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Hawaiian Plantation Life Revisited at Waipahu’s Village Museum

By Bob Ruegsegger

Hawaii’s Plantation Village Museum is nestled in the low rolling hills of Waipahu, fifteen miles northwest of bustling downtown Honolulu. Slumbering peacefully in the shadow of the pale slender smokestack of the now expired Oahu Sugar Mill, the museum village transports visitors back in time—a time not too distant—a time when “sugar was king” in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s Plantation Village exists as an historical tribute to the diverse waves of immigrants who were recruited to come to the Hawaiian Islands from all over the world to labor in the sugar cane fields and the sugar mills. The astonishing diversity of Hawaii’s people and cultures today can be directly traced back to its roots in the sugar cane fields of Oahu, Maui, Hawaii, and Kauai. Plantation workers were actively recruited to supply the brawn required to grow and harvest sugar cane, irrigate the cane fields, and operate the sugar mills. The hours were long, the work was tough, and the financial reward was somewhat less than lucrative. Workers generally signed labor agreements which specified the length of service and the number of day’s actual labor. In exchange for their services and in addition to their monthly wages, the workers were provided transportation to Hawaii, housing, fuel, water, and medical care. Often the labor contract included provision for transportation back to the worker’s homeland after the terms of the labor agreement had been met.

The village museum is an enchanting assortment of meticulously restored buildings and an astonishing array of homes with period furnishings which help bring to life the saga of the Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Puerto Rican, Okinawan, Korean, and Filipino plantation workers that fashioned Hawaii’s wonderful multi-cultural society. While the open-air village museum features original buildings such as the Chinese Cook House and the Japanese Wakamiya Inari Shrine, many other museum buildings have been moved to Waipahu from other places in the Hawaiian Islands. Still others have been painstakingly replicated from housing plans prevalent during specific historic periods. The Chinese Cook House and Inari Shrine are among those buildings listed on the National Historic Register. Hawaii’s Plantation Village annually hosts more than 65,000 visitors.

“There were many, many groups that came as migrant workers—aside from the Hawaiians that first started working on the plantations in Hawaii,” said Eva Laird Smith, the executive director of Hawaii’s Plantation Village. “At Hawaii’s Plantation Village, eight of the ethnic groups that came to work the islands’ plantations are highlighted through artifacts and pertinent houses that reflect very particular cultures,” she explained.

Immigrant workers were recruited for the plantations from various parts of Europe and Asia. While the biggest influx of plantation workers came from Japan, others also brought equally strong influences from their distant homelands.

“Waipahu was historically known as ‘sugar country’ at the time there was a boom in the sugar industry over a hundred years ago, ” observed Smith. “Plantations thrived in Waipahu because there was a primary source of water here. The word ‘wai’ means water in Hawaiian. Waipahu [why-pah-who] literally means ‘land of gushing waters’,” Smith added.

Historically the “Big Five” sugar companies had missionary origins. During the time of the Hawaiian monarchy, the foreigners were first allowed—under the Law of Mahele—to own land. Most of the foreigners in Hawaii were missionaries and were accorded the privilege of buying and holding private property. This privately owned real estate was developed into rather extensive plantations. By the time of the Civil War—and gold mining—the demand for sugar increased. That brought Hawaii and sugar plantations into the picture. By 1878, Claus “Sugar King” Spreckels of the Hawaiian Commercial Company, a friend of King Kalakaua, had built an impressive multi-stacked factory on the island of Maui.

Visiting the plantation village gives one an appreciation for the struggle of the people who—through force of circumstance—came to the islands to find a better life. Separated from their homes—and often their families—they labored in a strange land to survive and ultimately to prosper.

“They’re the ones who have become the pillars of this Hawaiian society that we see right now—the basis for Hawaiian contemporary culture,” said Eva Smith. “They drew on each others’ strengths, but they were also very inventive and resourceful.”

Not only did the plantation workers absorb the existing cultural conditions, they also enriched the local culture with their customs, languages, and foods. Many of their distinctive offerings have been inextricably woven into the variegated tapestry of modern Hawaiian culture.

“It’s a very dynamic history and we’re always trying to make it more enticing,” explained Smith. “Here at the plantation village, people hear stories—first hand—of how it was to live during the plantation era,” she said. “We’ve had so many repeat visitors because they hear different stories from our plantation volunteers—who all basically lived in that era.”

Vida Ishibashi, 76, an interpretive guide at the plantation village, grew up on a sugar plantation on the Big Island—Hawaii. Ethnically, Ishibashi is Japanese, Hawaiian, and German. “We grew up working in the fields during our summer vacations, and we started by pulling weeds,” he recalled. “As we grew up we were harvesting, planting, starting new fields and irrigation. We spent a lot of time working in the fields.”

According to Ishibashi pulling the weeds wasn’t all that hard. Just being out in the fields in the merciless sun was the worst part of it. “No shade—very hot—no shade. It was hot and miserable,” he said. “In Hawaii we had a Filipino camp on the sugar plantation, a Japanese camp, and a Korean camp.

Shigeyuki Yoshitake, another museum village guide, lived in the Japanese camp on a sugar plantation operated by Oahu Sugar Company Ltd. in Waipahu, not far from the site of Hawaii’s Plantation Village. “Plantations always had schools running from one through eighth grades. After that, you went elsewhere,” he said. “For about ten years, I lived here. I lived right in the middle of all the Japanese laborers. Here, all the Japanese laborers lived in the area surrounding the mill.”

When the village opened up, Yoshitake, a volunteer doing odd jobs, was recruited to be one of the museum’s first interpretive guides. “I thought that I might as well act as a guide here because I lived here—rather than have someone come from elsewhere and try to tell the story,” he said. “Usually those stories don’t turn out one hundred percent authentic—especially about what happened here,” he laughed. “It may have been different at Hilo Sugar Company or Maui Plantation.”

1. Plantation laborers worked, lived, and shopped on the plantation. Twice monthly, workers showed their bangos—small numbered brass disks—and received pay envelopes with their bango numbers and an accounting of the deductions that had been made for purchases at the plantation store.

2. Sugarcane Train, Puuloa No. 7: This locomotive was built in November 1901 by Baldwin Locomotive Works in Philadelphia for the Honolulu Plantation Company. Later it was sold to the Oahu Sugar Company in Waipahu. Today the engine rests on narrow gauge track at Hawaii’s Plantation Village.

3. Taste of Waipahu Festival is a celebration of plantation life that features live entertainment, ethnic foods booths, fresh produce, and arts and crafts.

4. The sugar cane fields are gone, and the sugar mill rests idly on a hill everlooking Hawaii’s Plantation Village. Its windows broken and doors boarded up to keep out the curious. Signs warn locals about trespassing and dumping. Sugar—apparently—is no longer king.

5. Long before pineapple pioneer Jim Dole planted his first pineapples in 1901, sugar cane was king in the Hawaiian Islands.

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