Reliving the ‘red dirt’ days

My second son called from his present home in Colorado, telling me he was to be interviewed by his company newspaper about summers working on Kauai for the McBryde Plantation. His plantation labor took place in the late 1980s between his last years in college, preparing to be a teacher. His request for me to dig out some photos from those days sent me on a treasure hunt.

It seems strange that the glossy green sugar fields that were the welcoming carpet to Kauai back then have now run even their rattooniest (invented word) crops from cane stalk remnants in the fields into the ground. I had penned this haiku for a musical tour of Kauai produced as a cassette tape not long after beginning my intense love affair with this island:

By the road now, cane.

Cane greens the valleys, more cane

ripples mountainward.

When the last big American Factors (Amfac) plantations closed down in December 2000, leaving Gay & Robinson as the only remaining sugar plantation on island, it didn’t take long for Guinea grass, albizia and Java plum saplings, as well as other invasive plants, to take hold in the barren fields. In the high canefields of Kekaha beside the road that rises toward Waimea Canyon, there had been enough rubber irrigation tubing laid “to reach from Kauai to San Francisco.” Today, there are bushy stands of haole koa and fast-growing Australian oaks, the latter seeded by parent Aussie oaks planted years ago in an attempt to slow the erosion of the red dirt of our highlands.

Sugar had run its course here, and it didn’t take long for Gay & Robinson to bring their enterprise to a halt, making the workings of their mill in Kaumakani move into past tense via history tours, while lands were leased for other commercial growing ventures. All this on the island where that sweet story of success had been born in 1835 when the enterprising team of Ladd & Co. launched the commercial venture for growing sugar at the old mill in Koloa.

In 1899, the McBryde outfit based in “Numila” (New Mill), where our Kauai Coffee Company now operates its updated and expanded operation, purchased the Koloa operation. Less than 100 years later, McBryde saw the writing on the wall for diversification. When my son was hired, he worked with seeds and helped to build a greenhouse in what had been the historic Wahiawa Camp, pretty much demolished shortly before his stint. At that time we learned that three of the various crops being explored were patchouli, tea varieties that would grow well about 600 feet above sea level, and I believe the purple coneflower, or echinacea, the herbaceous flowering plant used as the source of a natural remedy for stuffy noses.

That is, beyond macadamia nuts, a crop that was growing successfully in Australia. The Hawaii-grown mac nuts would replace those in our roasted and chocolate covered treats being imported from the “land of Oz.” Sadly, that venture was thwarted by no other than Hurricane Iniki, which ripped through our island on Sept. 11, 1992. The McBryde mac nut groves were just approaching their seventh season and their first appreciable nut crop when that storm hit, creating a havoc and a ruin. There went the possibility of starting to recover the loss in monetary outlay while waiting for years for first harvest.

The nut groves were still in a stage of infancy when my son started working for McBryde. After his call, I dug in our big old, blue trunk. It was disappointing to find that many of my old photos were missing. Having moved several times and experienced life changes, a serious termite attack and Hurricane Iniki, the snapshots I was hoping to find archived within that trunk, for the most part, have been lost. However, I was lucky in my Internet searches and found a few that might “set the scene” for his interview and upcoming article. For readers’ interest, among these were: a Star Bulletin feature (7/15/97) on a Wahiawa camp reunion; a Wikipedia article on the old Koloa sugar mill; a map and views of the Numila area (in coffee now, mostly) at

The old camp Wahiawa where the greenhouse was being constructed was demolished (camp homes, Buddhist church, school, town hall) right around 1985-86 when I was working for TGI. I think my old black-and-white shots taken with “prehistoric” Nikon are still somewhere in the plant’s basement … from shooting before the wrecking ball.

Duncan McBryde was a Scotsman, and his time building a sugar empire from Koloa to Eleele has quite a bit written about it. Here is a map locator for Numila. The Kukuiolono Golf Course (public) and a Japanese garden is now located where his Kalaheo home was built. The course affords fabulous sea views, but a challenging set of holes crisscrossed by ditches and ravines and bordering cliff edges.

After obtaining his credentials, my son returned to Kauai to teach science at Kapaa High and Intermediate. He often spent free days exploring the red cane roads in his old Suzuki Samurai. We’ve shared many a laugh about the fact that his mother should have gone into the red dirt shirt business during his plantation days, instead of soaking and scrubbing the alaea red dirt that permanently dyed his work clothes.


Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author and poet, regularly instructs visitors to Kauai through Hawaii Pacific University’s “Road Scholar” program through Pacific Islands Institute. The writer is completing her second memoir, “Burma Banyan, A Quest for Roots,” sequel to the successful “Jackals’ Wedding.” Her professional work is through DAWN Enterprises. The Westside haiku included is from her book, “Behold Kauai, Modern Days ~ Ancient Ways.”


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