Cherokee Sound is by far the most isolated. It remains debatable as to why the location, 23 miles south of Marsh Harbour on the east coast of Great Abaco, was chosen for a settlement in the first place. One explanation is that American loyalists, sailing from Spanish-held Florida in 1783, were working their way up the east coast of Abaco when they spied a shallow harbour. It was the first they had seen, and while it was only suitable for small vessels, the area offered fertile land, protection from the sea and, perhaps most importantly, plenty of fresh water. The nearby mangroves, while dense, were Cherokee Sound Abaco Bahamasnavigable by skiff, and there was excellent elevation off an ocean point which formed the northern boundary of a fabulous bay and curving sand beach which became known as Winding Bay.
Why they dubbed the settlement “Cherokee Sound” is also a subject of conjecture. Patrick Bethel, a native of Cherokee and author of a brief but informative booklet called “Growing up in Cherokee, 1935-1950,” theorizes that the founder, Colonel Thomas Brown, who had commanded a battalion of king’s rangers in the Carolinas and had been the King of England’s representative to the Cherokee Indians there, brought with him a Cherokee Indian woman. Some say old photographs show distinct Cherokee features in the faces of some early settlement offspring.
Whatever the true source of the name, Cherokee Sound’s geographical situation held it in check for the next two hundred years. The shallow harbour did not allow major vessels, and the only alternative way into the town was a creek accessible by dinghy. Other early settlements such as Marsh Harbour, Hope Town and Man-O-War Cay, all with excellent harbours, were a day’s sail from Cherokee. In the 1950s, as these communties began to catch up with 20th century techology and establish modern-day industries such as tourism and real estate, Cherokee basically remained an anachronism of the 19th century.
Coming suddenly upon Cherokee is somewhat like finding the mythical Scottish village of “Brigadoon,” which, according to legend, only appeared once for a day every 100 years. Today there are 98 houses and a population of about 180, but there were as many as 400 people living here in the 1800s, and until the 1950s, there were more residents in Cherokee than in Marsh Harbour. The neat and narrow concrete streets pass by pastel painted houses trimmed in pink, green and blue. There are three churches; a small community center, which was resurrected from an old one-room school house; and a new, two-room primary school with 18 students. One small, but well-stocked, grocery store, the Cherokee Food Fair, serve the town needs, but there are no restaurants or tourist lodgings in the settlement, although 23 of the houses are foreign owned and a handful of these, as well as native-owned houses, are sometimes rented.
The people of Cherokee are known for being tall, handsome, intelligent and hard-working. While the earliest inhabitants were American Loyalists, newcomers included descendants of the Eleutherian Adventurers, who had settled Eleuthera from Bermuda in the 1600s. The village had ties with other loyalist settlements such as Hope Town, Man-O-War Cay and Green Turtle Cay, and today names common in those island communities, such as Sawyer, Albury, Pinder and Bethel, can be found in Cherokee as well. They survived on what they could grow on land or catch in the sea. Grits, corn, potatoes, peas and wild fruits were supplemented with conch, fish, turtle and whelks, but from the mid 1800s to present day, cash to buy everything else, from clothes to household goods, has come almost exclusively from catching and selling fish of one kind or another.
Cherokee fisherman Kenneth Albury, 63, stands six-foot-five. His solid frame and can-do attitude is typical of many men here who have worked hard all their lives to make the settlement a lasting entity. He left school at age 14 to go smack fishing on a 48-foot boat called the Renown, built in Cherokee. Like most, the Renown spent six to seven weeks at a time at sea before selling its catch in Nassau and returning home. Today Ken is a crawfisherman, a much more lucrative occupation which only requires an absence of two to three weeks. “I never had any desire to move away,” Ken says. “I like the quiet here and going to sea, and when you’re home for two or three weeks between trips, you have time to help the community.”
His mother had eight children. Large families were the rule back then, a trend which has greatly diminished in recent years. When Ken went to the little school, there were more than 80 children. His teacher was Pat Bethel, who was born in 1933, and whose own family numbered six boys. Today, half the 18 students in the primary school live at nearby Casuarina Point, and big families of 10 to 12 are a thing of the past. Attrition has also contributed to the decreased population over the years. But while many have moved away, others have either stayed or returned, determined to take advantage of new job opportunties while embracing Cherokee’s peaceful ways.
Hartman Albury, 35, is primarily involved in construction, a trade he learned from his father, but for 15 years he was a crawfisherman working for Ross Sawyer out of Green Turtle Cay. Bonnie, 31, his wife of 13 years, works full time at the Cherokee food store. Their home is a sturdy block house, as opposed to the older wood frame houses which tend to be plagued by termites. It’s bright and richly furnished, with every modern appliance, and inside some glass cases are samples of Hartie’s talent as a model boat maker, another skill passed down from his father.
“I’ve traveled a lot in the U.S. and Bahamas,” says Hartie, “but I prefer things in Cherokee to remain the way they were. Until now, it has basically stayed the way it was in my father’s day. People interact like they did 100 years ago, and I don’t want to see that change, despite the new road and all.”
Telephones arrived in 1987 when Batelco installed a radio tower on the edge of the village. Electricity, via an underwater cable from Casuarina, followed almost six years later, and the paved road, linking Cherokee to the newly paved highway on South Abaco, was opened in 1997. For the first few miles, the road runs straight through level farmland, then takes a series of sharp, 90 degree turns as it follows higher ground around the mangroves and along the coast until finally dead ending into a town parking lot to the left, or straight into the village and waterfront. Both electricity and the road are said to be fulfilled political promises in return for Cherokee’s support during the 1991 Bahamas elections, but whatever the motivations might have been, the outcome has been dramatic.
For people used to a seamless commute between home and work, Cherokee’s situation up to this point is hard to imagine. A mail boat plying the route between Marsh Harbour and Nassau was the community’s only regular contact with the outside world, except for short wave radio and telegraph. During the 1950s, a dirt farm road linked the unpaved road on south Abaco to a place called Big Mangrove, across the sound from Cherokee . From here, small, shallow-draft boats could pick up and drop off passengers at the settlement dock. In the early 1980s, Carol Albury, a Marsh Harbour contractor, pushed a road through the forest from Big Mangrove which circled the inland waterways and mangroves and reached the village. It was a necessary element in a project to bring in equipment to deepen the dredged channel from Cherokee to the ocean, but the narrow tract road was never intended as a viable overland route. Nevertheless, taxis came over it once a week, conditions permitting, and Cherokee men like Meldon Albury, Hartie’s father, commuted five days a week to construction jobs as far away as Treasure Cay.
Because of its peculiar location, it is easy to understand why Cherokee was as dependent on the sea for a living as much, if not more, than Abaco’s outer cays. Fishing smacks, which were typically 32-feet on the keel and 48 feet overall, carried a crew of nine or ten men on five to seven-week trips. Scale fish such as jacks and google eyes in summer, and snapper, grunts and yellowtail in winter, were caught with large nets about 300 feet long and 12 feet deep. The catch, up to 1,200 pounds, was stored in live wells and sold in Nassau about once a week. The boats were kept at an anchorage called Riding Cay, about a mile from the settlement, when the men came home for a layover, but during the hurricane months of September and October the boats were brought up into the creek, beached or hauled for painting and maintenance at the settlement.
Boat building became a major industry in Abaco in the late 1800s, but while settlements such as Hope Town and Green Turtle built sailing schooners for freight, Cherokee specialized in fishing smacks. The industry produced several generations of talented builders from the mid 1800s until the late 1950s, but Benny Sawyer, Hartie’s uncle, is considered the best and most prolific of them all. He built 22 boats during his career, and while most were fishing vessels, one was a 60-footer commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook of England and another, the Pinnochio, was later bought by William F. Buckley, who renamed it the Cyrano, sailed it across the Atlantic and wrote a bestseller book about it called “Airborne.”
Together with his father, Hartie built a replica model of Sea Bird, one of Uncle Benny’s early creations, and because of his talent, the Bahamas government has asked Hartie to build a similar model to represent Cherokee’s boat-building past for a display at a Smithsonian Maritime Museum in Baltimore. It’s only one project of many that Hartie and other Cherokee residents are involved with to preserve the past. A neighbor, Lee Pinder, was instrumental in erecting a monument to Cherokee sailors, an obelisk engraved on three sides and dedicated in 1988. Lee contributes a column on Cherokee affairs to the Abaconian newspaper, but while she is tuned in to everything going on here, and involved in many on-going civic projects, she is not a native. Originally from Ohio, she met her husband, Dan, a native Cherokee resident, through friends in Nassau, and spent the next 20 years living in Freeport before coming home to Dan’s birthplace.
“We looked for 20 years for a place here in the settlement,” she says. “This house had been sold to foreignors, and they sold it back to us.”
Like many in Cherokee, whether newcomers or tenth generation residents, Lee Pinder worries about foreign influence on the community, while at the same time acknowledging the tremendous contributions of outsiders. There have been many, but one of the most notable is Colyn Rees, an entrepeneur born in Bermuda who, unlike the loyalists, did not discover Cherokee from the sea. The year was 1946, and Colyn had founded an air charter service called Nassau Aviation Company. During the war, he had ferried new bombers across the Atlantic as an RAF Transport Command pilot, but now he was looking down on something decidedly more picturesque than open ocean. From the vantage of a Grumman Goose amphibian, he saw beauty and potential beyond anything previously imagined.
“I wanted to see all the islands,” says Colyn, who lives today in Marsh Harbour. “In those days, Abaco was the most neglected.” A talented photographer, he shot aerials of the village and the area. He could see how neatly the settlement nestled into the sound, how Winding Bay’s sandy beach curved gracefully to the north, and how the coastline rose beyond to elevations not found many other places in the Bahamas. “It was,” he said, “without a doubt, from Cherokee Point to Little Harbour, the most beautiful property in all the Abacos.”
A lifelong love affair with the area began soon after when Colyn himself bought 23 acres on a hill which sloped from the sea down to the sound just north of the settlement. He built five cottages as a bonefishing and deep sea fishing camp, then went into semi-retirement there in the late 1950s. He kept his businesses going in Nassau, but embraced the Cherokee community as his own. “It was the most remote, poorest white settlement I’d ever been to,” he recalls. “They were fishermen and boat builders and that was it. I felt I could help these people, so I commissioned the building of two fishing smacks.”
The Pride of Abaco and the Queen of Abaco, 60 footers built in 1952 and 1953, were among the last in a long line of Cherokee-built fishing smacks. Eventually, Colyn sold most of his land, keeping seven acres, and moved on. But he is not at all surprised to see the most recent development taking shape just a few hundred yards from his property. The Winding Bay Club, a $160 million development, features a spectacular links golf course, two-acre oceanfront homesites selling for $1.5 million dollars and up, and “cottages” which go for well over a million dollars apiece. The new development, which has come with the speed of light compared with Cherokee Sound’s history and slow evolution, already employs some Cherokee workers, mainly in construction and landscaping, with more jobs to come. But as affluent new club members and home owners at the Abaco Club at Winding Bay begin to arrive, the biggest economic impact will no doubt be on tourism and real estate.
“Everybody is anxiously waiting to see what happens,” says Lee Pinder. “People who have come here to visit from other Abaco communities have remarked how lovely it is here. They tell us, though, ‘don’t let foreigners come in and take it away.’”
Real estate prices in and around Cherokee have already spiked considerably. Lot prices in Yellowwood, a residential area between the settlement and Winding Bay, have more than doubled in recent months. “People will be tempted to sell at high prices,” says Hartie Albury, “and young people growing up today won’t be able to afford property in their own community. The problem will be keeping the community together. This is what happens when change comes.”
New neighbors, however, have always meant new benefactors. The settlement’s pride and joy, its long dock, which stretches far out over the shallow waters of the bay, has been rebuilt several times after storms with money contributed by foreign home owners. Fundraisers backed by foreign residents have also helped finance repairs, the community center, the village fire truck and other projects. Curiosity will no doubt bring Winding Bay’s new residents to Cherokee, but the outcome remains unknown. The world behind the gates of The Abaco Club is a world of refinement and manicured scenery, where an oceanfront golf course borders a well-tended white sand beach, and a stable of horses stand ready for treks across the property, and perhaps up to Little Harbour where gallery and pub-owner Pete Johnson is already thinking of new boat moorings and docks for a wealthy newfound clientele.
In a world where the day begins by addressing a ball teed up on a multi-million dollar ocean golf course, tiny, unimposing Cherokee Sound, while just over the ridge, might just as well be on a different planet. On the other hand, a glimpse of Brigadoon could be the beginning of a long love affair.

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©  Jim Kerr, Abaco Life Magazine
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