This article was taken from our archives. It first appeared in the May 1996 issue of The Bermudian. It appears here exactly as it did originally.
“Malcolm ‘Buster’ Hollis was a man of integrity who had a sense of humour, a keen love of his country and an appreciation for all things agricultural. He was a quintessential Bermudian.” – Ann Frith Cartwright DeCouto, MP, House of Assembly, May 6, 1994.
Very few people today can say that they were born, raised, lived and died on the same property. My father, Malcom Hollis -or “Buster,” as he was known to many grew up on “Harrington Harrisii Farm,” Smith’s. He was to spend the rest of his life there. But my father also had another enduring link – to St. David’s, where the Hollis family owned another farm that came to represent the major source of Bermuda’s once world-renowned Easter lily export. It was here my father used to spend much of his time as a young man, and where a strong part of our family heritage was forged.
Born on August 14, 1927, the youngest son of Malcolm Jessie Giles Hollis and Sadie Roberts, Malcolm was the younger brother of Stella Hollis White, William Giles Hollis, Annie Hollis Ferreira and Mary Hollis Conyers. Above all else, he was a Bermudian and throughout his life, he symbolised what it was to be a Bermudian.
“He grew up in an age of carriages, box carts, buggies, pedal cycles, row boats and fishing nets and survived an age of car, jets, faxes, VCRs and CNN,” noted Dr. Walwyn Hughes, at my father’s 1994 funeral. “Throughout changing times, he endeavoured to maintain a traditional way of life. Unquestionably, through him, a part of old Bermuda was maintained which otherwise would not have survived.”
My grandfather, Malcolm Jessie Giles Hollis, was himself a larger-than-life Bermudian who started his early farming life by leaving his home in Riddell’s Bay as a young man and rowing a boat full of farming implements from Southampton to Cooper’s Island, St. David’s, with his brother Ross. Here in the East End, they used to farm for six months straight before returning to their families. Later, the two brothers, along with their younger brother Arthur, traveled to the United States and ran the Pinkerton Hunt Club in Philadelphia, returning to Bermuda before the First World War to set up farms in both St. David’s and Harrington Hundreds, Smith’s.
During the First World War, my grandfather supplied the troops at the Battery in St. David’s from his farm, situated on what was later to become the Pilot Station and the St. David’s Cricket Club field. That property was compulsorily purchased in the early 1920s by the government for building a lepers’ sanctuary – a move that was eventually blocked by St. David’s Islanders who vowed: “If you build it, we will burn it.” (The hospice was later built on the site of what is now St. Brendan’s Hospital in Devonshire.)
As a result of the purchase, Malcolm Sr. moved his family to the Beehive farm above Ruth’s Bay in St. David’s, and also acquired what was to become Harrington Harrisii farm in Smith’s, where a home was built by the time of young Malcolm’s birth in 1927. Until the middle of the Second World War, my grandfather ran an extensive lily farming operation from St. David’s and Smith’s. The East End farm was used primarily for the growing of Easter lilies, while packing of the lilies was done in Smith’s. At that time, Bermuda Easter lilies were grown purely for the export of bulbs to the United States, and summer was the busy season, when the bulbs were dug up, cleaned, packed in sand in wooden crates and taken by horse and cart to the docks in Hamilton for shipment. As a young boy, my father spent many summer months back and forth in a horse-drawn wagon transporting the bulbs from St. David’s to Smith’s and on to Hamilton. It was said many of the horses did the route so many times, they could do it by themselves with little guidance.
As the youngest child of the family, life on the farm was not as hard for Malcolm as it was for the others. He often talked in later years of times spent racing billy goats with David and Edgar Wilkinson, hauling pots off the South Shore and fishing with the men from St. David’s an area with which he maintained a lifelong attachment.
Malcolm was too young to serve in the Second World War, having only started school at the Whitney Institute at a relatively late age in 1935. He was not a regular attendee, preferring to spend as much time as he could on the farm. His father was known as a hard taskmaster and used to say “there is a lot of work in boys.”
Many stories are told about my grandfather, Malcolm Jessie Giles Hollis, one of the more popular being the version of events that took place one late afternoon and evening in St. David’s as a group of Islanders were cleaning onions in the fading light above the East End. Earlier in the afternoon, one of the workers had called their attention to two tugs which were racing out off the South Shore to a convoy in distress. My grandfather said nothing to them and carried on working. As the day came to a close and night overcame the workers, none were brave enough to question why they had not been laid off for the day. Once the moon came up, the bravest of the group finally said: “Mr. Hollis, aren’t you going to knock us off tonight?” To which Malcolm Sr. responded: “I saw that you were all so interested in watching the two tugs race to sea, I thought you would all want to stay and watch which one came back first!”
During the War, however, young Malcolm did have time for horseback riding and was proud to be one of the youngest members of the Bermuda Paper Chase Club, Bermuda’s equivalent to an English hunt club, and he rode with the likes of Governor Lord Burnie, the commanders of the local forces and a number of attractive young ladies. Malcolm had also maintained a very fine buggy during the War, and was proud to be one of the first to obtain a driver’s licence once the motor car was introduced to Bermuda’s roads. Malcolm also spent much of his spare time with his elder sister Stella White and her husband L.A. “Bill” White, parents of David L. White, editor of The Royal Gazette. He would travel with them abroad, and on one trip they brought him back a small donkey from Montserrat which he went on to train to perform tricks at the annual Agricultural Exhibition and at various local night clubs.
As the United States joined the War in 1941, the decision was made to build the U.S. Air Force Base on the islands on the northern side of Castle Harbour, which included St. David’s Island, and more particularly, most of the land farmed by my grandfather Malcolm Jesse Giles Hollis. A significant portion of the lily-growing area was taken from the family for what was considered to be the War effort and the business suffered what was to become a fatal blow. The family’s operations at the East End were over, and farming activity now centred at Harisii, Smith’s.
In 1951, Malcolm married Jean Grace, a beautiful Canadian bookkeeper, and together they settled in a partnership that was to last over 40 years. Jean was immediately thrust into life on the farm and was quickly taught Bermuda’s traditional cooking methods and techniques by her mother-in-law. My parents quickly involved me and my sister Deborah Jean in farm life and brought us up surrounded by animal husbandry and gardening. Malcolm passed on to me, as he himself had been taught, a basic understanding of things Bermudian, including traditional ways of farming, construction, and fishing.
Malcolm and his brother Willy worked on the farm with their father until Malcolm Sr.’s death in 1957. The brothers continued to maintain the farm as a going concern until the death of their mother in 1973. Then, they split the farm between them, Willy taking what was to be known as the Hollistead area off Harrington Hundreds Road, and Malcolm taking the inland area stretching from Harrington Sound to Knapton Hill. Although they farmed separately, they worked together and whenever necessary combined their forces to build barns, cultivate and mold potatoes, dig cassava, butcher the farm animals for the family’s table, and dredge mussels and haul fish pots.
They shared a horse and plough and a red truck which their father bought just after the War and which they maintained for more than 40 years. In the early 1960s, Malcolm set about realising a long-held dream to re-establish the farm as a centre for growing Bermuda Easter lilies, to continue the tradition begun in St. David’s. In so doing, he hoped to reinstate the Bermuda Ester lily; then virtually extinct, to its former importance in local agriculture. It was a bold venture, and with patience and dedication, working with his friend Dr. Walwyn Hughes, then assistant director of agriculture, he was able to establish the farm to its pre-War position.
In 1972, shortly before his mother’s death, he exported a considerable shipment of Bermuda Easter lily bulbs.
In the following years, he developed and created an impressive industry of shipping Bermuda Easter lily stems throughout the world-the recipients of which amounted to a “who’s who” including most heads of state, from the White House to Buckingham Palace. Indeed, Malcolm was very proud of the fact he was “Lily packer to the Queen,” having for the 35 years up to and including the year of his death, packed Bermuda’s annual Easter lily tribute to the monarch. After his death, his family found he had carefully kept copies of the Queen’s annual acknowledgment and thank-you notes.
Despite the wonders of modern science, it was soon discovered the Bermuda Easter lily required new ground in order to thrive and large areas of planting land were required for adequate crop rotation. Unfortunately, with the loss of the farm in St. David’s and the ever-shrinking supply of land suitable for lily growing, the virus diseases which plagued the Easter lily proved too much even for Malcolm Hollis, and the local lily export industry once again faded away in the late 1970s.
Malcolm helped keep alive many of Bermuda’s other farming traditions. He was a very successful grower of produce and was the last local farmer to export onions, sending a large shipment to Canada in the late 1960s. In later years, together with other members of the Hollis family, he also established an important cassava business which he maintained until Christmas, 1993, a few months before his death. Together with their brother-in-law G. S. “Bunny” Conyers, Malcolm and Willy developed a cassava-grating machine which could grate cassava in volumes previously unheard of. In retrospect, it is difficult to say whether my father continued cassava growing so long for business reasons or merely to satisfy the needs of his faithful customers. Indeed, within hours of his death, general concern was being expressed by many of his customers, who were also his close friends, as to where their Christmas cassava would come from that year onward.
Malcolm Hollis’s interest in farming lasted throughout his life and he was a mainstay of the annual Agriculture Exhibition. From his early childhood, he was a regular and prolific exhibitor of poultry, waterfowl, goats, vegetables and flowers. During his lifetime he probably won most of the trophies available, including best bird, best goose, best duck, best goat, etc. Less than a week before his death, he was both a judge and an exhibitor in the show, and took great pride in accompanying all his children and grandchildren to the exhibition. In his memory my sister and I dedicated an annual trophy for the best stem of Bermuda Easter lilies exhibited.
My father was also well known as one of Bermuda’s most experienced and successful mullet netters. The ocean mullet is Bermuda’s equivalent of the red salmon, migrating to Bermuda annually in the months of October and November to spawn in Bermuda’s enclosed waters. The netting of mullet was a tradition he’d learnt from his association with St. David’s and St. David’s Islanders and he adopted Harrington Sound as his domain when it came to the netting of mullets. At that time of year, mullets traveled to Bermuda in schools of up to 300, with each fish weighing up to 10 pounds. The prize was not so much the mullet itself as the roe from the female. Once caught, the roe would be removed and pressed between white sheets of cloth weighed down by boards and heavy stone. After two or three days of pressing, the roes would be hung out to dry in the sun until the consistency resembled that of chocolate, but with the colour of deep amber and the taste of strong caviar. The Bermuda mullet roe is one of the world’s rarest delicacies.
A master mullet-catcher , Malcolm would sometimes haul in more than 200 mullets at a time, working from a little 14-foot dinghy which he rowed around Harrington Sound on calm autumn nights. The crew would return with the catch to the barn, and depending on the size of the catch, could often be found cleaning the fish well into the next day. On removal of the roes, the fish would be cleaned and divided amongst the crew and friends. Malcolm’s share would be divided in two, one being salted in brine, a traditional method of preserving the fish, and the other half would be frozen for later consumption by the family.
Indeed, most of the Hollis family’s food was either caught, grown or produced by themselves. The family’s milk came from either the family cow or goats. All the family’s vegetables and meat, in the form of chicken, duck, goose, rabbit, beef, pork, and veal, were produced on the farm. There was never any shortage of eggs from either chickens, ducks or geese, and the fish -apart from the mullet and other types that were caught -was produced mainly from three fish pots set in Harrington Sound. Although Malcolm believed in hard work, he also believed life should afford opportunities for more enjoyable ways of sustaining oneself and it wasn’t unusual for him to take an afternoon off in the summer to go to Harrington Sound with his brother and children to dredge mussels or dive for lobsters, clams, oysters and scallops.
I remember there was very little waste at Harrington Harrisii farm. Excess crops were used either to feed farm animals or ploughed into a natural form of fertiliser. Excess food from the table went to the pigs and the family cats had no shortage of milk and fish. It was all part of what was then the Bermuda “circle of life.”
While a quiet man of the land, Malcolm was known by many for his insight and he recognised early on that, while he loved and cherished the tradition of Bermudian farming life, it did not hold a real future in the developing Bermuda of the 1960s and 70s. He and our mother Jean knew the Island was changing rapidly, and life on the farm which had been traditional for so many in the Hollis family for 200 years would no longer be an option for their children. Indeed, their lives marked the end of an era, and one we cherish as part of our family and national heritage.
Wendell Hollis’ family’s first farm in the East End is now the site of the St. David’s nursery school and Cricket Club; the second property between Great Bay and Ruth’s Bay is occupied by the former baselands. Harrisi Farm in Smith’s has ceased to be an operating farm.