9 Oct 2000Bob Perdue email@example.com
By way of reintroduction, and especially for the benefit of those who have joined the Corbett list during the last two years, I am Bob Perdue, a retired agricultural research scientist with an interest in the old Dauphin Plantation and its environs, including Fort Liberte and, for the colonial period, the adjacent part of what is now Dominican Republic. During the colonial period, the northwestern part of DR was an extension of the "economic unit" that was then northern Saint Domingue, controlled by the French
Several years ago I became involved in a project sponsored by the World Christian Relief Fund, the objectives of which were to find a way to make the abandoned Dauphin Plantation useful again. While I became involved initially because of my background in agriculture, I soon came to the conclusion that the area's greatest asset is its history and its economic future is probably more in tourism that in agriculture. This prompted my interest in the history of the area.
During the last two years I have had distractions that diverted my attention to other matters but now I am back on track and hope to pursue this project to completion.
I live in Maryland just outside Washington, DC where there are tremendous assets for study of Haiti. Of special value are the Library of Congress, the National Archives and the National Agricultural Library. Dauphin was a producer of sisal fiber which was a strategic material during World War II and there are many useful documents in the National Archives (especially letters from the American Embassy in Port-au-Prince) and in a special collection on fiber plants at the NAL.
I began by compiling information on the area prior to the establishment of the Plantation during the mid-1920s as this seemed so logical, especially since there would likely be very little information available. This is in the form of a chronology, and though it has reached more than 100 pages it is still only about 80% complete. With so few former Dauphin employees and their descendants still available I decided to hold the chronology in abeyance and concentrate on the period since the plantation was established.
I visited the plantation and vicinity several times, attended reunions of the "Dauphin Club" (former Plantation employees and their descendants) and interviewed many sources in Haiti, Canada and the United States.
While the first part of the story, from the "beginning of time" to the mid 1920s is best adapted to a chronology because there are so many isolated events that do not directly relate to each other, the period since is best treated in "chapters". In posts to follow shortly , I will begin to relate what I have learned about the Plantation (and northeastern Haiti) since it was sold after the death of the original owner and developer.
These "chapters" will not be in logical order so here is a brief summary of Plantation history to put things in perspective.
I still have questions and hope that list members may have answers. Any comments will be welcome.
THE DAUPHIN PLANTATION
In February 1926, Andre DeCoppet, a young Wall Street broker, head of the firm of DeCoppet and Doremus, took a cruise on the Ancon, a ship that would touch briefly at Port-au-Prince, en route to Panama. DeCoppet left the ship in Port-au-Prince and, with a letter of introduction, visited W. W. Cumberland, then American Financial Advisor to the Government of Haiti.
He was coolly received until Cumberland sensed that DeCoppet was a person of wealth, at which time he began to tell him about the promise of sisal as a new crop for Haiti. DeCoppet was all ears - for he had dreamed of owning a tropical plantation. Cumberland really captured his attention when he said sisal would yield a profit of a "hunnerd percent" per year.
When DeCoppet returned to New York, he sent his associate, Bill Findley, to evaluate the situation. Findley's assessment was positive and he cabled DeCoppet to come and join him.
Cumberland arranged a tour of potential production sites, guided by Robert L. Pettigrew, a Lieutenant Commander in the US Navy, assigned to the occupation force as Assistant Chief Engineer of Public Works.
The reconnaissance led to Habitation Mere, near Fort Liberte, where Bertrand La Mothe had introduced sisal from the Dominican Republic and had produced some fiber with a primitive decorticator. Here, there was a vast area of unoccupied and unutilized land, probably the one area of Haiti where land sufficient for a large plantation could be obtained. And sisal was there, not only on the La Mothe property in the Romeo River Valley, but also on the higher drier, almost semi-arid land on either side that was covered by a low, dense thicket of tropical bush.
DeCoppet and Findley concluded that with sisal selling at 12 cents per pound, a hundred percent profit was attainable. Subsequently, Pettigrew was offered the position of manager. He accepted and on February 10, 1927 resigned from the Navy.
The following day, land clearing began with a crew of 75 men. The initial objective was a plantation of 2000 acres.
The big challenge was planting stock which was obtained by having local people scrounge all over the northeastern corner of Haiti for suckers and bulbuls, the latter to be planted in a nursery. By the end of 1927, 400 acres had been planted and an additional 600 acres had been cleared.
From the very beginning there was an effort toward diversification, first with a native cotton that thrived in nature but produced no usable product under cultivation and later became a weed in the sisal fields. Over the years, everything was tried, from peanuts and pineapples to ramie and kenaf. There was a continuing search for a new "string to the bow", but nothing paid off other than sisal.
In late 1929, about 30 tons of fiber were produced and shipped to the Plymouth Cordage Company. It brought just over 8 cents per pound, substantially below the selling price when the plantation was conceived. And ultimately the price dropped to almost 2 cents per pound.
But land clearing and planting continued and more money was invested. When the bank account in Haiti dried up a cable would be sent to New York requesting more money with an explanation of the need. DeCoppet's faith never wavered; the response was always positive with a total pre-war investment of about $1,000,000. In the later years, as money was needed, the cables were just one word: "funds".
By World War II, "West Bay Plantation", with headquarters at Phaeton, had about 12,000 acres of sisal, a substantial narrow-gage railroad system to bring leaves in from the field, power plant, decorticators, and housing for both management and Haitian staff - and had become the largest single employer in Haiti. Taxes paid would eventually amount to 10% of the country's budget.
The Plantation survived and then thrived. By 1933 it was paying its way - and would ultimately produce a very generous profit. The Dauphin Plantation is an excellent example of what is required to establish a new or "non-traditional crop" and bring it to profitability: total dedication to an idea and a committed financial supporter who is not easily discouraged.
As World War II approached, sisal was selling at about 4 cents per pound which provided a reasonable profit. In 1941 almost 21,000,000 pounds of fiber were produced.
As the war began it was evident that half the world's production of hard fiber would be in enemy hands and other sources threatened by submarines. Sisal fiber would become a strategic material, an important source of rope for the U.S. Navy. The Plantation was asked by the U.S. Government to double its production and did so. The area planted on what would become "East Bay Plantation" totaled about another 12,500 acres.
The Plantation thrived during the immediate post-war years. In 1953, DeCoppet died and it was sold to settle his estate. It was purchased by the Haitian American Sugar Co. Subsequently, Haitian sisal could not compete with man-made fibers and HASCO sold the Plantation in 1970 to Lonnie Dunn, a California businessman, who planned to raise cattle and develop Fort. Liberte Bay as a harbor. No more sisal was planted but that remaining in the field was exploited when market price temporarily increased. Finally, the Plantation was sold to Elias Cassis, a Port-au-Prince merchant, who tried to revitalize it but failed to succeed and turned the establishment over to the Government when he could not pay taxes. Today the Plantation is completely abandoned and in ruins.
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