Being first is quite a fete. It is nice to know that you were first in your class, first to set a record, first to build something, first to achieve something, or even first to have the honors like kissing the queen's hands or stealing the first kiss from a young lady. It is not quite pleasant to be the first one to go to jail or commit a serious crime or to be the first one to suffer a terrible accident. During the next few weeks "Twenty Five Years Ago" will be taking you through a list of "Firsts" in San Pedro and Ambergris Caye which have set the pace for a good start and have led to the development of San Pedro as we know it today. So who and what and when and why were the "Firsts"?
First Airstrip: The first strip of land used for landing planes here in Ambergris Caye was at Basil Jones area in the northern end of the island. This airstrip that goes back to the early 1950's was used to fly in personnel and goods for a petroleum exploration company that was drilling on the island looking for crude oil. Traces of oil were found, but nothing in commercial quantities. Very heavy equipment was barged in and the big time officials were flown in using this all grass airstrip at Basil Jones. The airstrip is still there and from time to time, there is talk or plans of re-opening that airstrip. Now the first airstrip built to serve the needs of San Pedro Village came about at the time when the first hotel was built in San Pedro by John Grief and Celi Nunez. John Grief also contributed much towards the opening of that airstrip. Area representative Louis Sylvestre at the time was very influential and so was Mr. Jim Blake (+) who was the owner of the land. That first airstrip was all grass, very narrow, and about º the length of the present airstrip. It landed one plane occasionally and has grown to what we enjoy today.
First Airplane: The first plane to land on Ambergris Caye had to be one from the Petroleum Exploration Company at Basil Jones up north. The first plane to land here was actually a sea plane owned by Mr. John Grief . The first aqua landing was at the lagoon behind the village and docked at a little pier by the football field. The entire village came to see this historic and awesome landing. This first sea plane was one of the moving factors behind the Holiday Hotel, the pioneer hotel for San Pedro and owned by John and Celi. From there came the development of the airstrip, commercial airlines, and the commencement of tourism for San Pedro. This dates back to the 1960's.
First Doctor: The first doctor to offer his services to the people of San Pedro was Dr. Manuel Lizama of Belize City. Today we complain when there is no doctor in San Pedro for one day or even for one hour because we have a population of some 8 thousand, and out of them all, someone is bound to have severe pains and need a doctor almost every hour. Dr. Lizama only served San Pedro once a week, and it seemed that people waited for that day very patiently. In fact, there were some days when the good doctor came and only had one or two patients with minor problems. You need to remember that at the time of Dr. Lizama, there was a population of some 500 persons, so that was one doctor to 500 persons. Today there are three doctors for 8,000 or a ratio of one doctor for every 2,666 persons. Dr. Lizama operated at a little wooden building that belonged to Mr. Apolono Alamilla where The Alijua Building is at present. The first doctor to live permanently on the island is our good Dr. Otto Rodriguez at the Lions Community Clinic, and he has been there for over twenty years. Thank you Dr. Lizama and Dr. Rodriguez.
First Cinema or Movie Theatre: The first movies shown here in San Pedro were at the park by the government information service. They were documentaries about cows and agriculture or control of diseases. The entire village of some four hundred inhabitants stood around Central Park to witness such spectacles. The first cinema to be completed was owned by Jim Blake (deceased) where Sun Breeze is presently located. It never went into operation as it was destroyed by Hurricane Hattie a few weeks before inauguration in 1961. It was a first class cinema with cushioned seats and large screen etc. The first one to operate was Teatro Arenas owned by Mr. Wilfrido Nunez Sr. (deceased) It is the same building now used as Jaguar's Temple, but used to be located where Fido's Courtyard presently stands. The cinema was then passed to Mr. Pedro Salazar and now belongs to Pedro Salazar Jr. Unfortunately for San Pedro, there is no cinema for us to enjoy the latest releases in movies. Next investor, a cinema instead of a bar, PLEASE!
I was chatting the other day with my good friend Clive Welch and when I mentioned the cinema, he remarked, “I did not know you had a cinema in San Pedro; I thought Paradise Theater was the first one.” Today memories of our beloved cinema flashed back in my mind with much fondness.
This first cinema in San Pedro was aptly named Teatro Arenas as it was built on a hill of sand exactly where Fido’s Courtyard is presently located. It was owned by our former alcalde (village chairman), village leader and first proprietor of Fido’s Hotel, Don Fido Nuñez. Teatro Arenas was a huge long building with zinc walls, a wooden floor and wooden benches that could seat some three hundred spectators.
The cinema delighted San Pedranos of all ages with mostly Spanish movies, American Indians and Cowboys, romance and adventures- whatever Mr. Fido Nuñez could get from the three movie places in Belize City. There were two huge projectors at the back using huge rolls of 35 mm. film. You could literally feel the heat from it bright lamps and hear the hum of the projectors at work. But the cinema was equipped with about ten commercial fans, and a snack bar to add to our comfort.
Oh it was a good place to meet a girl you secretly admired, and whenever the film popped, which was very frequent, it was no more a secret as you would be caught kissing. You see, whenever the film popped, the lights would be turned on immediately to avoid a commotion. And when the lights were turned on still there was a commotion and laughter as friends would tease those who were surprised in romance. Indeed many parents learned first time of their daughters’ relationships because of these surprises at the cinema. Many boys and girls stole their first kisses at Teatro Arenas. Some girls learned that their dream boys were courting another girl at Teatro Arenas. And a few relationships also broke up at Teatro Arenas. I am sure this cinema could have very appropriately been named Teatro Romance.
But all good things come to an end. This very much loved cinema came to an end when television was introduced in San Pedro and the big screen was brought into the homes via the small screen. Whenever the older folks pass by Jaguar’s Temple Night Club today, they reminisce on what used to be their favorite social center in San Pedro- Teatro Arenas which was moved from Fido’s to the present Jaguar’s Night Club today. It flourished Twenty Five Years Ago from the 1960’s until the 80’s.
The Very First Telephone: Can you imagine yourself in San Pedro without a telephone for one hour? Well, can you picture San Pedro without a telephone back in the 1760's? There was a time when there was not a single telephone in this place except the ones we used to make with two tin cans and a long string. Some folks remember the very first telephone installed in San Pedro at Mr. Enrique Staines' (deceased) house. It used to be located in his kitchen and when he received a call for someone, he sent a message that you should come and answer the telephone. A person could also go to his house to dial a number in Belize City or other parts of Belize, but not international calls. The number of that community telephone was 52. This must have been about the year 1971 or 72, and when the phone became popular, a little booth was build in the yard and then people used to come in larger numbers to make calls. When B.T.L realized that it was a profitable business, they came to install about thirty phone lines to individual houses. I still recall San Pedro High as 2014, Coral Beach 2013, Martha's 2052 and Caribena 2011. Do you know the number of telephones today in San Pedro? Would be an interesting fact to get from B.T.L.
The First Residents of San Pablo
Last week we learned about the first residents in the San Juan area. Some of you might have quickly asked, "What about San Pablo?" Well, the very first ones to live there were Bruce and Victoria Collins, the first owners and editors of the San Pedro Sun. San Pablo has a unique history. The Town Board dreamed this project along with the famous Glen Godfrey. The land was purchased and some two hundred locals were invited to put three hundred dollars per lot so that the land could be paid for. Some people purchased three or up to ten lots. Everyone immediately received one lot and others are still waiting to get their lots. Some lots were sold along the canals at higher prices to subsidize the other lots. Lincoln Eiley was the second resident there and he was followed by "Yours Truly" and his family. That was exactly ten years ago. There was electricity, but no lights on the poles. Soon afterwards BTL installed its lines and Coral Cable Television followed too. Every had faith in the project and today there are many stores, a restaurant, a sports field, a bar, many workshops, WASA water lines, three churches, a park, over one hundred voters and some two hundred and fifty residences. San Pablo will soon be the center or the town. It is the fastest growing residential area of San Pedro with two universities in its vicinity.
The Very First High School
The very first high school and only one so far was San Pedro High School founded in 1971. At that time only two students were going to the city to do high school and San Pedro High offered the opportunity to more locals. The first class had about thirty students and there were only two teachers. It was located at the community center, later to become the town hall. The rooms downstairs of the town hall are rooms built by San Pedro High for its expansion. The school even borrowed buildings around town. Mr. Apolono "Tuto" Alamilla generously lent a building and so did Father Raszkowski. The school moved into its own building in 1987 with six rooms, an office and two bathrooms. Today it boasts three offices, a staff room, a basketball court, volleyball court, saloon, two bathrooms, 16 rooms including a library and conference room. Its population has grown from thirty to 260 students. Like San Pablo, SPHS has truly come a long way.
First Village Council Chairman
Depending on who you talk to, there is mixed information as to who was the first village council chairman. A village council chairmanship was not a political post. Government officials simply came to the island, held an open meeting, and by nominations from the villagers, a chairman and his councilors were elected. It is felt that the first chairman was Mr. Wilfrido "Fido" Nunez (deceased), who was also one of the first J.P.'s. In all fairness to other chairmen, here is the list of others who were "alcaldes" in San Pedro: Mr. Efrain Guerrero, Mr. Alfredo Alamilla (deceased), Mr. Abel Guerrero, Mr. Octavio Alamilla (deceased), Mr. Enrique Staines (deceased), Mr. Gilberto "Chico" Gomez and Mr. Gustavo Arceo. Of these, past chairmen, three were also appointed Commissioners of the Supreme Court - Mr. Fido Nunez Esq., Mr. Abel Guerrero Esq., and Mr. Enrique Staines Esq.
First Resident in San Juan Area
Before San Pedro Town was expanded to the limits of Boca del Rio (the river) the end of the village used to be Paradise Hotel. Beyond that point the land used to be "cocal" or coconut plantation on the beach and mangrove swamp on the west or the lagoon side. Government acquired the land in 1971 for village expansion and the land was subdivided and issued to villagers for residential purposes only - not for hotels, bars, etc. The first persons to build homes in the San Juan Area were George Eiley and Mrs. Leonor Rosado. At that time there were no roads, no water, no electricity, no telephones, no Cable T.V., no stores in the area. It was high bush all along and only the beach lots looked encouraging. Today there are some 150 developed lots in San Juan, all used up for residential and other purposes and it is a bustling little corner of San Pedro Town with restaurants, stores, bars and even churches as well as the other amenities that our town enjoys.
Before San Pedro became a town in 1984, there used to be village council chairmen. Many chairmen helped run this village with a system that depended more on cooperation and volunteer service. In 1982 councilors started lobbying with central government to upgrade San Pedro to the status of town which meant that more revenues would be collected and more services could be given. Finally on November 27, 1984 , exactly 17 years ago, area representative Louis Sylvestre signed San Pedro's formal status as a town in Belize. The historic signing was witnessed by many mayors of Belize and many ministers of government. Mr. Gilberto "Chico" Gomez, being the chairman at the time was appointed provisional Mayor of San Pedro. A few months later in 1985, in the first town board election ever for San Pedro, Mr. Gilberto Gomez won a seat in the town council and his colleagues voted him Mayor of San Pedro Town. His other colleagues were Mr. Angel Nunez, Mr. Pedro Salazar, Mr. Luis Nunez, Mr. Edilberto Marin, Mr. Nicolas Varela and Gustavo Arceo. Arceo left for the U.S.A. a short while later and Mr. Baldemar Graniel assisted the town board during its first term.
There might have a horse in San Pedro in the 1930's but no one can give me an accurate story of this animal. Traditionally, San Pedro has not been like other villages in Belize where the horse is man's best friend. However, in the early 1960's the village council chairman, it could have been Mr. Fido Nunez, purchased a horse to pull a c art for the garbage disposal of the village. The poor animal when fastened to its cart refused to move forward. It gave a few steps backwards and then became as stubborn as a mule. Consequently, it was sold to Gonzalo Lara (Reds) who had the animal as a pet. He charged 25 cents for a half hour ride. The kids were very glad to get the horse for a shilling and rode all along the beach with the horse. It had no saddle, only a cloth was placed on its back and a rope in its mouth served as the rein. Indeed the horse was very tame and made a good horse allowing up to three persons on its back, but never the cart fastened behind him. The horse died on the island after it had eaten some type of bad weed, or perhaps died of old age. Perhaps reds should get another horse. Horseback riding is a great sport which we enjoyed very much.
First Water System: The first water systems used in San Pedro from the time it was founded in 1848 were the shallow wells. Every family had a well made either with wooden barrels or sticks, and later on with metal drums. Secondly the villagers would also place drums or barrels and collect rainwater with gutters from the rooftops. In the 1930's the expert hands of the carpenters made the wood vat that was held together by metal rims. These collected fresh water in large quantities and was reserved for drinking only. The well, however, remained in use for drinking and washing etc. Even babies were fed with well water which was boiled, of course.
It was until 1984 when the first town board was elected that there was a water system that pumped water throughout the town. Again the source were shallow wells, a treatment plant, and the elevated tower. The wells were lined along the airstrip. They worked fine but then the demand became bigger. Some time around 1988 the first desalination plant was installed still by the WASA compound by the airstrip. And finally pretty recently we saw the last phase of our water system with the desalination plant by Victoria House. This system is said to be a long-term project.
The First Hotel: The very first hotel built in San Pedro was actually not put into use. It was the dream of a retired American couple, Mr. and Mrs. Vernon Hammon, who were in real estate and who made lasting friends in San Pedro. They were an adorable couple who got very much involved in the development of San Pedro. Their hotel project, Colony Club, was just completed and awaiting inauguration when Hurricane Hattie came about in 1961 and totally destroyed it along with the entire beach of San Pedro. Therefore for the record the very first hotel that can truly be called the pioneer is the famous Holiday Hotel owned by Celi McCorkel and John Greif. It boasted five wooden rooms at exactly the same location it is today. When it opened in 1965, it boasted a hand pump used to fill a few drums that fed the bathrooms by gravity. Yes, Celi remembers exercising at the hand water pump to keep it going while the tourists took their showers. It was a beautiful building compared to others in the 1960's, and Celi made sure it was the pride of San Pedro. There were no brochures, so the fame of Holiday Hotel was by word of mouth and due to the great hospitality provided by Celi and her team of employees and tourist guides. To think that George Price, Prime Minister of Belize actually came to San Pedro to cut the ribbon was an accomplishment for the tourism business at the time.
First Skiff Accident: Back in the 1970's there was not a lot of skiff traffic just like there was not a lot of traffic on land. Therefore accidents between fast boats were unheard of. One or two boats caught in a storm or in rough seas did overturn, and those accidents were considered almost tragic though there was no loss of life. However, we do have a skiff accident to relate to you from the 70's. Mr. Armando Graniel Sr., the famous contractor of Graniel's Construction, had one of the fastest skiffs in those days. The skiff was rightly named "El Veloz" (The speedy one). That skiff beat many others during the races of Baron Bliss Day and when traveling to and from the fishing sites, that skiff could leave you behind like a hare would to a turtle. One day while returning from Belize City, El Veloz hit a floating log and it started leaking and was about to sink. As soon as Graniel landed at the football field area, he pulled it up, sprinkled some gasoline over he skiff and lit it. It burned down to ashes in minutes. Later he learned that what he had done was a crime called arson. Graniel was so proud of his skiff that when he had some problems with it, he got rid of it.
First Election Campaign: Before 1984 village councils were elected at a public meeting by a raise of hands. I was personally elected into a village council about 1971 at a meeting at the local cinema where some thirty men attended. After San Pedro got its township status in 1984, then there was need of a two party election system. Chico Gomez, the interim first mayor, was sworn in, but elections were slated for early 1985 and so the first campaign began. It was pretty clean and positive but party fanatics always tend to carry it off track at times. Unlike today's campaigns it was very low key in terms of cash spent. Yes a few T-shirts and banners were given out but that was about all. There were no free beer meetings, no giveaways, and not many promises made for it was all new and uncertain as to what to expect. The first persons ever elected in a two party election system were Pedro Salazar, Betito Marin, Luis Nunez (deceased), Gilberto Gomez, Nicolas Varela, Gustavo Arceo, and your humble servant. Several us them served three consecutive terms of three years each and then retired. This year is town council election year.
The First Cargo Boat: Most of the cargo that comes to San Pedro comes by sea. That means tons and tons of cargo, from a bag of peanuts to a pick up truck. Today there are several cargo boats and even the airlines provide cargo service. Which was the first cargo boat for San Pedro? It was a boat named the Elsa P. and owned by Mr. Felipe Paz Sr. or Tio Pil as he is affectionately known. The Elsa P. was a fairly large wooden boat built especially for cargo. It was first powered by a large sail and a jib and could make the trip to Belize City in about five to six hours. The boat would carry empty pint bottles, coconuts, drums for kerosene, and other light cargo. Once loaded in about two days, Tio Pil would make his return journey, which could be anything from 12 to 20 hours depending on the wind speed and wind direction. A headwind made the trip to San Pedro extremely difficult and could take up to twenty four hours and so did a very calm wind. On the return trip there were sacks of flour, beans, rice, sugar and boxes of canned foodstuffs as well as some bread and vegetables. The goods were unloaded at the main pier by Big Daddy's and from there the cargo was carried to the shops and homes on shoulder. Yes, on shoulder. Every sack of cement, every piece of lumber was carried on the shoulders. The Elsa P. made one trip per week, but at times two. Passengers also traveled by the same cargo boat, and it was the most comfortable and reliable ride at the time.
The First Fishing Cooperative: There has only been one; it was founded, flourished, and still exists but very quietly. Before 1965 all the fishing in San Pedro was handled by individuals. One sold his lobster and fish wherever he could. Lobster was boiled and sold house to house or at the Belize City Market at two for five cents. Fish was sold in bundles at about four for five cents and at times that was considered expensive. In order to find better markets for the fishermen, San Pedro's fishermen founded the Caribena Producers Fishing Cooperative. It purchased product from the fishermen, processed it and exported it to the United States. A good year for Caribena could be close to two hundred thousand pounds of lobster tails exported. Fishermen obtained up to eight dollars per pound of lobster and at the end of the year received second payments of about two dollars more per pound. A second payment for a fisherman was up to twenty thousand dollars. Caribena was the backbone of the island, but that is now history.
First Air Accident: The name of the American pilot involved in the first airplane accident is not remembered by the folks in San Pedro, but the air accident is vivid in the minds of those who lived in the 1960's. This pilot tried to take off from the short, grassy runway in San Pedro during one of those days when the breeze was howling at some 30 miles per hour. To make it worse the aircraft was covered not with aluminum, but by some canvas-looking material. To compensate for the lightweight of the small four seater, he loaded a few bags of sand, but that did not help. The wind caused the plane to spin over and it was cast nose down on the west side of the airstrip more or less where the recompression chamber is located, which at the time was covered with coconut palms. The plane was totally destroyed but the two persons in the plane escaped with minor scratches. And do you know what? The kids in the village all had a delightful time stealing rods from the body of the plane which were used for spearing fish.