Visit Aruba’s Museum of Industry
Written by Debbie Kunder
On a recent return trip from Baby Beach, driving through downtown San Nicolas, we decided to pull over at the renovated water tower that stands sentry over the oil town and now houses Aruba’s Museum of Industry. Unknowingly, we had chosen International Museum Day (May 18) for our visit, as explained to us by the museum tour guide, Edward Fraser. Things were looking up!
Our tour started with a question: Isla inutil? Basically, when Europeans first landed on Aruba, they were highly skeptical of Aruba’s worth in terms of its stores of natural resources, and indeed, they quickly came to the conclusion that Aruba was a useless island (isla inutil). However, these early visitors were wrong, as the Museum of Industry painstakingly points out.
As early as the 16th century, the island was used as a place to breed horses and other livestock. Edward explained that Oranjestad was once called Paardenbaai (Horse Bay) as a reflection of the horse trade on Aruba. When ships from Europe would bring the horses to Aruba, rather than dock, they would stay in the bay, forcing the horses to swim to shore. If you walk around downtown Oranjestad, you will see a number of blue horse statues scattered around, an art project by local artist Osaira Muyale that commemorates this part of Aruba’s history.
Gold fever hit the island starting in 1824 when 12-year-old Willem Rasmijn found a chunk of gold. He took it to his father, who had wanted to keep it a secret, but instead divulged the discovery to others during a night of heavy drinking—ooops!
Then there was aloe. While the gold industry never thrived tremendously on the island, aloe was an entirely different story. In fact, in the 19th century, Aruba became the world’s main exporter of aloin resin, a substance derived from the aloe plant that was used as a natural laxative. At the museum, I loved the photo of the diligent aloe farmer cooking the dark aloe latex, which had to be stirred continuously until it was fully cooked (this would take all day and night). The latex would then be dried into a hard resin and shipped in blocks across the pond to the relief of constipated individuals all across Europe.
Edward also told the story of the Lady of Mon Plaisir, who was involved in both the aloe and gold industries. Her first husband, Louis Bazin, a Frenchman, owned a commercial aloe plantation on the outskirts of Oranjestad in the area of Mon Plaisir. Her second marriage was to a Northern Italian man, Pietro Frigerio, and for several generations, the Frigerios remained involved in gold mining and goldsmithing on Aruba. They also brought Italian stone workers to the island to work in the gold mines. This is how we ended up with Northern Italian surnames on the island, such as Donata, Falconi, Petrochi, Yacopucci, etc.
Aruba also dabbled in the phosphate industry. Large deposits of guano (bird excrement) were discovered and mined at Sero Colorado, the guano’s phosphate content making it a valuable fertilizer. The guano that was mined came in all different shades of brown and red, which is precisely why Sero Colorado (Colored Hill) was named as such.
One of Aruba’s biggest industries was oil refining. In fact, Aruba harbored the largest refinery in the world at one point—the Lago refinery in San Nicolas—which played a huge role in supplying oil to the Allies during WWII. But Lago wasn’t Aruba’s only refinery—a fact unknown to many people. A smaller refinery also existed in the low-rise hotel area. The Eagle refinery, which refined kerosene, was located right where the Divi All Inclusive Resorts and Casa del Mar stand today. Imagine, big cylindrical holding tanks once populated the white sands of Eagle Beach…incredible!
Of course, tourism lives on today as the most important industry for the island. What started as locals graciously welcoming island guests to stay with them in their own homes has evolved into a full-blown industry that serves as Aruba’s bread and butter. In fact, in terms of its reliance on tourism to power its economy, Aruba ranks second of all islands in the world.
Oh, one last thing. Don’t forget to check out the stairwell exhibit called Cultural Mosaic, which highlights all the different cultures that have come together to power the various industries on the island throughout its history. It’s these cultures that have created the island’s beautiful multi-textured, multi-colored social fabric that exists today.
Museum of Industry’s Opening Hours: Monday – Friday, 9 am to 6 pm; Saturday, 10 am to 2 pm