It all began with an early morning drive to Salinas for a dental appointment. After that, we thought it would be fun to grab some breakfast from one of the many little bakeries and take it to someplace on the water to sit and eat. This is something we used to do back when we lived in Texas, and it was a fond memory we are trying to replicate here in our new home.
So we picked up a sandwich and drove toward the water. After one false start that pushed our breakfast to be more like brunch, we simply picked a road and turned right! That turned out to be 705, which took us straight into the heart of the old sugar mining town of Central Aguirre!
Knowing nothing about it at all, we did notice that the houses seemed to all be very similar. They had a common construction of wood with lots of porch, and corrugated tin roofs, set on spacious plots of land. We thought they must be part of the mill in some way, but it wasn't until we went inside the education center for the NERRA and met Ernesto, that the story unfolded.
But let me back up a little more here.. What is the NERRA? It's the National Estuarine Research Reserve Association. It is a national agency with locations all the US coasts, Great Lakes, and of course, here in Puerto Rico. Much of their work is research, education and outreach, but since Hurricane Maria, the people here have been working to aid in the restoration of the Jobos Estuary.
We didn't end up entering the estuary because hurricane Matthew passed to the south of us, but there were many boats brought here for the hurricanes in 2017, including the terrible and destructive Hurricane Maria. The boats here were mostly OK, but the thing we don't think about so much as cruisers, is what that did to the mangroves that protected all of those boats from destruction. According to Ernesto, many of the boats pounded up against the mangroves, causing them to be damaged in ways that it will take years and years to restore.
|This beautiful facility was once the community center of Aguirre|
|There is an informative and well thought out display her for the public to enjoy.|
|It isn't just the plant life that are studied here. They are also studying the manatees and turtle population|
But what about the buildings here that all seem to be connected in some way? Ernesto was a wealth of information about that as well. He told us about the sugar production that really started here in the 1500s. During the time between then and the 1900, when the industry was taken over by North American Industrialisation interests, much of the production of sugar cane was done by slaves. (This article in Spanish has a LOT of information on the history of sugar production in Puerto Rico. You can copy and past it in sections on Google Translate)
|Aguirre to the northeast and Montesoria on the other side.|
|Aguirre Post Office is still in use today!|
|This building was a string of stores for the people of the mill town|
After many years of operating at a loss, the mill finally ceased operations in 1990. The production of cheaper sugar in other areas from the sugar beet, and the increasing difficulty in finding sugar cane and getting it to the factory quickly enough, made it simply too expensive to continue. In 2002, the US Department of the Interior designated a large part of the old mill town in the National Register of Historic Places. (This link takes you to a downloadable PDF that shows photos and descriptions of the buildings included in the National Register of Historic Places)
According to Ernesto, the company enjoyed many boom years during which the town thrived. But, all of the buildings in town, including the homes, were the property of the Central Aguirre Mill. So what happened when the mill finally closed in 1990? The property laws here in Puerto Rico were the cause of a lot of difficulty for the people who were living in those homes.
Then the company pulled out of Aguirre, the executive and technical workers living in the nice homes on the north side of 705 all left, taking their families with them back to the US. The local workers here were actually given the keys and allowed to take over the homes. This was great, until those homes were designated as an historical site.
Since the people living in the homes could not demonstrate ownership, they couldn't get loans or government help to assist them in the upkeep of the homes. They aged and were damaged by the elements and hurricanes... but because of their historical designation, they could not be changed. They could only be restored to their original condition. The problem with that was that they were made from wood that is only available from the Philippines! Of course, obtaining that wood for repairs now is very expensive, and way out of reach for most of the people here.
At some point, the government of Puerto Rico recognised their ownership of the homes if the occupant could prove that they have lived in the property for 15 years, but that still didn't help them come up with the funds to keep the homes from falling into ruin. So, many of these homes are doing just that and driving though these streets, you get the feeling of sadness at the absence of what must have been a booming prosperity.
But some of the homes have been purchased by people who DO have the funds to bring the homes back to their former glory - albeit a glory that is reflective of that time in history.
|This home was purchased and renovated. It looks pretty nice!|
|There is a dock at the water's edge where the villagers keep their fishing boats.|
|Back on the north side of 705, we find some really nice upper management homes, completely restored!|
|I'm not sure what this was used for, but it looks like the nurses quarters from the Register.|
|Throwing caution to the winds, we explored the ground floor level of this old hotel!|
|The central hallway with rooms on both sides. The doors are gone and there is a lot of graffiti on the walls.|
|The rooms open up onto the wrap-around porch so that the winds blew through to provide cooling comfort for guests.|
|There are remnants from some less than human occupants in the rooms.|
|A room with a view!|
|I can almost hear the laughter of the guests as they partied in these halls.|
So with our curiosity piqued, we told ourselves that we will return to take the hike to the mangroves and the natural areas just outside of the NERRA property. There are trails and you can visit the ruins of the mills, but the morning got away from us today, and it's HOT!
There are several links in this post, so if you're interested in history, take a look and explore if you've got the time. This is just one of the many, MANY pieces of Puerto Rican history that we hope to uncover!