Oldtimers remember life as lived at Puhi Camp

Swimming in reservoirs and irrigation ditches, climbing fruit trees, climbing through irrigation tunnels and making kites was recreation for the kids of Old Puhi Camp over the three generations who grew up in plantation housing. Former residents reunited with a potluck dinner Friday night and a luau for about 1,000 Saturday night.

They remembered simpler days and talked about when recreation didn’t mean spending money at the golf course, movie theater or shopping center.

Grove Farm plantation workers who immigrated from China, Philippines, Japan, Puerto Rico and Portugal settled in Puhi Camp, which was built in the early 1920s to keep workers close to the operations. At one time the camp held 600 homes and more than 1,200 residents. Grove Farm Plantation was founded by George Norton Wilcox in 1864. Sugar cane, pineapple and other crops were cultivated until 1968. In 1974, about 200 acres was turned into the Kauai Community College campus, where few remnants of Puhi Camp still stand. Nearby were a community hall, gas station, slaughterhouse, Chinese laundry and three stores.

Plantation workers’ children were carefree in their daily routines. Activities were passed down between racial groups and generations before. Since families were on the same level, everyone found their own fun and it had to come cheap. “Everyone had a common bond, they all were working for the sugar plantation,” said Manny Dacay, 51.

“People were poor but people were happy. The lifestyle has changed. People used to click. Now everyone stays home, watch TV,” said Suemi Okubo, 74.

One pastime that all enjoyed was swimming in “Up Pond” and jumping off the plywood diving board. The reservoir now houses ducks and features a waterfall on the KCC campus. It was just one of several swimming spots, including Down Pond, Krager Pond, Cement Pond and Dry Pond.

“Most of the toys we had were things we made. We would play like medieval times, sword fighting, we used to make swords out of hedges,” Manny Dacay said. They also made “pop guns” from bamboo sticks and wet pieces of newspaper, said Fred Ellamar, 60, who now lives on Big Island and works as a printer at Hawaii Tribune-Herald.

“Those who didn’t grow up in the camp, they might have a hard time understanding what it was like. When I was growing up in the 50s there were a lot of kids, we had all kind of games and sports,” Ellamar said. His family had 13 kids, he said.

Some residents in their 70s and older said each ethnic group had a kite-making strategy. Most used bamboo sticks from a grove near Up Pond. They used The Garden Island newspaper pages or wrapping paper, glued together with smashed, cooked rice or tied together with string from rice bags. Japanese used “No. 10” sewing thread and Filipinos fashioned kite tails from rags.

Okubo, a mechanic who retired from Grove Farm in 1993, explained making wooden tops from guava sticks. They cut the largest branches and whittled away the shape to a point, and pounded a nail into one end. Wooden yo-yos cost an expensive 25 cents.

“When we were kids (1930s-40s), every family was poor. We never had money to spend like kids today, so the only way we’d get spending money, we catch frogs and bass.” Okubo said they could sell six for 25 cents n to buy Coca-Cola or chocolate milk and a “snail” pastry or candy, 5 or 10 cents each. They’d catch frogs in an irrigation tunnel under the camp, a pastime that continued until the camp was deserted and the tunnel was collapsed.

Also, people attended dances at Koloa, Isenberg Gym, Lawai Cannery, Waimea Gym. Bandleader Matsuyoshi “King Tut” Miyano, 89, “played everything,” including the clarinet, piano, saxophone and trumpet. He still carries a harmonica in his left shirt pocket. Mabel (Makaneole) Makanani, who lived in Puhi from her birth in 1928 until she moved to Wailua Houselots in 1950 with her husband Ralph, recalled the plantation provided everything everyone needed. “We were so happy. That was the best time of my life,” she said, “Growing up everything was free.”

At Christmas, Grove Farm would give each child apples and oranges. At Easter, they would get packages on each doorstep. The plantation also gave uniforms for athletics and sponsored the teams.

The monthly programs at Puhi Hall with different groups of people singing or performing was something Makanani said she looked forward to. Every week they would play a free movie in a different language: “They satisfied all the races.”

Makanani and friends Helen and Henry Sasaki laughed when they remembered what they used for toilet paper – newspaper, rags, and the soft paper wrapping from those Christmas-time apples and oranges.

The generations of Puhi Camp residents also explored the outdoors. They used to swing on the vines in the valley, said Lisa (Espiritu) Tamashiro, of Kapaa. Hiking trails led them into forests and into Kilohana Crater, where they picked mountain apples, guava, star apples, lychee, and mango.

The kids were never allowed to get into the chicken fights, said William Begay, Jr., who said his backyard got a lot of activity since it was one of the closest to Up Pond. Once, he was trying to climb a lychee tree during a chicken fight. “How he caught me was he put splinter bamboo in the trunk. I could get up but I couldn’t come back down. He poked me out with a stick!”

Their bicycles were second-hand or built from parts they found in a trash heap near what is now Nuhou Road.

Manny Dacay, 51, and his younger brother, Waddy, helped their father collect slop for the pigs they raised. Dacay’s parents Cecilio and Nina immigrated from the Philippines. He was a heavy equipment operator. Their mother, a chambermaid at the Kauai Inn. “Because we were the ones who went around to get their garbage we knew where everyone lived. There’s more people now. People are not as friendly as when we were living in the camp,” Manny said.

Lisa Tamashiro remembered that in addition to sewing and cooking, the girls joined Mrs. Hirokane’s 4-H club in the late 1960s before she entered high school. “We had everything except cows and horses; (we raised) wild pigs, chickens, rabbits, everything,” she said.

A game boys made up in the 50s was “Treasure,” that involved a lot of tackling and running. A 10-foot wide, baseball diamond-shaped field was drawn into the dirt with sticks. Two teams of four or five would take turns running around the two foot-wide path, each corner a “safety zone,” and break into the center without getting tackled by the other team.

In the 1950s, people started getting modern conveniences such as indoor plumbing, telephones and televisions but the traditions lived on, especially families sharing what they had.

“The Aquino family (was) one of the first families to have TV and all the kids would go over their house and the dad was so nice, he would set up benches for us,” said Fred Ellamar. What programs they watched seemed to be irrelevant, as TV was so new that anything was exciting.

“Not everyone used to have a phone. We would charge 10 cents a call,” said James Amimoto, who started off in Grove Farm after he dropped out of school and started plowing fields with a mule, then became a welder after getting discharged from the Army after the Korean War.

“We all grew up in the bus. There was a bassinet in the bus,” said Lyvonne Gomes, whose parents ran a bus service from 1954n91. Her mom, Nancy, started driving ladies to work at the Kapaa pineapple cannery in a Chevrolet station wagon for the 3n11 p.m. shift. Soon, the children could ride to and from school. “The community kept growing. With families like the Canaleses, Villatoras and Kelekomas, as well as others, my dad had to get her a real bus,” she said. The first bus was a 40-passenger Chevrolet. The second bus held 64 and went to football games, bonfires and school excursions. Lyvonne started driving at 21, soon after her mother passed away in 1968. Her father died three years ago, and Lyvonne is still drivingnthe Kauai Bus.

With Grove Farm’s departure from sugar, residents moved to subdivisions across the street, in Lihue, Koloa or other parts of the island. In late 1970 Henry and Helen Sasaki and James and Lillian Amimoto were among the first to move into new Puhi homes. “We all felt we didn’t want to move,” said Lillian Amimoto, originally of Honolulu. After she and James married in about 1953 they moved to Kauai. The subdivision, modeled after Dream City, an Alexander & Baldwin development in Kahului, Maui, cost about $24,000.

Mike Canales, 48, grew up in house 538, Puhi Camp’s only concrete building still standing. Two buildings were combined to create Punana Leo, the Hawaiian-language preschool. “My grandfather was the first truck driver for Grove Farm,” Canales said, showing a photograph of Pablo Canales, who came to Hawaii in the early 1900s from Cebu, Philippines, driving Grove Farm Truck No. 4.

“It’s a lost culture because we were simple. We didn’t look over our means. What we did have we treasured,” Canales said.

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