By Cretan standards the village of Agios Ioannis appeared to be a fairly recent settlement. The reason for this is clear: the land it occupied was marginal There are few other villages at this height in Crete that were occupied year round. The utilization of land resources has varied widely. A walk below the village showed that very large areas, now completely covered by pine forests and the open areas beween now used for grazing, were once heavily cultivated.
In the early part of the 20th century the villagers of Agios Ioannis were more or less self-sufficient. People grew vegetables, grain and fruit and had such a large numer of animals that there was a severe shortage of grazing land. During the winter some families from Agios Ioannis brought their herds to areas near Paleochora in Selinou. Sheep from Sfakia also wintered as far away as Kali Limenes on the south coast. It would take 15 – 16 days to bring the sheep there.
Before the Second World War, a barter trade existed between Sfakia and the Messara plain in south-central Crete. Logs were taken from the forests of Agios Ioannis, rolled down the cliffs to the shore below, and taken by boat to Agia Galini, Timbaki and Mires in the Messara. The boats would hold from 300 to 400 logs, a single log would be exchanged for an amount of grain that varied from 10 to 40 kilos. Some of the Agios Ioannis men participated in the trade, accompanying the wood in the boats to the Messara.
In addition, Sfakian herders would seasonally use pasture in the Messara area; two families from the Messara settled in Agios Ioannis, perhaps some 200 years ago. This wood-grain trade was evidently of great antiquity, it is remarked upon in Italian sources of the 15th century. It ended in about 1955, probably as a result of grain subsidies, the introduction of alternate choices of building materials, and decreasing profit.
In 1935 a retsina industry was started. This was not a locally owned industry, but run by people in Northern Greece. The retsina company rented the trees for a yearly sum of 50 lepta per tree. The resin was tapped from the trees, and taken by mules to the sea and loaded onto ships. This provided work for many of the villagers, but when the war broke out in 1941, the production ceased and never started again.
Silkworms were also bred, and the cocoons were taken to Anopolis for processing. Each year Anopolis, Aradena and Agios Ioannis produced altogether about 200 kilos, and about 10 – 20 kilos from Agios Ioannis alone. The locally manufactured silk was used in such items as the mandila (men’s headcloths). Later, the place of silk was taken by synthetic materials.
Before the war barley, wheat, lentils and beans were cultivated in Agios Ioannis, and the villagers were dependent on the mills at Agia Roumeli. These mills serviced many nearby communities, including Agios Ioannis and Aradena, and sometimes, in times of especially abundant harvests, even the island of Gavdos. There was a heavy mule traffic past Agios Ioannis each day, with many mules carrying grain, milled and unmilled, back and forth from Agia Roumeli. The owners of the mills received 10% of all the grain milled there. When the war broke out there was a shortage of grain and the mills closed down.
Between 1930 and 1950 one man made his living as a muleteer. Before the war he owned the only mule in the village. He would leave the village at night, arrive in Anopolis early in the morning and continue down to Chora Sfakion. Before the road came to Chora Sfakion, he used to take tours as far as Askifou and Imbros. The tour from Chora Sfakion to Anopolis on the old mule path would take about 1,5 hours.
The mix of various crops grown had undergone many changes since the war. Generally, pre-war Agios Ioannis was given over to grain production, and olive trees were by far fewer. With the introduction of subsidized grain after the war, much cereal cropping was abandoned, and large areas within the village were given over to the cultivation of olives. There used to be about 10 oxen in Agios Ioannis, 10 in Aradena and about 30 in Anaoplis. The last ox was registered in the koinotis of Agios Ioannis in 1965. When the grain cultivation ceased, the oxen in the village were given up, since they had been used for plowing the grain fields and were no longer necessary. In the late 70’s, the much reduced plowing requirements of the village could be carried out by one or two mules. Thus, although the village gave an appearance of timelessness at first glance, it nonetheless had a very different agriculture than it did before the war.
Agios Ioannis was a poor village by Cretan standards. However, poverty is a relative measure, and is in part socially defined, It is clear that with an improved water supply, loss of population, and the rise in the level of prosperity in Crete after the war, the general lot of the villagers of Agios Ioannis had greatly improved. Even so, it is also abundantly clear that the other nearby villages have succeeded to a far greater extent economically, than have Agios Ioannis and its neighbours, Livaniana and Aradena.
In the 70’s the villagers had become increasingly dependent on the world outside; they bought grain and potatoes, they processed their milk in Anopolis, they sold olive oil, honey and meat to buyers from other parts of Crete, and they got social security from the national government.
The gathering of sea salt along the coast was a man’s job. The state had a monopoly on salt, but this was ignored by the villagers who would claim their traditional right to collect it from the beaches.
On the seashore, 750 metres below the village, by the church of Agios Paulos, is a place where the bedrock is exposed. Over geological time, this rock which was deposited in alternating layers of hard and softer stone, has turned 90 degrees on its axis, so that the shore here has the appearance of long dark and light stripes of rock. Through wave action, some of the softer stone has been eaten away, forming throughs of up to several metres in length and perhaps 1/2 metres deep. Winter storms fill these troughs with seawater; when the storms subside in the spring, the shore is dotted with pools of salt water. Under the hot sun, the water evaporates, leaving deposits of salt. The salt from the shallowest pools that had evaporated first, was deposited as a rime-like coating, or in thin panes that look a bit like ice. One large stone formation could hold up to 20 kg. of salt. The completely dried salt is scraped away with a spoon. The deeper pools still filled with a briny slush could be easily scooped out in large quantities with the hands alone. The wet salt is then spread out on cloth in the sun to partially drain.
One man collected large quantities and sold salt to several other households. Others went down themselves and collected the salt they needed for one or several years at the time. The people from Loutron and Livaniana sold salt in Anopolis. One family of five people had used about 100 kg. of sea salt in two years. They had collected 150 kg. two years ago and expected the salt to last another year. Salt was used for cooking and for salting olives, cheese and meat.
When my husband accompanied one of the villagers on a “salting” tour in 1980, ca. 90 kg. of damp sea salt was collected in this fashion in the space of 3-4 hours, and was transported to the village on the back of a donkey, in burlap bags that sweated constantly from evaporation. The salt was considered better than the commercial product and was given as a gift to those family members living in the city, where it was in demand a “good” product of the countryside.