The Lawaetz Family Museum
A person would be extremely fortunate to have the history of one of St. Croix’s oldest and most interesting families, the Lawaetz family, told to them by Kai and Irene Lawaetz, long-time Danish Crucians and charming raconteurs. We had just that unique fortune. We had come to the Lawaetz Family Museum at Estate Little La Grange to glimpse a bit of St. Croix’s past, and we came away with so much more.
Kai explained that the house had been his home for 75 years. He recalled the days when the now heavily treed hills were once grassland where cattle grazed. He and his siblings would ‘sled’ down the rolling hills on Royal Palm fronds. At the entrance to the property, a bridge (recently constructed with the assistance of funds from the USDA Conservation and from the Hovensa Oil Refinery) spans a gut, now dry, in which Kai and his brothers and sister learned to swim. At one time, a fresh water natural spring fed a creek here.
Ruins and remnants of the past abound on the property. Standing tall atop a nearby hill is a sugar mill, once powered by the wind, as well as a low, circular animal mill. Flamboyant trees add a splash of brilliant color to the scene. Below the hill, beautiful and sturdy stonework arches survive the test of time. A family of workers, who lived on the property, lost their home to a horrific hurricane in 1916. The remaining foundation is a reminder of the rigors of plantation life in the islands.
Beautiful flowers and greenery grace the remaining 19 acres of land, still owned by the Lawaetz family. The St. Croix Landmark Society has leased the museum and its land because of its historical value. Also, the Whim Museum has, on occasion, used the grounds for its annual Fathers’ Day Picnic. The Lawaetz family still gathers at the home for Christmas Eve, just as they have for over 100 years. Recently, the grounds have become a popular location for wedding ceremonies, offering not only natural beauty and history, but a strong familial aura.
The museum has labeled much of the flora, identifying species that have resided at Little La Grange for centuries as well as some that have recently been introduced. This hibiscus is a hybrid created by Kai himself. It is one of many in their garden. The size of this breed of flower is awesome and the colors, brilliant. Kai puts them into shows and takes great pride in them. As anyone can see, there’s every reason to.
As we moved inside, Irene explained some of the history of the property. Carl Lawaetz, Kai’s father, was a farmer in Denmark when he accepted an offer to become the assistant manager of Estate Sion Farm. The year was 1890. It took him six years to save enough money for a down payment, but he managed, in 1896, to purchase a home and land, snuggled deep in the hillsides of western St. Croix. At the time, Estate Little La Grange consisted of 400 acres on which Carl raised crops and cattle.
When Carl purchased the home, it was completely barren with the exception of a mahogany bureau in which he found a carved wooden Indian, painted and holding a bow and arrow. The bureau dates from the 1800s and was possibly from England. Above a doorway in the home, the indian stands guard today as it has for over 200 years.
In 1899, a brutal hurricane passed over the island, causing damage to Carl’s house and estate. Soon after completing his labors, he traveled back to Denmark to reassure his worried family of his safety. While there, he became reacquainted with Marie, a childhood friend. She was an art teacher at a boys’ school and struck Carl’s interest. They had many long conversations and developed a mutual attraction. Carl, however, had to return to St. Croix to tend to his plantation. During ensuing correspondence, Carl proposed to Marie and sent her money with which to travel to the Danish West Indies. Marie’s family, worried about her safety, did not like the idea of her moving far away and to a small island constantly threatened by hurricanes. Marie had made her decision to marry Carl and set sail in August, arriving to St. Croix in mid September, right in the middle of hurricane season. On September 30, 1902, Carl and Marie began their life as husband and wife at Little La Grange. Marie’s influence transformed the slightly unkempt bachelor’s residence into one of the finer homes on St. Croix. She added furnishings brought with her from Denmark and together, they added pieces from families returning from Denmark.
One such acquisition, Irene informed us, was a lamp made in Denmark, which today hangs over the dining area on the first floor. Its detailed workmanship at one time held candles for light, but in the 1940s it was converted into an electric lamp. In the old kitchen area is a press iron, called a Mangler. The use of this method of ironing flat cloth was much preferred over other methods that used coal or steam as it was cooler and easier to use.
Marie, Kai’s mother and an artist, decorated the home with her paintings. Still hanging in almost every room, these wonderful works add life to the walls as well as provide insight into early 20th century plantation life. When their children were born, Marie turned her artistic endeavors to photography, processing the film herself. When the children reached school age, they left for Denmark to be educated and Marie resumed her painting. In either medium, her talent and artistry are undeniable. In addition to painting and photography, she had an interest in sewing. We saw a hand-sewn baby’s shirt and a “sampler” as they lay on a four post Mahogany bed. A spiritual glow was added when the late afternoon sun’s rays descended through a western window. Throughout the entire home, sunlight seeped through doorways and windows, cascading eloquent, soft light onto furnishings and spreading a warm ambiance inside the rooms.
In the nearby master bedroom, a similar four post mahogany bed stands. All seven of the Lawaetz children were born in this bed. In fact, after a long and happy life together, Carl passed away in the same bed in 1945, followed by Marie in 1964. The history of the Lawaetz family is well preserved and illustrated at Estate Little La Grange. Further, a warm and welcoming feeling of home exists and was well demonstrated to us by the gracious and open hospitality of Kai and Irene Lawaetz. Kai shared his memories with us, and Irene smiled as she listened to him. Forty-six years of marriage attests to the Lawaetz’s affection for each other and their commitment to keeping the ‘Family’ in the Lawaetz Family Museum.
Many thanks to Kai and Irene for being so generous with their time. It has given me a deeper appreciation for life, love, history, and the culture that proudly exists on this beautiful island we call home. If you are interested in taking a tour, the Lawaetz Family Museum is open Wednesdays from 11:00am to 14:00pm and Saturdays from 10:00am to 2:00pm. The house tour takes approximately 45 minutes to complete and costs $15.