Crowds Pack Annaberg for 21st Annual St. John Folklife Festival

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Smiles on seine net craftsman Mario Benjamin, above, and BCB students, below.

With the faint smell of charcoal wafting on the breeze and the sounds of Smalls and the Merry Makers filling the air, a crowd of students, visitors and residents filled Annaberg Plantation Ruins on Friday, February 24, on the second day of the 21st Annual St. John Folklife Festival.

The festival kicked off on Thursday, February 23, with arts, crafts, music and games. Students from kindergarten through sixth grade from several St. Thomas and St. John schools filled the Annaberg Ruins in V.I. National Park on the first day of the festival. The more than 100 students were able to learn about the history of the plantation while also enjoying live music and fresh made treats.

More than 120 older students from local schools filled the ruins on Friday to hear from local plant experts, librarians and listen to St. John scratch band Smalls and the Merry Makers.

The theme of this year’s festival was “Wake Up and Plant a Seed” and there was bounty all around. Elmo Rabsatt was on hand with plants ranging from sleeping hibiscus and fig to mauby and basil. Rabsatt also had several jars of St. John honey and mead made on St. Croix for sale.

“I come here each year because I like to share my learning and engage the youth to get involved with agriculture and learn these customs,” said Rabsatt.

Nearby Yolanda Morton displayed her beautiful local crafts and jewelry. From beautiful earrings and keychains fashioned from sand box, a seed pod of the Monkey No Climb Tree, to elegant shell jewelry and handbags made from woven sea grass, Morton had an impressive display of wares, mostly crafted from organic materials.

Sonia Sprauve was serving up her popular tarts and sweet breads along with pepper sauces both mild and scorching. Jane Johannes’ booth was also packed with hungry students hoping for a plate of chicken and johnny cake or fresh lobster salad.

Mario Benjamin demonstrated to eager students how to sew a seine net used to catch bait fish. Benjamin learned the craft from his father when he was only five years old, he explained.
“I just made 76 years old a few months ago, so I guess I’ve been doing this a long time,” said Benjamin.

Annaberg resident gardener Kala was giving tours of the well-tended garden at the site, which was bursting with fig bananas and sugarcane. The big traditional oven was fired up and volunteers were baking batches of dumb bread, which students were gobbling up as fast as the ladies could make them.

A large coal pot filled with king fish filets and whole red snapper was bubbling away, promising an enticing afternoon fish fry.

Scanning the scene, St. John Folklife Festival founder and V.I. National Park Ranger Denise Georges declared the 21st installment of her event yet another success.

The St. John Folklife Festival was full of crafts by Yolanda Morton, above.

 

“Things are going very well,” said Georges. “We’ve had great weather and the young kids really enjoyed the first day. Today, the older kids are learning a bit more and really having a good time with the music and the food.”

 

Fay Fredericks was scheduled to take over the microphone to share local stories with the students when the scratch band ended. Department of Agriculture’s Raymond Thomas from the Coral Bay Ag Station was on hand discussing local crops with interested students and tourists. VINP volunteer and Annaberg docent Ann Frick was armed with educational information about the ruins.

From actual plants and crafts made from local plants to traditional music and engaging stories, the 21st Annual St. John Folklife Festival planted many seeds last week.

“This is about actually going out there and planting a seed and having it grow and nourish you,” said Georges. “But this is also about planting a seed in your mind and keeping these customs and traditions alive. That is an important seed too.”

The festival wrapped up under the stars on Saturday evening, February 25, following a night-time performance by the St. Thomas Tropical Masqueraders and Traditional Indians among the picturesque ruins.

Anyone who missed the living history that is the annual St. John Folklife Festival, mark those calendars for next February when Georges will be at it again, making sure the smell of charcoal and the sounds of a scratch band playing are familiar experiences for the next generation of Virgin Isanders.