Reunion brings back members of plantation days of old Kauai

A trip down memory lane recalling the safe, protected plantation days unfolded for up to 1,000 people who attended the old “Puhi Camp Reunion 2003” at the Kukui Grove Pavilion Saturday night.

Former residents of the camp once located where Kauai Community College is set today, exchanged stories about growing up in a place where families helped one another, where neighbors watched out for children of other families, where people shared food and money during hard times and where people felt a sense of a community.

The former camp residents said they learned life lessons that have meaning for them today – the meaning of hard work, loyalty and trust.

Saturday night’s luau was held to honor immigrants who came to Kauai from Japan, Portugal, China, the Philippines and other nations to work in the sugarcane fields of Kauai and to make a life for themselves and for their children, said Bobby Agena, who lived in the camp from 1943 to 1957 and is now a resident of the Pua Loke subdivision in Lihue.

Agena and longtime friend and former camp resident Gerry Ellamar came up with the idea for the reunion seven years ago.

Plans for the reunion got under way a year ago, and the men helped form a committee of former residents, held fundraisers and raised donations plus helped lead efforts to make the event a success.

Ellamar and Agena said a reunion was held previously, but only 100 people were invited. “That wasn’t enough. We wanted to invite everyone this time,” Agena said.

At a potluck dinner at the pavilion Friday night, former camp residents, many elderly, their families and friends thanked the two men for helping to put on the event.

“They said they appreciated that we were putting this thing on for them,” Agena said. “I told them this is for you,'” because this may be the last time you folks (the older ones) see each other.”

On Saturday morning, former camp residents were given a treat. Aboard charter buses, they toured the old camp settlement, which sat on land now occupied by the Kauai Community College, former canefields in East Kauai and a cemetery within the camp.

They also traveled through a mile-long mountain tunnel that connects Kipu with Koloa. The tunnel was used to transfer cane from Grove Farm fields to Koloa Mill.

About 700 people attended the potluck Friday.

Set to be honored at the luau are Grove farm leaders David Pratt, Allan Smith and others.

The camp was constructed as a result of the success of Grove Farm Plantation, which became successful under the leadership of George Norton Wilcox. He was the guiding light of the plantation from 1864 to his death in 1933.

In the early 1920s, the “Puhi Camp” was developed so that the plantation company could have a ready and able supply of workers near their canefields south of Lihue town. The work of small armies of workers over the years helped Grove Farm become the largest plantation in East Kauai.

The camp boasted three stores, a Chinese laundry, a slaughterhouse, a hall for movies and social functions and a boxing ring.

Two reservoirs in the camp were popular swimming holes for families. “In the summer, when school was out, it was like Waikiki (Beach),” Agena said. “It was packed.”

The camp also was fitted with street signs and underwater pipes. At its peak, the camp was home to as many as 1200 workers and their family members, and consisted of as many as 600 plantation-style homes.

The homes were demolished in increments to make way for the building and expansion of the Kauai Community College. The last homes, located just mauka of Kaumualii Highway, were demolished in the 1980s.

Camp workers were relocated to jobs at the Koloa Mill, then operated by McBryde Sugar Company, or to the Lihue Mill, owned by Lihue Plantation.

Former camp residents also were given a chance to buy house lots makai of Puhi camp that were offered for sale by Grove Farm. Other former camp residents bought homes in the Molokoa subdivision developed by Lihue Plantation.

For the reunion, six family members of the late Kihei and Toshiko Fujimoto said they attended to reconnect with the past and with old friends. A sister from Japan and another sister from California weren’t able to attend.

Tsuyako Iwamoto, now a resident of Honolulu, said the camp life offered her and her sisters a happy, carefree childhood.

The camp life also helped her develop a sense of responsibility, she said. “The older ones were taught to help the younger ones in our family,” Iwamoto said. “I had to sew all our clothes from when I was in the 7th grade.”

While children were required to work to keep the families together, they also had time for fun, said Myrna Matsueda of Hawaii Kai on Oahu.

“We went biking, hiking into the canefields; we blazed the trails,” she said. “I loved to slide down the muddy sides of the reservoir.”

The sisters said they never felt alone exploring the camp or beyond it. “As long as you told your parents we were with certain friends, our parents never said no,” Matsueda said.

Because money wasn’t always easy to come by, her parents emphasized the importance of getting an education to get ahead in life, Matsueda said. Five of the sisters attended college.

Funaku said her mother and father made sacrifices and put off buying washing machines, refrigerators and a car so that she and her siblings could have basic necessities.

Their mother, Toshiko Ohashi, was the personal caregiver for Gaylord Wilcox, and because of her dedication and loyalty, a house in Kilohana was provided for her, the daughters said.

Billy Texeira, 72, of Puhi, said his best memories of the Puhi camp was that everyone, because they worked together and lived close to one another, “trusted one another.”

“Nobody thought to steal, and if they did, there was nothing of value to take,” Texeira said.

Texeira, who worked for Grove Farm for 40 years as a truck driver and a field supervisor before retiring, cherished camp life.

Because of his strong ties to Puhi, Texeira said he has never left town. In the early 1980s, Texeira bought a home in Puhi offered for sale by Grove Farm.

Texeira’s sister, Gussie Souza, now a resident of Hanamaulu, said the camps taught her how to live with others.

Although the camps were segregated with sections for Filipinos, Portuguese, Chinese and Japanese workers well into the 1940s, her parents taught her to be free of prejudice, Souza said.

Her sister, Frances Getler, who grew up in the camp and left it when she was 22, said she remembers fondly the days when she used to play marbles with the boys.

“It was knowing everybody that made the place special,”said Getler, who worked with the Women’s Air Raid Defense of Hawaii during World War II, married a military man, and traveled the world. She now lives in Newport Beach, Calif.

Souza, Texeira and Getler are children of the late Joe and Elsie Texeira.

Texeira and his father, mother and two sisters and two brothers came by boat to Hawaii from Portugal and settled into Puhi camp around 1910.

Texeira, the father of eight children, worked for 50 years for Grove Farm, starting as a train engineer and then working as field supervisor.

Joe Texeira was a champion baseball and softball player for the camp, helping Puhi teams to win scores of tournaments in his prime. He passed away in 1993 at age 95.

The camp life that Texeiras, the Fujimotos and others of their generation knew began changing in the 1950s. The generation of the 1950s began branching out and finding employment away from the plantation.

Christine Castillo Lovejoy, a 1969 Kauai High School graduate, said she remembered people taking jobs in hotels. “Parents said the work in the fields was hard and that they wanted a better life for their children,” Lovejoy said.

Young folks of her era began buying cars, but Lovejoy remembered taking the Gomes Family bus to get in and around Lihue.

Youths were no longer looking to the plantations for all the answers in life, as had previous generations, Lovejoy said.

“Kids were challenging tradition,” and the innocence and the simplicity ( of another generation of camp residents) began to wane,” said Lovejoy, a yoga massage therapist who lives in Idaho.

In spite of the changes, the camps provided her and her cousins, Larraine Castillo Woods, of California, June Castillo Tada, of Koloa, Carolyn Castillo Cummings, Brenda Castillo Enorita, of Kapaa, and Dorene Castillo Frey of Kalaheo, a solid base of security that would help them deal with life issues as adults.

The cousins all lived within a few blocks of each other and generally lived in the camps from the 1950s through the 1970s.

June Tada Castillo, the advertising director for The Garden Island, said she remembered seeing something that made her appreciate the men of the community.

One day, during a time when a strike was on, a massive fire broke out in a field, and “all the men of the camp left their homes and ran to help,” she said. “Even though they had problems with management, they were not going to let a fire destroy what was important to them and Grove Farm.”

Agena said the young men of the camp, at least in the 1950s, cared about future generations and wanted to give direction to the youth of the camp.

Agena said the PALS Club, a group of young single men from the camp organized in the 1950s, put on Easter egg hunts and put together Christmas events for him and others when they were youngsters.

“They were role models we looked up to, I remembered,” Agena said.

Agena said that many people miss the old days, “but we have our memories.”

Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:lchang@pulitzer.net

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