Wilfred Ibara stood in the sugar-cane field, whacking off chunks of the sweet, moist cane with his machete and peeling it for tourists to taste. Behind him was a green sea of cane...
KAUMAKANI, Hawaii Wilfred Ibara stood in the sugar-cane field, whacking off chunks of the sweet, moist cane with his machete and peeling it for tourists to taste.
Behind him was a green sea of cane, thousands of acres of cropland belonging to Gay and Robinson Inc., Ibara’s employer and one of the last two working sugar plantations in Hawaii.
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Ibara’s grandfather and father worked on sugar plantations here on the island of Kauai. Now Ibara, 61, drives tourists through the fields and leads them through the labyrinthine sugar-processing factory.
For those looking for something more than sun and surf, the sugar-plantation tour shows what life was like before tourism engulfed Hawaii. Combine it with a visit to Grove Farm, a Kauai plantation family’s home-turned-museum, and visitors can learn about a Hawaiian life beyond the beach.
When sugar ruled
Sugar once was king in Hawaii. Dozens of sprawling plantations dominated the islands’ economy and workers’ lives for more than a century from the late 1800s.
Workers and their families lived on the plantations (which in Hawaii means farmland where employees lived, not a slave plantation as in the southern United States). Kids grew up playing, then working, in the cane fields. Plantations had their own dances, baseball teams, medical clinics and mansions for the owners/managers.
But the Hawaiian sugar industry has faded as competition from other countries soared and federal subsidies dropped. Cane fields have been turned into golf courses and coffee-bean fields or lie fallow, awaiting development as resorts or fancy housing. Sugar mills are shut and rusting. Besides Gay and Robinson’s, the only other fully functioning sugar plantation is on Maui.
Sugar’s legacy lives on, though, in Hawaiian families’ memories of plantation work and life; in the simple plantation workers’ houses that dot the islands; and most vividly in Hawaii’s multi-ethnic mix that resulted from the industry’s voracious need for labor. Over the decades, hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers came to Hawaii from Japan, China, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal and other countries.
Fields and factory
On what the locals considered a chilly winter day a daytime high in the low 70s I joined a handful of tourists for the two-hour Gay and Robinson field and factory tour.
The company started the tours in 1999: “We get a lot of engineers, farmers, food-industry and heavy-equipment people … as well as kids who love sugar,” said tour manager Chris Faye, whose family has worked in the Kauai sugar industry for generations.
Locals who used to work in sugar fields or factories sometimes join the tours, re-living their past at Gay and Robinson, a family-run company that has been growing sugar cane since the 1880s on the sun-drenched coast of the Kaumakani area in western Kauai.
Ibara, our guide, took us in a high-clearance van along bumpy, red-dirt roads lined with cane, which resembles corn but with a thicker, fleshier stem. Some parts of the road were like green tunnels, the cane reaching above the van and pressing in on the road.
We donned bright yellow hard hats to walk through the factory where the cane is processed, following our tour leader up and down metal stairways and along narrow catwalks that wound through the Dickensian maze of crushing, washing and sugar-crystallizing machinery. Raw sugar is the end result, and it’s shipped to a more modern and sterile California plant for final processing and packaging. (In one of those modern-day economic ironies, when I stopped at a cafe a few miles away, the sugar packet I was given with my iced tea had been packaged in New York.)
Sugar-cane work in Hawaii isn’t as brutal as it used to be. Machinery has taken over much of the back-breaking planting and cutting, although the cane that Gay and Robinson uses for seed still is cut by hand with machetes.
“It’s better quality that way, but it’s tough, tough work,” said Ibara. And the sprawling factory, when it runs at full speed, is noisy, hot and dusty, with a parade of trucks constantly hauling fresh-cut cane from the fields.
Gay and Robinson has about 7,400 acres of cane fields (which it’s expanding), plus tens of thousands of acres of ranch land. Unlike most Hawaiian plantations, it’s managed to stay in business thanks to its efficiency and ideal growing conditions in western Kauai per acre it’s one of the highest-producing sugar plantations in the world.
Gay and Robinson benefits from endless sunshine plus abundant irrigation water for the endlessly thirsty sugar cane, thanks to a 19th-century water-rights agreement that lets the company tap into rivers that pour off Kauai’s rain-drenched mountains. (A branch of the Robinson family also has another valuable 19th-century legacy it owns the entire 70-square-mile island of Niihau, 17 miles off Kauai’s coast, which it bought in the 1860s. Several hundred native Hawaiians live there, and access by outsiders is mostly forbidden.)
These days in Hawaii, there’s some nostalgia for the mostly vanished, tight-knit communities of plantation workers. There are reunions of former employees, museum displays, memoirs, even a book of Kauai plantation families’ favorite recipes.
The industry’s dark side is remembered, too its brutal working conditions, bad pay, bitter strikes in the early 1900s, ethnic conflicts and the political maneuvers by powerful 19th-century plantation owners that helped pave the way for the annexation of Hawaii by the United States.
A historic enclave
To see more of Kauai’s sugar history, I headed to Grove Farm, a plantation family’s 19th-century home and outbuildings that have been turned into a museum.
The hundred-acre enclave of old-style Hawaii is a world apart from the suburban houses and a shopping mall that surround it in Lihue, the island’s main town. A tiny wood sign marked the turn from the busy Nawiliwili Road into Grove Farm’s tree-lined, unpaved drive. A grassy clearing, almost as big as a football field, was surrounded by a half-dozen buildings, lovingly preserved and packed with period furnishings, down to silver hair brushes on a bedroom dresser.
This was home to the Wilcox family, owners of the Grove Farm sugar plantation, and their household staff. It was the family home until the 1970s, when it was turned into a museum. (Grove Farm’s 22,000 acres of plantation were bought in 2001 by Steve Case, a Hawaii native who made his fortune with America Online.)
At the Grove Farm museum, local women in brightly flowered dresses serve as tour guides, taking small groups of visitors on slow-paced, two-hour walks through the lush grounds and historic buildings. They know their Grove Farm history inside out and are fans of “Miss Mabel” Mabel Wilcox who was born at Grove Farm and died there in 1978 at age 96.
Miss Mabel was no plantation belle. Never marrying, she instead persuaded her parents to allow her to attend nursing school and served as a Red Cross nurse in Belgium during World War I. Returning to Grove Farm after the war, she ran a public-health office from an outbuilding where her paper-laden desk and a hand-lettered, beware-of-tuberculosis sign remain. Committed to historic preservation, she set up a nonprofit group to run the Grove Farm homestead as a museum after her death and helped preserve other historic buildings in Kauai and Maui.
“She was a wonderful person, and very active in public health from tuberculosis to maternal care. She’d go by horseback to the outlying valleys,” said Robert Schleck, who worked with her before her death and now is the museum director.
The Grove Farm tour takes visitors from the simple four-room employee house of the Moriwake family to the finely furnished and sprawling Wilcox home where Miss Mabel lived, with stops at outbuildings and in the grounds along the way. It’s a leisurely and small-scale walking tour, with a maximum of six people in each group to preserve the personal feel and minimize the wear and tear on the historic buildings and furnishings.
On the porch of the Moriwake house, as at every Grove Farm building, we kicked off our shoes. Bare feet don’t track the quick-staining red dirt of Kauai onto the wood floors or the rugs.
The simple wood house was home to Kikuni Moriwake and her children. Widowed at a young age, she worked as the Grove Farm laundress for 50 years.
“I remember her, a tiny little woman carrying beautifully laundered linens (in the main house),” said Schleck. A Buddhist shrine adorned the sparsely furnished Moriwake living room; crisp white sheets covered the iron-frame beds.
Back outside, with shoes back on, we walked past a vegetable garden and spacious pens for pigs and poultry. Like all of Hawaii’s 19th-century plantations, Grove Farm produced its own food. Museum employees carry on that tradition, meticulously tending the garden, animals and the trees mango, lemon, macadamia and more that shade the grounds.
At the sprawling Wilcox home, built in the mid-1800s and the centerpiece of Grove Farm museum, I started fantasizing about living in the house as soon as I stepped on its lanai, or porch.
The lanai wraps around three sides of the house and is shaded by deep eaves. It was where the family sat to catch cooling breezes and views of farmyard, fields and the sea a mile away.
Inside, the Wilcox home was a tableau of a rich and cozy domestic life, with gleaming wood floors; Oriental rugs the family brought back from trips to the Middle East; finely carved koa-wood furniture and a needlepoint sofa. There was a card room, and everywhere shelves crammed with books fiction, natural history, Hawaiian law and mementos, from photos to carved calabashes.
The Wilcox family eagerly welcomed guests, accommodating them in the main house or a two-room guesthouse. “It was a big treat when visitors came, when you had no newspapers, no radio, no TV, no Internet,” said our tour guide, eyeing two wired-generation pre-teens in the group.
The tour ends up in Grove Farm’s old-fashioned kitchen, where the diminutive Eunice Kinoshita bustled cheerfully around, stoking the still-functioning wood stove, and beckoned us to sit and relax at the well-scrubbed wood table.
Miss Mabel wanted the kitchen at her beloved Grove Farm to keep working, so tourists would feel warmly welcomed.
Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org