Grove Farm Museum preserves 19th century homestead

LIHUE — Tending to freshly baked cookies from a stove fueled by ironwood, Grove Farm Museum kitchen helper Paula Rosa greets everyone who enters her kitchen with aloha.

Rosa is one of over a dozen employees who work at Grove Farm Museum in Lihue, a 100-acre property dedicated to preserving Hawaii’s storied sugar plantation history.

The property belonged to Mabel Wilcox, the founding member of the Kauai Historical Society, who gifted the 100-acre estate to the community before her death in 1978 at the age of 96.

“If you ever met Ms. Mabel, she left part of her life in me,” said Rosa, who worked for Wilcox in the mid-1970s and returned to Grove Farm Museum in 2012. “She placed within me what is life. Life was to know that a smile means love.”

The homestead features Wilcox’s former home with her belongings untouched, outbuildings and a farm that overlooks the Nawiliwili Valley.

Robert Schleck, director of Waioli Mission House Museum and Grove Farm Museum, started working for Wilcox in 1971 to inventory the estate’s items.

“The function of this property is to demonstrate what a 19th century sugar plantation homestead was like,” Schleck said. “In addition we have tours for visitors and community — and we really encourage the community come and see this because it’s everyone’s history here.”

On May 13, Grove Farm Museum will host a luau fundraiser to celebrate 100 years of preservation.

Proceeds from the fundraiser will support the continued preservation of Waioli Mission House, Grove Farm Museum at other historic sites.

Marti McHenry, a volunteer at Grove Farm Museum’s gift shop, started her work with the homestead as a tour docent.

“I’m so grateful for this place,” she said. “To have this preserved is just a blessing and a treat.”

The estate was the center of operations for Grove Farm Plantation until 1935. When its owner, George Wilcox died in 1933, his nieces and nephews inherited the company and moved it to its current location in Puhi.

Grove Farm company and Grove Farm Museum are two different entities, Schleck said.

George’s brother, Sam, who also lived on the property, raised six children with his wife, Emma. Three of his daughters — Etta, Elsie and Mabel — restored their grandparent’s home, Waioli Mission House, in Hanalei in 1921 and later established the house as a historic museum.

“That mission house was built in 1936. They also preserve the taro production in Waioli Valley. That valley has been carbon-dated to 800 AD,” Schleck said.

“The beauty of these sites is that it’s Hawaiian cultural preservation that continues to today. They’re still functioning. They preserved the lifestyle by saving the properties.”

In her later years, Mabel Wilcox created Waioli Corporation in 1975 — a nonprofit whose sole purpose is to preserve historic sites like Grove Farm Museum and nearly 800 acres of open land.

“When you consider that history for 150 years, it deserves to be preserved,” Schleck said. “Sugar plantations were a good example of how technology and invention really increased the hauling ability, harvesting ability, milling ability. It was key to the success of sugar.”

In 1980, the museum started offering tours, which continues today.

“It’s limited to six people in a group. Three groups in the morning; three groups in the afternoon,” Schleck said.

About 15 people work as docents or guides for the groups.

Tomie Kelekoma started as a guide, became a housekeeper and works to repair the museum’s lauhala mats.

“I’m an antique collector, so I know how important it is to preserve this things,” she said.

Workers like Rosa also live on the property. Next to the farm is a camp with about a dozen houses for employees.

“It’s a nonprofit, so it requires community involvement,” Schleck said. “It’s a real touchstone to the plantation area.”

Tickets for the luau are $100. The event will feature Frank De Lima, Hawaiian Trip Waiola and Ed Kaahea as master of ceremonies, and begins at 5:30 p.m. May 13 at the Grove Farm Museum. For more information, call Mershie Shaw at (619) 857-2868 or Marti McHenry at (808) 246-1020.

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