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Snakeskin links Cuba and Starbuck

Jack Pfeifer, of Starbuck, with the snakeskin that his great-great aunt sent from Cuba. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Jack Pfeifer, of Starbuck, with the snakeskin that his great-great aunt sent from Cuba. Photo by Nancy Leasman

Jack and Gloria Pfeifer, of Starbuck, have a framed snakeskin hanging over a door in their office. An unusual item of décor, this snakeskin has an extraordinary story and leads to a question for modern-day Cuba.

Jack’s grandmother, Florence Thompson, received the snakeskin from her aunt who lived on the Isle of Pines in Cuba. Aunt Helen sent the snakeskin sometime between 1902 and 1960, the years she lived in Cuba. Gloria picks up the story. “Florence kept the snakeskin rolled up in a box with the letters and photos from Helen. Helen apparently killed it with a scythe because it had been killing her chickens.”

Jack’s uncle displayed it in his home, and when he passed away, Jack made a display case for it and hung it in the office.

“We didn’t really know anything other than what was in the package of letters and photos until this winter. We spent the winter in Texas near Carolyn (Jack’s mother) and she started telling us the story of Helen.”

Jack’s great-great aunt, Helen Rodman, was swept off her feet by Harry Sanford Jones, who is pictured above.  Contributed photo

Jack’s great-great aunt, Helen Rodman, was swept off her feet by Harry Sanford Jones, who is pictured above. Contributed photo

Jack’s great-great aunt, Helen Rodman, was a librarian in Delevan, Wis. before being swept off her feet by Harry Sanford Jones, a biologist. The two married, and since Harry already had connections with Cuba’s Isle of Pines, they opted to join other Americans who were buying up property in this new colony.

Helen’s frequent letters told of the small society to which they belonged, her garden club and the experimental test area for plants that Harry was establishing. Harry traveled a lot to collect plant specimens, and seeds were also sent to them from all over the world. The United States Department of Agriculture also worked with them to test plants in Cuba. Harry and Helen’s property became known as Jones’ Jungle. It was known as one of the finest botanical gardens in Cuba, second only to Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos.

Gloria’s Internet research revealed more about Jones’ Jungle.

“The tranquility of the place, together with its charm, made it a place for rest often used by those who came to receive the benefits of the springs of medicinal mineral waters that flowed into the nearby town of Santa Fe. It became a destination for health tourism for those who enjoyed relaxing under the Yamagua, cocoa or ocuje tree. It is believed that in 1946, it was the most visited place on the island.

“The Jungle came to have a wide variety of plants. Among the most outstanding were: 20 varieties of mangoes, 10 cane, mangosteen, coconut trees, several varieties of ocujes and avocados, guavas, star apple, medlar, rose apple, pear “Maraca” or “Tropical,” cashew, jagüey, yagruma , tea from China, coffee from Brazil, India cocoa, mate de Los Andes, carob and others.

Helen pictured with the “tree of love.” Contributed photo

Helen pictured with the “tree of love.” Contributed photo

“However, the most remarkable of all was a yagruma, which bore two trunks in a knot in a heart shape. Named ‘the tree of love,’ it became one of its most attractive specimens.” It also came to immortalize the passion of Helen and Harry.

The couple’s labor of love became Helen’s alone when Harry died in 1938. For 22 years Helen lived there alone. She continued to maintain her precious Jones’ Jungle and shared it with tourists and school students as long as she lived. According to the locals, she also had a fascination for mysticism and was always accompanied by a snake. She also made trips back to visit her family in Minnesota and North Dakota, leaving the snake behind in the jungle.

Though Helen lived a long life in a paradise on earth, she died in 1960 when Fidel Castro’s political uprising seized lands of Americans and others. In an end not befitting her life and contributions to Cuban culture, Helen, at the age of 90, was murdered by prisoners who had been released from a local penal colony.

Gloria’s research into the life and death of Helen led her to Isle of Pines connections on Facebook. “When I asked if anyone knew if Helen was buried in the American cemetery one of the people commenting on Facebook told that he had been in school then and some of the boys brought her charred bones to school to show their friends. I assume because of the political uprising, she was never buried.”

Helen’s reputation, fired by superstition and mysticism, has led to stories of her ongoing attachment to the place she loved. Isle of Pines locals say that on the very day of her death the forest began to die. “Many pineros (native islanders) believed they had seen her, dressed in white with a huge snake coiled around her neck, in the ruins of her old bungalow’s board walls and thatched roof or in the corners and shadows of that forest. Legend of many pineros tell that the soul of the angry old woman was wandering the forest among the neglected weeds’ shadowy solitude, trying to scare off predators coming to the site to remove the layer that made a paradise. It is said that Helen was defending what she loved and cared for with her husband. The grass grew and also the legend.”

For nearly four decades Cuba held the greater world at arm’s length, and during those years, Jones’ Jungle was neglected. In 1998 a gradual process of rescue and recovery was begun. Today, Jones’ Jungle is again a place for tourists and botanical education, though many of the species of plants are unidentified.

The question arises, what claim does Helen’s family, Jack and Gloria and Jack’s mother Carolyn, have on Jones’ Jungle?

  Jack and Gloria Pfeifer, of Starbuck. Contributed photo

Jack and Gloria Pfeifer, of Starbuck. Contributed photo

The likely answer is “not much.” Glovin and Toluse Olorunnipa in an article in Bloomberg Business shine a light on the issue. They also mention another family who had owned and lost land on the Isle of Pines.

“With the U.S. and Cuba moving to normalize relations and perhaps end a half-century trade embargo, the impoverished Caribbean nation can afford to pay Americans whose assets it nationalized after the 1959 revolution maybe 2 percent of the value of the seized property.

“That’s why Cuban and U.S. negotiators are likely to search for other ways to compensate companies, including Coca-Cola Co., which lost $27 million in machinery and real estate, and individuals such as Carolyn Chester, whose family lost an 80-acre farm on what was then known as the Isle of Pines.

“I’d rather be paid a fair settlement over a period of time than pennies on the dollar in one lump sum,” Chester said. “I know the Cuban people are poor, so maybe we can work something out intelligently.”

“The U.S. recognizes more than 5,900 claims against Cuba stemming from the expropriation of property owned by Americans in the aftermath of the revolution, according to the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission, an arm of the Justice Department. The claims were worth about $1.8 billion at the time; today, they total about $7 billion with interest. ….It will fall to the U.S. State Department to negotiate the value of the claims with the Cuban government. The two nations may settle for a fraction of what’s owed in talks that could take months, or years.”

Patrick Borchers, a Creighton University law professor and the Bloomberg report’s principal investigator, said “The best estimate,” is that Cuba can afford to pay “maybe 2 cents on the dollar in hard currency” to resolve claims. “Returning seized assets, like warehouses, factories and farms, may be even harder since many no longer exist.”

Helen and her neighbors in Cuba. Contributed photo

Helen and her neighbors in Cuba. Contributed photo

Jones’ Jungle, the living evidence of Helen and Harry Jones’ lives, does still exist. While Helen’s family has little hope of compensation for the loss of this property, they would dearly love to visit it. The snakeskin hanging over the doorway is a daily reminder of that.

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