Before there were tourists here. Before there were hotels. Before there were shopping centers and department stores and discount stores, there was sugar and there were pineapples.
These two agricultural enterprises were destined to become giant industries that employed Kauai’s people for decades, fed and clothed their families, educated their children and even provided a roof over their heads.
The stories about sugar and pineapples have been told over and over in books, newspapers, and Internet blogs. They have chronicled how first sugar, and then pineapples, found their way to Hawaii, how the first crops were planted, how the businesses grew and flourished; how they incorporated research and industrial innovation over the years.
The stories have also told of their eventual demise; how one by one, plantation after plantation; cannery after cannery, scaled back, shut down and finally closed permanently.
Sugar and pineapples have both touched my life indirectly. I have never worked for or been involved with either industry.
I was, however, fascinated by sugar’s history; its politics; its controversies; and the environmental concerns.
I also had the utmost respect for the people who depended on sugar for their livelihood.
I admired their loyalty; how so many of them were grateful to be working, and eager to learn and advance if possible. They worked hard and did their best to give their children a better life than they had.
For me, sugar’s most powerful and poignant memory will always be Lihue Plantation’s final day.
On that day, countless people stood in silent homage along Kuhio Highway in front of The Garden Island newspaper plant, the service station, the restaurants, the old theater.
We shared those heartbreaking moments with former plantation workers, wiping tears from their eyes, there because they felt they had to be.
We shared them with friends and fellow workers, whose families’ lives were tied to the plantation, all of us sadly watching the final caravan of plantation trucks pass by on their way to the Lihue mill one last time.
I don’t think I will ever forget the sound of the trucks blasting their horns again and again as they made their way down the street. History was made that day and it ended then too.
For me, pineapple’s have always been the delicious slices and chunks you bought at the store. All of that changed after I got married and moved back to Kauai with my husband, Wayne,
Hawaiian Fruit Packers, one of three canneries on Kauai, (Kauai Pineapple Company in Lawai and Hawaiian Canneries in Kapaa town were the other two) was right up the road from our Kapahi home on Kawaihau Rd. Both of Wayne’s parents worked at the cannery and depended on their income to take care of their family.
Like many teenagers in the 1960s and ’70s, Wayne and his brother Dennis both picked pineapples in the fields before getting jobs at the cannery.
Picking pineapples was back-breaking work, Wayne says.
“We had to wear long sleeved shirts and pants, a guard and a screened guard on our face to protect us from getting poked by the pineapple if we got too close,” he said.
Fruit had to be hand-picked, the crowns twisted off and put in the harvesting boom. About eight people at a time could work the boom, that would transport the fruit on its conveyor belt into the waiting trucks. When the trucks were full, they would be driven off and another take its place.
“Sometimes the booms couldn’t be used because the slope was too steep,” Wayne said, adding that they would then have to load the fruit into burlap bags and carry them to the waiting trucks.
Labor was always a problem but especially during the war years. Students 15 years and older were hired to work in the fields or “work cannery” during summer months when school was not in session.
Years ago, I read somewhere that the whole division of the school year into summer and session months came about so students could work during pineapple harvest season.
I have not been able to confirm this since but it does make sense.
Pineapple fields were planted around Kapahi by private owners (some Fruit Packers’ employees who sold the fruit back to the cannery, which also owned fields in Kapahi.
Some teens saved the money they got from working at the cannery for college, but many other families were struggling so much to survive, kids had to give part of their income to their parents to help with expenses, buy school clothes each year and use a little for a rare movie.
I have three pineapple industry memories. The first was the 4 p.m. whistle. We could hear it clearly from our house and knew Mom would be home soon. I have never forgotten that sound either.
The second was the day Mom and Dad came home in shock and told us Hawaiian Fruit Packers had announced they were going to stop planting pineapple. They knew the end would soon be there. There would be no need for the cannery if there was no fruit.
The last thing was the day they actually shut down in October 1973. My mother-in- law was out of a job immediately but my father-in-law, who was a supervisor there, worked through the end of the year, helping shut the operation down.
These memories are not unique. They were happening in Lawai, in Kapaa at the other canneries when they shut down. They were happening to every worker at every plantation as they called it a day.
Kauai has come a long way since then. Our economy is now driven by the visitor industry, the military, construction, small agricultural enterprises, and our diverse and ever-expanding retail sector.
While I do enjoy some of the things we now have available, a part of me will forever miss the old Kauai and all she represented to all of us.
Rita De Silva is the former editor of The Garden Island and a Kapaa resident.