Last days of Lihue Plantation are here

LIHU’E – It doesn’t seem that long ago to Alvin Tanigawa when the third-generation Amfac employee first went to work for Amfac’s Lihue Plantation.

But it was 40 years ago.

As everyone else did, he started at the bottom, with the herbicide gang, known as the “sabidong” crew for the Ilocano word for “poison.”

His father and grandfather before him were LP employees, and when he joined LP at the tender age of 20, Amfac was a pillar of the so-called “Big Five” companies that ran commerce and politics in Hawai’i.

Back then, it was a privilege to work for LP, and Amfac had over 1,000 employees on Kaua’i, Tanigawa recalled.

Tanigawa, 60, is chief engineer at the LP power plant along Haleko Road here. At least for a few more days.

The power plant that once supplied much of the electricity for Lihu’e town shut down – possibly for the final time – early in the morning the day after Christmas, effectively ending the employment of workers and managers in the LP power plant and electric shop.

All that was left was monitoring the draining of one of the huge boilers, cleaning up, and collecting to one central location all the hazardous materials used by the industry.

The sugar industry on Kaua’i and in Hawai’i is but a shell of its former self, when towns grew around sugar mills and canefields, immigrants from all over the world came to work in the stable industry, raise families, and build futures for themselves.

After the end of this year, there will be one remaining sugar plantation on Kaua’i, Gay & Robinson in Kaumakani. Maui’s HC&S (Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar) is the other survivor in an industry that at one time saw dozens of plantations employing thousands of workers on the four main islands.

Even in its waning years, Tanigawa and others in the industry thought sugar would last forever.

Now, the end brings strong emotions out of strong men.

“I like work some more, but…” says Tanigawa, unable to finish the sentence. “It’s a sad time for everybody.

“I have a lot to be thankful for, working for this company,” said Tanigawa, who learned a trade and several skills, like carpentry, plumbing, electrical work, machining, and other skills while at LP.

Clyde Yoshimori, 54, power systems engineer, worked for McBryde Sugar Company for 18 years before it closed its doors in 1998, then joined LP. He is leaning toward retirement, and paused to consider the relationships he was able to build in four years at Lihue Plantation.

“They all work really, really well together.”

Of the 17 remaining rank-and-file employees, many will file for unemployment next week, and some will go to work for Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative.

Sam Bisarra, 56, of Lihu’e, is an instrument technician, a job he’ll continue at KIUC in the new year. He has worked for LP since 1971, and his father before him was a tractor driver for LP.

“I feel bad” about the end of LP, said Bisarra. The changes that took place over the years, the contributions that he and other Filipinos made to the success of Amfac on Kaua’i, should be remembered, he feels.

“It’s just like we are the backbone of this company,” said Bisarra. Most of his family members worked in the sugar industry. On Monday, his final day of work, he’ll “kiss them good-bye,” he said of his co-workers and the electric shop.

“I made a lot of friends,” and worked well with them, he said.

Alex Duldulao, 48, of ‘Ele’ele, has been with Amfac since 1973, with most of that time at Kekaha Sugar Company, sister plantation to LP.

“The ‘ohana, especially Westside, Kekaha,” is the reason he stayed with Amfac for so long, he said. The workers really had no control over the company deciding to get out of sugar. “The company had dig out,” after trying to make changes to keep the industry alive on the island, said Duldulao.

A factory mechanic, Duldulao said his father worked at McBryde, many of his uncles came over with the 1946 wave of Filipino immigrants known as the “Sakadas,” and the Filipinos sacrificed to build the industry.

Memories of his time in the sugar industry will linger long after the plantation closes. “So long as the smokestack is going to be around,” he’ll continue to remember the industry, he said.

And when he punches out for the final time Monday? “I don’t know. Just say ‘good-bye.’ Kiss every corner of the factory.”

Fred Rainville, 59, of Kapa’a, a machinist at LP since 1989, knows of no other place on the island where a machinist can find work. Still, he feels lucky to have been employed at LP for as long as he was.

He figures it will be weeks after the final closing before the finality sinks in. People repeatedly asked him why he was joining the plantation, when even back then rumblings that it would close “next year” were being heard.

“Well, next year finally came. It’s a piece of history passing into the past,” Rainville continued. “The camaraderie of the people” is what he’ll remember most about his time at LP.

“It was a good place to work. It’s a good place to work,” he said.

He worries about the island losing its aloha and ‘ohana spirit, of cane lands becoming home lands, and of the beauty of Kaua’i being lost as those changes occur.

Francis S. “Frank” Valdez, 61, of Lihu’e, maintains the LP water systems, and appreciates the fact that his employment allowed him to purchase his first home. He also enjoyed “good working relationships with all kinds of people.”

A certified nurse’s aide, Valdez said he won’t consider looking for another industrial job. “I’m old already.”

Arcadio R. Casasola, 53, lead factory mechanic, has worked for LP since 1989, and has been applying for various jobs elsewhere, knowing that the end is indeed near here.

“The bosses are good,” and they treated he and his co-workers fairly, he offered. Casasola’s three-month-old daughter, Allyson, probably holds the distinction of being the last person accepted under Amfac medical coverage on Kaua’i.

The medical benefits are good, said Casasola, a Puhi resident.

Roger Balaan, 41, also of Puhi, spent 15 years with LP, and ended up a lead electrician. The third-generation sugar worker has seen his father and brothers also work in the industry, and appreciates most the family atmosphere at LP.

“Everybody like family over here. We help each other,” said Balaan, adding that he’ll miss that. “Kind of sad. It’s time to move on. Sugar no more future already.”

Balaan said G&R will have a hard time remaining the island’s only sugar plantation, but he hopes it will.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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