Some of my favorite childhood memories include sitting at my grandpa’s feet with my brothers and cousins while the storyteller of our family shared tales of his own childhood. My grandfather’s stories of growing up in the country on the outskirts of St. Louis, Missouri, always fascinated me.
Sitting outside the Koloa Mill last week while Earl Smith and Stella Burgess talked about life on the sugar plantation, I felt like time had reeled back forty years, and I was sitting at my grandfather’s knee.
This year’s theme for Koloa Plantation Days on Kauai was “Sweet Memories.”
The festival known as Koloa Plantation Days got its start 25 years ago as a parade and luau in recognition of Hawaii’s sugar industry’s sesquicentennial—150 years. Now, the event has grown to 9 days and 26 events ranging all across Kauai’s south shore. There is still the parade and luau. But there is also: Historic walks, a sunset ho’olauale’a, outrigger canoe paddling contests, craft fair, cultural and cooking demonstrations, Hawaiian games for the children, sugar mill tour, triathlon and rodeo. It’s more than enough to schedule a vacation around.
I attended the “Walk through the Sugar Era” event at the Koloa Mill.
The rusty remains of the old Koloa Mill sit as a backdrop to the entire south shore and the one-time prolific sugar industry. The mill closed in 1996, one of the last working sugar plantations on the island.
While there are many possible translations of the word “Koloa,” many consider the most likely one to be, “tall cane,” (ko = sugar and loa = long), because Hawaiians once grew sugar cane around a marsh here.
When the sun beats overhead and the winds whips up dust devils, it’s hard to believe there was ever enough water to quench this thirsty crop. Sugar cane stalks can reach 30 feet in height and require 500 gallons of water to produce one pound of unrefined sugar. Sugar was introduced to Hawaii by early Polynesians; however, it was not grown for sugar, per se, but rather its sweetness from the stalk was extracted by chewing.
The first sugar plantation in the State of Hawaii got its start here in July 1835 and was named the Koloa Plantation. A year later, the first mill was built, the remains of which—a chimney—can be seen across from Sueoka store in Old Koloa Town. Another mill went up along Waikomo Stream in 1841. In 1913, a more efficient and bigger processing facility was built by Honolulu Iron Works. It expanded over the years but now sits behind a locked gate, growing smaller now as the salt air erodes its metal roof and walls. Plantation trucks sit where their engines were last throttled off, relics almost overtaken by weeds.
The tour did not include a walk inside the mill—we were told that would be too dangerous—but it did include a shuttle ride through the one-third-mile-long Wilcox Tunnel and to the 429-acre Waita Reservoir, the largest of its kind in the state of Hawaii.
A young man named Arryl Kaneshiro organized this event. He grew up in an area of the plantation known as the Banana Camp. His great grandparents immigrated to Hawaii from Okinawa. They raised pigs, and Kaneshiro Farms remains in operation today as the only hog farm on Kauai.
Arryl stood under the hot sun and announced that he expected 18 people for the Koloa Mill tour. I looked around and quickly counted close to 80. Most likely because these days, the mill, the tunnel and the reservoir sit behind fences and locked gates and are rarely opened for public viewing.
We took turns piling in 4WD vans on loan from nearby Kauai ATV, an adventure tour company that leases land from Grove Farm for ATV excursions.
I went last. While I waited, we sat under a tent to escape the sun. Earl Smith, former plantation worker, answered questions. He said there were two factors to sugar’s demise in Hawaii: One, the distance to market; and, two, high-fructose corn syrup. To a chorus of agreements, he said, “I still don’t think high-fructose corn syrup is better than sucrose. Sucrose is good.”
At its zenith, the mill employed 450 people, according to Earl, with most living in “camps” surrounding the mill. The mill worked 24 hours, 5-2/3rd days of the week, 37 weeks of the year.
Hawaiian cultural advisor Stella Burgess pulled up a chair. “I guess I am the entertainment,” she said, after the first van loads headed mauka. She shared stories about growing up in the plantation camps, swimming in the reservoir, making their own clothes, going barefoot, attending Catholic school but joining in bon dances at Buddhist temples and riding horses.
Many may have showed up this morning because of the special access onto private lands, but this casual talk-story circle turned out to be the highlight of the morning.
I climbed aboard the last van headed mauka.
Using surplus army equipment, the Wilcox Tunnel was built in 1949 to reduce delivery time of cane to the Koloa Mill and, after processing the cane into raw sugar, from the mill to Nawiliwili Harbor. The tunnel is approximately 20 feet by 20 feet and extends nearly one-third mile.
Waita Reservoir was built in 1905. The dam measured 3,147 feet—or nearly the length of 10 ½ football fields. The dam was raised three inches in 1931 and its capacity increased to 2.3 billion gallons. Its gravity-fed system continues to be used today by small farmers.