Newly instated president for the Kauai Historical Society, Bob Schleck, has a passion for preserving the island’s history. As a collector, historian and former president of the organization in the ’70s, the Koloa resident continues more than four decades later to support efforts of preserving cultural sites and cataloging documents that preserve Kauai’s unique and diverse character.
How did you find your way to Kauai?
I had seen C & H Sugar ads on television in the dead of winter in Wisconsin, which made me wonder why we were going through cold dreary winters and these kids were having fun in the sugar fields in Hawaii. That really started my thinking of Hawaii as an alternative to Wisconsin winters. So I headed to Kauai when I graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a bachelors in fine arts.
When did you first arrive to the island?
I got to Kauai first in 1967 and came back in 1969. When I came here it was like a movie set, each town was a very small collection of buildings. Every town had a theater and a sweets shop, and there was not a lot of two-way traffic. The look of people really hadn’t changed since the war.
Kauai was still very much the Garden Island. Every time plantations harvested they cleaned up the roadsides. Over the years plantation wives had planted flowers and trees along the highways. A lot of the areas had no fences, so cows or horses walked along the roadsides. Nothing was really fenced in, the animals just wandered and mowed as they went along. People fenced in their yards to keep the animals out, rather than fence in the pastures and keep animals in.
It was also a little island of discovery. At the Russian Fort, there were a few steps going up along the river and you hiked along the river and then you came out and discovered this ruin in the middle of a sugar field. With statehood, they put in parking lots and restrooms and took away the adventure of finding these sites.
How did you get involved with the Kauai Historical Society?
I met a friend, Jeffrey Wilcox Michaels, cousin to Mabel Wilcox, who lived in the Grove Farm house on Nawiliwili Road. We were invited to lunches and dinners, and Miss Mabel announced her plans to preserve the historic property to gift to the community, just as she and her sisters had done with the Waioli Mission House. They had a history of preservation, and she being the last surviving sister, decided to save it.
She had a companion, Sophie Puff, missionary descendant and daughter of Governor Judd. She had experience with preservation, she was involved in restoration of the Iolani Palace in Honolulu before moving to Kauai and helping Miss Mabel.
They needed someone to inventory the house, and I was happy to come on weekends. I think it was a test to see if I would really work out. Plus, there hadn’t been a man in the house since 1933 when her uncle died. I passed the test and was hired by her to continue work on the inventory.
Miss Mabel was one of the last surviving founding members of the Kauai Historical Society. With statehood, the state built a new library and made the old library in Lihue available for expansion of the museum. The Historical Society had been in the library all those years since it was built in 1929. There was a question of whether the museum and historical society should become one. Miss Mabel met with Julia Wichman, head of the museum, and felt the Society should retain its own organization, collecting histories and preserving sites. So it was decided they would remain separate entities.
In those days there weren’t many members. It was a very small organization and very small treasury. They had two file cabinets and a library upstairs in the old library that was basically the historical society collection. Miss Mabel and Sophie encouraged me and Jeffrey to get involved; they saw the need for a younger element in the society.
It was also a time of renaissance for the Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian music was revived with the Cazimero brothers and Palani Vaughan and all these artists focused on old Hawaiian music, like Gabby Pahinui. This was about that same time in the late ’60s, early ’70s. There was a lot of interest and pride and enthusiasm, plus many publications of Hawaiian history. It was a pretty exciting time.
How did you come to serve as president of the organization in the ’70s?
I got asked to join. I was at first a treasurer, then became president. It was still a fairly small organization housed at what is now the county museum, which had been the Kauai Library. The society was growing, it was building its collections and gaining more information and membership. The new director said the museum needed the space, so the society had to move again.
Gaylord Wilcox very nicely let us use a building in Hanalei that is now Hanalei Poi Company. We were there awhile, then moved to Coco Palms. That was our home until the county kindly allowed us to move into the county building around 1985, where it is housed there now.
We really were hoping to have the society move into the annex building next door, because it would allow us to archive county government records, as well as the histories of both Kauai and Niihau.
How does the Kauai Historical Society procure some of these invaluable historical documents?
It was started by early members with collecting The Garden Island newspaper from 1911. The Wilcox sisters were serious book collectors, so if they had extra copies, like first edition copies of Cook’s journals from 1783, they would give their extra set to the society. They also worked to build the library of the historical society.
The early founding charter members wrote papers about their childhood memories, whether they were missionary children or others sharing their own reminiscences.
What is one of your favorite historical accounts of life on Kauai?
There’s an account in the society written in Hawaiian that was translated in the ’30s, written by a Hawaiian man who had gone to Polihale with a German and a Japanese man, along with the Hawaiian’s son. They were walking over the dunes at Polihale, where Hawaiians believed you stepped from this plane to the next. The German wanted to go to the top of a tall dune and see what he could see, and the Japanese man decided to go with him.
The Hawaiian and his son sat at the base. It was taking awhile, so he decided to go up to the top. When he got up there, he said the spirits of adults and children were holding the German down on the ground. He had always heard growing up from his family that if the spirits bother you, you curse or defile them. So he went over and urinated on the German, and the spirits withdrew. They packed up, boarded the automobile and left.
What are some other important documents in the collection?
Interesting kinds of stories were chants and hulas kept nowhere else. They have exceptional original documents and have continued to actively collect. We documented Kauai by photograph and history to create the Kauai Album. This documented over a hundred sites, photographed them and then collected the histories.
In the late ’60s, early ’70s, the new state preservation office asked the society to document the most historic sites on the island, so that they could make a list to put into the National Register of Historic Places. Members went around and made a list of places and got what history they could. They sent it over, and the state preservation office lost the documents while moving. That meant we had to start over, so the Kauai Album was the effort once again to go around the island and document and photograph these significant historic sites. We were limited to 100, but of course there are a lot more.
Why are you passionate about preserving Kauai’s history?
I see the potential of preserving that beauty if people stop and make choices, which is why I got involved in the county building. It had been so changed with wooden-louvered windows and things. It just changed the whole character. It was a fortress; it wasn’t a very gracious building. And that’s happening all over. Plantations, stores, businesses and hotels were all island-owned. Everything was at a scale that had the ability to preserve the uniqueness of Kauai. With corporations, it homogenizes everything.
I would like to preserve the Kauai personality, because it was an exceptionally beautiful island. A lot of my passion is in reminding people that you can make a decision to respect the character and history of the island. Kauai was a sugar island, and the people were certainly products of the sugar. They were very sweet people, and it was a very kind and charming community. All communities had their own personalities.
After World War II, there were 25,000 people on the island and 5,000 cars. Now there are 70,000 people and 90,000 cars. It is really important to preserve what can be preserved and not ignore the responsibility to preserve it. It’s very easy for people who come here and get into positions, who have no connection to that history or what Kauai was, making decisions that are really inappropriate and not asking what would be the best direction or getting other input.
What are you doing to preserve the history of Niihau?
We preserve whatever we can as far as the history. How we best preserve it is by staying away. That speaks to choices one makes, respecting the Robinson family for their history, their contribution to Kauai and Niihau, and to support their amazing accomplishment to preserve it as they have. Even the Westside, what they’ve done there is phenomenal. They still own it, so you have to admire they’ve made decisions that have preserved the greater amount of their property.
What are your plans as president of the Kauai Historical Society?
We are getting together to set our priorities and to define our committees and look for members. We’re looking to have fun with preservation. We’re trying to organize and also educate to share information and make sure everyone knows what needs to be saved and preserved.
We’re presently working on a publication, called “100 Entertainments,” which are a collection of Prismacolor drawings by Tanbe Larson, an Academy Award-winning set designer. He lived on Kauai and produced these hundred images of Kauai, which are multi-layered. They show buildings and landscapes but also incorporate subtle layers of history and legends.
How can people support the Kauai Historical Society?
We welcome memberships, grants and fundraisers. It’s a very wise investment in the history of Kauai. It started with two file cabinets and then became what it is now. It is active in collecting and preserving Kauai’s history.
Many historic sites on the island were preserved by the society and had to be actively campaigned to be preserved, like Poliahu Heiau, City of Refuge and Russian Fort. All these places have been marked with bronze plaques the society produced.
They were actively supporting the 40-foot building height limit and fought actively to keep the Hawaiian language valid.
They had serious commitments documenting place names and keeping ahead of what could be prevented from being undone. There were a couple of heiau where stones were being taken and used elsewhere, and they made them put the stones back. It’s also preserved the other cultures that have come here. Now it’s preserving the plantation culture. It’s important also to save that aspect of the island’s story.