A Lifetime in the Coal Pit
After 74 years, Winston Molyneaux is passing his charcoal making skills onto the younger generation.
Story and photos by Dean Greenaway
One can't miss that very distinctive scent of a charcoal pit burning while driving around the Territory, and for years, I'd been hearing that the biggest coal pit was being constructed on Tortola at Apple Bay on the northwest coast.
Charcoal was once a big industry in the Virgin Islands. Local trees were cut down and the wood burned underground in pits to produce a fragrant charcoal used for cooking. It is only in the last few decades that this centuries old tradition has begun to die out. I had decided to learn more about this traditional craft and was driving to West End to finally meet the coal pit master, 83-year-old Winston Molyneux, also known as the professor because of his expertise in coal pit making. Two other younger men, Wilson Meyers, a former telephone technician, now an insurance adjuster and Calvin "Sonny" Robinson, a heavy equipment operator, had taken a particular interest in understudying the science of coal pit making and I would be joining them.
The two men consider the area at the back of Capoons Bay across from Bomba's Shack to be their "classroom." This classroom, which they also call, "the lab" has no desks, tables or chairs, and is as pristine as the first day when Winston Molyneaux relocated his pit from Long Bay to his house in Capoons Bay, on Dec 24, 1956.
The area where the men work is 50 feet long, 3 feet high, 8 feet wide, it is roofless and has no backup electricity, walls or anything to protect the workers from the elements. These seeming inconveniences don't bother them.
Their teamwork is skillfully guided by Professor Molyneaux, who has had 74 years of experience, having become a coal pit making student at the age of nine, working alongside his father, John.
Since 2010 when Meyers and Robinson showed up, they have helped enhanced his class with a gas-powered chainsaw – the only piece of modern technology Professor Molyneaux, who relied only on a machete and an axe during his heyday, has allowed.
Professor Molyneaux grew up in an agrarian era and is one of a handful of persons who still carry on the tradition. "My father was a coal burner just as I am now," he recalled. "He also planted bananas and potatoes, but this was his main job. The coal from a pit like this," he said of the 50 foot pit that was being built, "would fetch about $10 in St. Thomas. At the time, a cent was worth a cent. It's not like now. You have to have a lot of money to get what you want. In those times, there was no money but plenty of goods. It wasn't easy – he had a lot of children, about 14, and he had to buy food for them to eat."
The professor recalled that at nine years, when his father John made his coal pit, he would make one of his own too and began earning a little money. He also started fishing at the same time and eventually became a captain. "That time, you could have gone on the bay, throw your line out and catch a fish," he remembered. "In those days, there was a lot of fish but like coal, there was no money in it. A long string of fish like this," he said opening his arms wide, "was seven cents. And it wasn't everybody who could buy it."
The process of making a coal pit begins with gathering the wood. Before moving to Capoons Bay in 1956, Professor Molyneaux who grew up in Long Bay, burnt coal in Belmont Estate which his father was in charge of. People from as far east as Carrot Bay, also burnt coal there too.
"When you used to meet those big pieces of wood, you used to hear the axe bawling – that used to be fun," he said laughing. "But you can go faster now with the chainsaw – in seconds. The time you took with a machete or an axe was like an eternity compared to now."
Chopping the wood, then lugging it to the site where it will be set up took about three weeks or sometimes longer depending on the weather. A set of runners – a series of parallel sticks – were set along the bottom of the pit in order to keep the charcoal off the ground.
"The runners are so that the fire can get completely under the wood and burn it," Professor Molyneaux enlightened. "If it's down on the ground, the wood underneath will not burn. Just like you and I need to breathe, it has to breathe from underneath otherwise it wouldn't burn at all."
After all the wood has been neatly stacked, the next step in the process is putting the coconut palms on it to seal it, starting with the sides before work begins on the top. "If the sides don't have enough covering, you're in trouble. Barrels of trouble," Professor Molyneaux noted. "That's the first place the fire will burn away. The stuffing of the coal pit is important. Anytime you throw the dirt and it falls down, you are in trouble. Next time you'll probably get it."
A coal pit could burn for just over two weeks or more. As the wood burns, the height of the coal pit drops but it must be given air during the process allowing the bigger stacks of wood to burn. "If they don't burn, better you didn't waste your time making it," the Professor said. "The bigger the wood the more coal you'll get."
The choice of woods in making the coal pit includes genip, wild tamarind, acacia, grape, any kind of hard wood the Professor says. "You don't use popa (papaya) and there's a wood called mompoo, egmiberry and turpentine, we don't use that at all. It's the wood that makes the coal. If its soft wood, you're not going to get hard coal out of that. The coal might burn alright, but the wood that produces it is so soft, it doesn't last long."
Robinson and Myers have been understudying Professor Molyneaux since 2010. "When I returned from New York, I got attracted to it," said Robinson who was born on St. Thomas and relocated to Carrot Bay. "I knew nothing of a coal pit before. I learnt of it by smelling it when passing by. Robinson said a coal pit is manufacturing – "manufacturing is the way to go in life. If you're manufacturing, you are making something," he pointed out. "That's a good start for any entrepreneur. You can make clothes, make hats, make something."
Meyers, who started around the same time as Robinson, said he had always been curious about how the older folks operated coal pits – the science behind it. "We started hanging around Mr. Molyneaux and he's an old pioneer, what better opportunity could you look for?" he said. "He's the engineer right there. He's passing on the skills. By doing this, you learn that the older folks had a kind of genius onto themselves that we'll never understand. I'm glad about the little bit of knowledge he's passing on to us about burning coal, so that we can carry on this tradition."
Meyers said he's glad for the opportunity to learn how to do it. He said the generation behind him does not seem interested in the old ways, but he still hopes, "We might find one who we can pass it on to when Mr. Molyneaux passes on and our turn comes to pass it on again."
Meyers said they averaged building four to five coal pits annually since 2010. "When we started the first one, you were anxious to see the end result," Meyers, who grew up in Cane Garden Bay, said. "You come and he's teaching you to how to put down the runners, to pack the wood, to bush it (cover it with bush), dirt it and to light it. You wait a couple of days while it's burning and you see the actual coal coming out – like anything you do, if you plant a tree and it grows, you pick a fruit and you eat it, that kind of feeling you get when the coal comes out of the ground and you see your labor come back to you in the form of black gold," he chuckled. "You feel good about that."
"There's nothing like food cooked on coals using a coal pot," said Professor Molyneux, noting that, "food cooked with these coals tastes different to foods cooked on gas. I've eaten foods cooked on gas – but I have never eaten food at home cooked on gas in my lifetime," he pointed out. "I had to buy that food if I went someplace and I was hungry. Other than that, I always have my coals."
As the coal pit burns, Professor Molyneaux, Meyers and Robinson begin unearthing and raking out coals to let them cool before putting them in pans then bags – a tedious dirty process – before they are ready for sale. Coals, they point out, come in different grades with the bigger sizes serving different purposes.
Coals from the coal pits have served a myriad of purposes. During the various food fairs and festivals, they are a staple of cooking. When the electricity is off, or the gas in the cylinder runs out, the old reliable coal pot comes to the rescue.