Local Preservationists

A Bittersweet Future for Hawaii's Threatened Sugar Mills

Posted on: October 2nd, 2013 by Aria Danaparamita


Sugar cane fields stretch across the Hawaiian landscape. Credit: McCready, Flickr.
Sugar cane fields stretch across the Hawaiian landscape.

“Sugar formed the landscape in Hawaii,” Harrison Yamamoto says. “From the mountains to the beach, it was all fields.”

Hawaii’s history -- and Yamamoto’s family history -- is steeped in sugar. The islands’ sugar industry dates back to 1835 when the first successful sugar plantation was established on the island of Kaua’i. Today, only one operating sugar mill remains -- the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company-operated Alexander & Baldwin mill in Pu’unene, Maui, built in 1901.

Yamamoto, 25, is now a Silman Fellow for Preservation Engineering at the National Trust, and a fourth-generation American of Japanese descent. His great-great-grandfather came to Hawaii in 1885 to work the sugar fields. His grandparents still live in the old plantation workers camp on Kaua’i.

“I’m not sure if my great-great-great grandmother came with him or if they were married later,” Yamamoto recalls. “But my family has worked at the mills for generations.”

A group of Japanese immigrant labor in Hawaii. Credit: hawaiihistory.org
A group of Japanese immigrant laborers in Hawaii.

The sugar mills attracted labor immigration that lasted through the 1920s and 1930s. The largest immigrant group was Japanese, followed by Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese. Yamamoto’s family worked and lived at the Gay & Robinson mill, where his grandfather was a mechanic.

The workers lived in multicultural clusters of around a dozen houses -- wooden, single-storied structures, usually painted earthy tones.

“It was a small community,” he says. “At first it was segregated by ethnic groups and sometimes there were tensions, but over time, when you’re working together and living together, everyone learned to get along.”

Portuguese immigrant families came to work at the Hawaiian sugar plantations. Credit: hawaiihistory.org
Portuguese immigrant families came to work at the Hawaiian sugar plantations.

The communities were also culturally vibrant homes for the diaspora. Yamamoto recalls the neighborhood hongwanji, a Buddhist temple, cultural center, and mission school. Children would go to the hongwanji to learn Japanese language, religion, and cultural values, Yamamoto says. (Today, the hongwanjis also host the Obon festivals that light the islands in celebration, as well as support the local Boy Scouts chapter.)

But times have changed in the sugar fields. Sugar remained Hawaii's leading industry until the 1960s when tourism took over as the state's number one income. Then bigger producers like Brazil began to overtake the world market.

As sugar production slowed, the mills began to fall -- first abandoned, then later demolished. Several plantation owner homes and estates have been preserved. And some worker camps, like Yamamoto’s grandparents’, still live on as communities.

Yet Yamamoto has noticed most structures crumble to dust -- and with them a tangible sense of Hawaii's past.

The now abandoned Koloa mill on Kaua'i. Credit: chuck55, Flickr.
The now-abandoned Koloa mill on Kaua'i.

“The mills are sometimes the tallest structures in the area,” Yamamoto describes. “You would drive through the island and look out and see the fields and then you’d see the mill and that’s when you know you’re entering a town.”

While preserving plantation estates is a great step, Yamamoto argues that it’s not enough.

“The house served maybe twenty people, but there were hundreds and thousands of workers who lived in the camps,” Yamamoto says. “In terms of the collective history, there is more weight on the mills and the fields.”

When the Gay & Robinson mill on Kaua’i shut down in 2009, it left Alexander & Baldwin the lone sugar producing outpost in the state. Today, that last working sugar mill employs about 800 people and cultivates some 36,000 acres of cane. In 2011, the mill produced over 182,000 tons of raw sugar.

The Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company mill in Pu'unene, Mauai. Credit: Joanna Orpia, Wikimedia.
The Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company mill in Pu'unene, Mauai.

Next door to the mill is the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum, one of the rare efforts to preserving the taste and heritage of Maui's sugar industry.

“When I went to school we would drive in the car and I’d look out the back seat and see the fields,” Yamamoto says. “But now, my children or my grandchildren would look out the back seat and I don’t know what they’ll see.”

“My father’s generation has a much closer connection to the land,” he continues. “It’s important to reflect on the land and what the land can provide you. Everyone wants to move forward, but we should ask how should we move forward.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita

Aria Danaparamita, or Mita, is a contributor to the PreservationNation blog and recent graduate of Wesleyan University. She enjoys walks, coffee, and short stories. Follow her odd adventures on Twitter at @mitatweets.

The (Nearly) Forgotten History of Maxville, Ore.

Posted on: September 27th, 2013 by David Robert Weible 1 Comment


In the Fall issue of Preservation magazine we interview Gwendolyn Trice, whose search for her own history led her to quit her day job in Seattle and relocate to eastern Oregon to preserve the memory of the now-defunct logging town that originally brought her family to the Pacific Northwest.

The town -- known as Maxville -- popped up in the 1920s in Wallowa County, and drew both white and black workers from all of the American South and Midwest. Though the town was segregated, the hard work and brutal weather brought the community together.

You can find the full story in the print edition of Preservation. (Forum Journal also has a great article available for members, titled "Breathing Life into a Ghost Town: The Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center.")

In the meantime, here are some cool photo extras that show the history of Maxville and its community.

Gwendoyn Trice in Maxville. Credit: Colby Kuschatka... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible

David Robert Weible is an assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He came to DC from Cleveland, Ohio, where he wrote for Sailing World and Outside magazines.

[10 on Tuesday] Toolkit Round-Up: The "Saving Places" Edition

Posted on: September 24th, 2013 by Julia Rocchi


With more than a year's worth of toolkits under our belts, we thought it was time to bring back some of the old favorites in case you missed them, lost them, or just wanted to refresh your memory.

This week's edition focuses on all the tips and techniques for getting started in preservation -- from basic definitions to recommended reading to getting your family and community excited about saving places. Let's jump in!... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

League Park: Ohio's Lost Ballpark Gets Back in the Game

Posted on: September 20th, 2013 by Guest Writer 2 Comments


Written by Jeremy Feador, University Archivist, Ritter Library, Baldwin Wallace University

Outside League Park in Cleveland, between 1900-1910. Credit: Library of Congress
Outside League Park in Cleveland, c. 1900-1910.

Nestled on the corner of East 66th and Lexington Ave are the remnants of Cleveland’s League Park. To say that this plot of grass, remaining ticket house, and partial wall of the park are historic is an understatement.

In 1891, when a 24-year-old Cy Young stepped on the mound for the inaugural game at League Park, he ushered in a period of baseball history that can hardly be rivaled. That day he helped lead the Cleveland Spiders to victory over Cincinnati, 12-3.

Eight years later in 1899, the team set a mark that may never be equaled in baseball history.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Guest Writer

Although we're always on the lookout for blog content, we encourage readers to submit story ideas or let us know if you've seen something that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience. Email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

Imaginations Lift Off at Los Arboles "Rocketship" Park

Posted on: September 12th, 2013 by Lauren Walser 4 Comments


The Rocketship Park. Credit: Neil Klemer, Flickr.
The Rocketship Park in Torrance, California.

For generations of children who have grown up in Torrance, Calif., traveling to outer space was as easy as visiting Los Arboles “Rocketship” Park.

The highlight of the 6.3-acre park, completed in the 1960s, has long been the 28-foot-tall rocket ship play structure, purchased from a catalog of playground equipment shortly after a local developer donated the land for the park to the city.

On any given day for the last five decades, park visitors would see children scaling the ladder inside the ship from one level to the next and careening down the metal slide on the outside of the structure.

“Kids feel like they’re blasting off into space,” says Janet Payne, a vice president with Torrance Historical Society.... Read More →

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser

Lauren Walser is the Los Angeles-based Field Editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about history, art, architecture, and public space.