written by Agnes Meeker
I was born in Bendals just before the Bendals Sugar Factory closed in 1940 and have many fond memories growing up both in Antigua, and five years in St. Lucia, surrounded by the talk, smells and sounds of sugar. Gunthorpes Sugar Factory had become the central factory for all of Antigua, with the cut cane being brought in by loco (locomotives) on a network of narrow gauge railways. To this day I cannot drive by the old sugar factory on Sir Sydney Walling Highway without literally smelling the way it used to smell during crop time. Many found the smell unpleasant – it certainly was at Weirs Estate where the old wash water drained into the sea – but the smell from the factory near the cooling pond by Mackay Hill was much sweeter. Saturday mornings during crop time was a special time for us kids. We were allowed to go into the factory with our Capstan cigarette tin and pick whatever kind of sugar we wanted from the centrifuges. The centrifuges spun and washed the molasses from the sugar, leaving lighter and lighter crystals. My favourite was a moist blend, warm and gooey with molasses. From there we would go to the little shop outside the gate and get a penny bread, fresh and warm, to dip into the sugar in the Capstan cigarette tin… pure heaven! The northeast wind would carry the black soot from the two chimneys in the factory right over the compound where we lived. The pieces of bagasse used to fuel the fires produced massive amounts of soot which swirled and eddied in our windows throughout crop time so our feet were always black and the bed sheets and towels could never be washed white. No one looked at clocks, wore watches or asked the time – everyone relied on the steam whistle that blew for the change of shifts, lunchtime and teatime. It could be heard from all around, even as far as town. That whistle kept everyone regulated and you knew where you had to be when it went off. I remember that whenever I smelt a cigar it would generally signal a visit from Dr.Winter which often meant we were scheduled for an injection. Immediately I would duck and run for the cane field nearest the back of the house, bend low and run till I could not be seen. The cane field would also shelter me if I wanted to get away and hide in order to read a book uninterrupted. I could stamp down a little circle, sit on a piece of rag and be in my own little world though I did have to watch out for ‘red itch’ and often came out with scratches from the sharp cane leaves. But I felt safe and it was a place where no one could find me. A stick of sugar cane to this day is pure pleasure. I think it was ‘Bourbon’ cane that was the soft, sweet one to suck on. Not the best for sugar yield, but grown to be eaten and so juicy the juice rolled down your arms and chin. I also remember my grandmother putting five spoons of sugar in her coffee or tea, saying ‘Someone has to support the sugar industry’! Memories.