Echoes of Wailua: Sugar Part III — Kaua‘i’s transformation

Kaua‘i’s Sugar Plantations had successfully addressed three great problems: Labor, capital and politics. They would now have to live with the consequences, the corporate power of the Big Five consortium.

Lihu‘e plantation, founded in 1849, was the second oldest plantation after Koloa. William Harrison Rice (1813 – 1862) was the manager. He had been a teacher at Punahou school on O‘ahu and under his stewardship the plantation thrived until his death.

In 1859, he dug his first irrigation ditch, installed his mill and garnered his first steam engine, which later became a railway.

He was truly the driving force behind the plantation’s success. Rice hired Paul Isenburg in the late 1850’s as his overseer and upon Rice’s death, Isenburg became the manager.

He became a power not only on Kaua‘i but also in the kingdom, with his buyout of Koloa Mill in 1872.

He was able to manage both plantations successfully until he resigned in 1878. With partners he organized Kekaha Mill and it was destined to be AMFAC/JMB Hawai‘i.

Under King Kalakaua’s legislature he represented Kaua‘i.

Roughly 17,000 additional acres were purchased in neighboring Hanama‘ulu Ahupua‘a by him.

The management of this new plantation was under the experienced hands of a missionary’s son, Albert Spencer Wilcox. Later, in 1912, Lihu‘e Plantation made a pioneering advance producing enough power to run all of the mill machinery and irrigation pumps, illuminating every house and building on the island. This was made possible by the use of hydroelectric power. My grandfather, J.M. Lydgate, surveyed the route, it is still enjoyed by hikers today and known as the Powerline Trail.

Meanwhile, financial success turned upon a crucial key ingredient: Irrigation.

What really transformed Kaua‘i from a labor intensive, debt-ridden and uncertain political future was the mass production of sugar.

This would turn into an industry that was prosperous, socially progressive and cosmopolitan. As Carol Wilcox wrote, “Without large quantities of water moved over long distances, the sugar industry would never have happened. … never could have happened.”

Grove Farm Plantation

Grove Farm Plantation was one of the best, longest surviving and successful on Kaua‘i.

It is the story of George Norton Wilcox known as G.N. He is an example of a hard working, enterprising, innovator. Smallest in his class at Punahou, he was neat, barefooted, witty and industrious. He did not get along with headmaster, Rev. Daniel Dole, who jokingly reminded his students of the Mainland prejudice against students from Hawai‘i. They were known as cannibals. William Dewitt Alexander studying at Yale at this time was known as “Fiji Alec.”

G.N.’s two-year engineering course at the Sheffiled’s Scientific School at Yale, trained him to be adept in surveying, digging ditches, constructing water tunnels and bringing steam powered plows for Grove Farm Plantation.

He worked part-time as a tax collector for the young Scotsman, Duncan McBryde and worked as a luna on Wylie’s Hanalei Plantation at Princeville. His methodic survey for the German Judge Hermann Widemann brought him into repute and in late November 1864, Widemann hired G.N. as managing partner of the Farm. Six years later in April of 1870, Widemann sold Grove Farm Plantation to G.N. for $12,000. It was G.N.’s innovative genius to turn Grove Farm into one of the most successful Sugar Plantations on Kaua‘i.

Increased irrigation equals rapid progress

Kaua‘i’s fertile but dry plains had to be intensely irrigated. With little adequate rainfall, production on the dry side of the island was not possible. On the windward side, fast moving streams, raced down the mountain. Without proper diversion, runoffs created flash floods and storm freshlets. Ground saturation levels could never be assured and discharge rates were extremely variable. Short, intense, irregular downpours created severe run-off problems. The streams had to be controlled. Without irrigation, there would have been no way to channel the water into the cane fields. Millions of gallons had to be sent into ditches. Dams had to be erected and reservoirs built to contain the ground and surface waters. Pumping stations and wells needed to be constructed.

Fortunately, Kaua‘i had a talented and gifted group of plantation owners who were up to the task at hand. These included G.N Wilcox, Paul Isenburg, Duncan McBryde, William H. Rice, H.P. Faye, Valdemar Knudsen and Gay and Robinson among others.

The Garden Island

In 1935, The Garden Island reported of Gay and Robinsons’ newly-designed water development, “The entire area of this plantation is now under irrigation… two mountain rivers, the Olokele and Hanapepe systems deliver water to eight reservoirs located 1.5 to 8 miles from the mill… as much as 65 MGD and 35 MGD respectively.”

Today, the plantation holds the record for the most tons of raw sugar produced per acre.

They earned the trust and respect of their shareholders by providing timely and consistent dividends.

There is an old saying adopted from farming, “If you can see the harvest from the mill, you can be assured that your families’ livelihood will prosper.”

To irrigate 100 acres of sugar cane roughly the size of Kilohana Estate (Gaylord’s), one million gallons of water is needed per day.

Today, the most valuable asset this island has is it’s rich agricultural lands, our most precious resource. With the introduction of drip irrigation and fertilizers, costs have gone down and production increased.

The wages of “ag” workers are the highest paid in the world, according to William Dorrence’s “Sugar Islands.”

Gay and Robinsons are the last of our family-owned plantations, bringing us the promise of agricultural prosperity and new opportunity to diversify tropical crops.

Ethanol, and a world class premium grade molasses with the distillation of high proof Rum, are the future of sugar on Kaua‘i.

The Big Five

After the Kingdom was overthrown, planters realized the fluctuations in the sugar business were subject to “boom and bust.”

Domestic prices dropped as much as 25 percent per pound of raw sugar. In 1895, sugar farmers organized themselves to deal with problems and challenges. The Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association coordinated common interests. It hired chemists to introduce scientific research, in seeds, pests, crop yields and applied experimental varieties of draught resistant strands of cane. “Bugs, flies, weeds, rats and insects” were within its domain yet the association dealt with a larger scope of concerns, politics and economics.

By 1945, an oligarchy had been formed dominating Hawai‘i’s commerce to this day, though it’s grip has greatly loosened since statehood in 1959.

The Big Five exercised control in banking, insurance, shipping, livestock, cattle ranching, hotels and especially, land development. They were an all-powerful, efficient consortium of agriculturally based, yet industry wide, commerce.

Needless to say, throughout the first half of the 20th century, the strength in the sugar industry lay in the interlocking partnerships largely controlled by business and government, dominated by the Republican party. This constituted a privileged, if not an incestuous elite.

After statehood this was effectively challenged. The Big Five would no longer dominate.

As the Democratic Unions rode to power, new partnerships were forged by the ILWU. On Aug. 21, 1959, nine out of ten agricultural workers on Kaua‘i, with the exception of Ni‘ihau, were in favor of joining the Aloha state.

The story of Kaua‘i’s sugar isn’t over. Although all but one mill is closed and locked up like a ghost town in Dodge City, the hope to bring them back to life lingers like static in the air.

With the promise of premium molasses and ethanol, sugar can once again be the staple crop in Hawai‘i.

• John Lydgate and Tammi Tracy Andersland are launching a new publication specific to Kaua‘i history, The Pacific Journal. The launch is planned for some time this spring. They are residents of Wailua and offer this exclusive column for The Garden Island readers.


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