If you have ever entered the Santa Cruz Valley from Maraval on a cold night in the Christmas season, especially if there is a full moon, you may have an experience of true ethereal beauty. Blanketed in a rolling mist made silver in the moon beams, the valley appears timeless. The first we learn of the valley is that in the early Spanish period, about 100 years before the British took possession of Trinidad, the portion from the most northern part (now known as La Pastora) to the valley of Curracava, a distance of four and a half miles, was granted to an individual named Pedro Valmontes.
During the latter part of the 18th and early part of the 19th century, the Santa Cruz valley, along with those of the Maraval and Maracas was the first to be planted with cocoa. During the year 1825, the whole of the island’s crop was wiped out due to extreme drought, and many planters were financially ruined.
It was during this period that the valley was planted with new and more vigorous types of cocoa, such as Forestero and Calabaceo. Sugarcane was also planted and large acreage of coffee, chiefly, the Arabica coffee.
Amongst the several distinguished families to own lands and to live in the Santa Cruz valley were the Stollmeyers. Charles Conrad Stollmeyer remembered that his father, Conrad Frederick (1813 - 1904) bought land there in August of 1883. In his memoirs (1952), he wrote:
“At that time, there were between 25 and 30 separate owners and all doing rather well with cocoa.”
In those days, Santa Cruzians spoke Patois and Spanish. English was somewhat of a second or third language to the valley’s peasant inhabitants. The Stollmeyer family can trace their ancestors several centuries back to Venice in Italy. Out of Venice, they came to Ulm, a city in Germany on the river Danube.
In 1836, Conrad Frederick travelled to the United States like many of his countrymen, where he settled in the town of Philadelphia. Indeed, so many Germans went to that part of the world that parts of the countryside around Philadelphia is known as “Pennsylvania Dutch”, an Americanisation of the word “Deutsch” (German). Possessed of an adventurous temperament, Conrad went to England to experiment with a professor by the name of Etzler, who had an idea for a boat, driven by wind and water. The test runs for the boat almost cost Stollmeyer his life in the icy waters of the river Thames near Greenwich - the boat obviously did not comply with Conrad’s ever buoyant enthusiasm.
But it was the age of the railway, which were cutting edge technology at the time and all the rage. In 1845, people were almost mad about forming railway companies to operate in any part of the world. Stollmeyer “jumped on the bandwagon” and landed himself a job of managing a railway company in the island of Trinidad. And being the enthusiastic character that he was, he not only went to the Caribbean himself, but feeling that others might wish to go out to the West Indies and Venezuela themselves, he avidly encouraged emigration from England to the tropics.
His grandson, Charles Conrad, wrote that his grandfather was a great talker. Conrad Sr. succeeded in several people following him out west, some going to Trinidad, others to Venezuela. Unfortunately, almost all who went to the latter country died there. Malaria, cholera and yellow fever took a deadly toll on Stollmeyer’s acquaintances. Those, however, who had opted for Trinidad, survived and by and large die quite well! Amongst them were the Rapseys, the Carrs, the Fowlers, the Tomlinsons and the Tuckers.
Stollmeyer arrived in Trinidad with his wife, Anna, and their four children. He always liked to say to his grandchildren: “I landed in Trinidad with five dollars in my pocket”. He had found himself in this state of penury largely because of the railway company. Instead of receiving his promised £ 1,000 per annum, Stollmeyer had to learn that they had gone bankrupt.
There was no turning back now. He had to make a living. Well educated, he had held a number of jobs before setting out on his Caribbean adventure. He had edited a newspaper in Philadelphia which strongly advocated freedom of the slaves in the southern United States. For this, he was almost hung by the southern planters! He made the acquaintance of Lord Harris, then the Governor of Trinidad, during this time of near poverty. Harris found him an interesting personality and a good conversationalist, and gave him a horse so that they both could ride out together to talk over many things.
Stollmeyer also obtained the job of doing all laundrywork for the regiment of soldiers through His Lordship’s kindness. The regiment was stationed at St. James Barracks. Stollmeyer also started to supply firewood to many other government institutions. This firewood was cut at Cocorite, which in those days was a vast forest.
As the land was cleared, Conrad planted coconut trees, and as these came into bearing, he started to sell coconuts in donkey carts to the city. Stollmeyer was a total abstainer, and obviously felt that the people of Port of Spain might be induced to drink less rum if coconut water could be gotten cheaper - and a bottle of rum cost only 10 cents!
A careful and frugal man, Stollmeyer was something of a visionary. When offered the job of looking after the Pitch Lake interest of the 10th Earl Dundonald, he gladly took it.
It has been said that when in the mid 1600s, English conquistador Sir Walter Raleigh chaulked his ship, the “Lion’s Whelp”, with pitch from La Brea, he inaugurated the petrochemical industry. It was, however not until some 200 years later, the 1840s, that the Pitch Lake was first exploited commercially. Small quantities of pitch, chiefly in a crude state, afterwards some of it refined, were supplied to England and France, and in the 1860s to the United States and Germany. From very small beginnings, the export grew to a total of 200,000 tons per year just before the commencement of World War I in 1914. From then, there has been no looking back for the industry.
The pioneers of this unique industry were Thomas Barnes, 10th Earl of Dundonald, Conrad Stollmeyer and a French gentleman named Sagault. In the 1850s, interest in any area outside of agriculture was viewed as eccentric by Trinidadians. These islands, like all tropical colonies, were agricultural. The phenomenal fertility of the soil was almost an “article of faith”, as Professor Bridget Brereton puts it. Even Conrad was still carrying on the clearing of the forest and the planting and harvesting of coconuts. One day, he decided to take a trip to La Brea, where he met Lord Dundonald, and out of this meeting the enterprise to export pitch to Europe and North America was born. As the result of this, many old roads that you would drive or walk on in far away countries have been surfaced at one time or the other with Trinidad pitch!
Vicissitudes in business eventually allowed the company formed by these entrepreneurs, to lose the lease which of course reverted to the British crown.
The Pitch Lake belongs to the Government and cannot be acquired by anyone outright. From times past it has been rated as a natural savannah and according to the old Spanish laws not any of those may be sold. Hence the leasing of portions of the lake until 1897. After that date, the whole of it was leased to the Trinidad Asphalt Company, and so it continues to this time.
When the epidemic of cholera threatened to devastate Port of Spain in 1853, Conrad Stollmeyer brought pitch in barrels to the city which were burnt at street corners to “purify the air”. The chief medical officer declared that had it not been of this enterprising German, things would have been far worse! It was not known then that cholera is a water-borne disease, spreading quickly with cesspits dug next to wells in people’s backyards.
In 1883, Conrad decided to move his family out of Belmont Valley Road, where they resided. Driving in his buggy along the Santa Cruz valley, he saw a property that he liked, and bought it then and there for the large sum of $ 6,000 from the old owner, a retired inspector of prisons, whom he knew very well. He built a house called "Mon Valmont" on the property, into which his family moved. In 1894, they moved to "La Regalada", one and a half miles up into the Santa Cruz valley.
In the years that followed, both Conrad and later his sons bought up many estates in the Santa Cruz valley: Petit Curracaye, Grand Curracaye, El Guamal, Landor, San Patricio, La Sagesse and Fahay's.
There is a anecdote in the Stollmeyer family. After Lord Harris had left Trinidad in 1854, his furniture was auctioned off. Conrad purchased a chair, which is called 'Harris Chair' and is still in an honoured place in "La Regalada" the beautiful old family residence in Santa Cruz.
Driving around the Savannah, the last and probably most charming of the "Magnificient Seven" on the Queen's Park's eastern side also was a Stollmeyer residence. It is called "Killarney", or, as most people know it, "Stollmeyer's Castle". Designed after a part of Balmoral Castle, it was built for Charles Fourier Stollmeyer