By Léo Azambuja
The sugarcane plantations — Hawai‘i’s first-large scale commercial enterprise —shaped the socio-politico-economic landscape of the Islands like no other industry. And it all started in Kōloa, Kaua‘i’s South Shore, in 1835.
“The whole sugar industry started right here, in this town right here,” said Niles Kagayama, 73 years old and a third-generation Kōloa plantation worker, while standing on the site of the third Kōloa sugar mill, built in 1841.
Over more than a century, thousands of migrant workers from all over the world poured into Hawai‘i to work in the booming sugar industry. Their cultural contribution fused to become Hawai‘i’s local culture today. Local foods, way of life and even the Hawaiian Pidgin language evolved from a large ethnic melting pot that boiled when sugar was king, according to musician Kepa Kruse, who grew up in Kōloa Camp.
“I always thought that was very cool; sugar was the catalyst for what we know as local culture today,” said Kruse, whose great-great-grandfather was a German engineer who brought the first steam plow to Kaua‘i in the 1800s.
Though the sugar industry has left Kōloa 20 years ago, the architecture and many other features from the old plantation days still remain in the town, a sharp contrast to the resort area of Po‘ipū, just down the road.
Former residents of the old plantation camps still remember the simple lifestyle that shaped their lives.
“Most of us, we were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor. Most of us grew up happy,” Kagayama said. He worked in the plantation, and left for college after graduating high school. He is also a retired minister for Kōloa Church.
Toshihiro Otani was born in 1924 in Kōloa. His father was a Japanese immigrant who came to work in the sugar fields.
“When I was small, the days was long,” said Otani, the Hawaiian Pidgin still strong in his voice. “Our mothers never know where we were the whole day, because once we went out in the morning, we didn’t come back ‘til late in the afternoon. All day I was out eating all kind fruit and whatever we can find for lunch; we had good times those days.”
Kagayama said as kids, they made their own toys and played a lot of group games. There were marbles, panax-hedge sword fights, hide-and-seek and others.
“We were always occupied, we were never bored, we were always climbing trees, until these days I’m climbing trees,” he said.
And then barefoot football “was big, big time,” Kagayama said, complete with leather helmets and no padding.
“Whenever our team would play, the whole town would go out and watch, and there was great rivalry between the teams,” he said. “Each plantation town basically had their own team, and there was a lot of pride in your football team.”
Kruse, 34 years old, said the camp was a “really special” place to grow up because it was really simple.
“Growing up simple removes distractions, there was no Facebook, no Instagram, no phone, I didn’t have a cell phone until I was 20 years old,” he said. “We played on the dirt roads, we’d go fishing on the streams, catch frogs; it’s a way of life that was very humble.”
Kruse said he is grateful for this humble upbringing because it keeps you grounded; it gives you a chance to reflect where you started whenever you go out into the world.
“I always keep that with me,” he said.
Toshio Kobayashi, 90 years old, grew up with Otani at Japanese Camp and worked as a carpenter for the plantation. His father worked for the Plantation Store and his mother, a picture bride from Japan, worked doing laundry for plantation workers.
Kobayashi had nine siblings. He too talks with nostalgia about his younger years, when he and Otani used to fish in the Waitā Reservoir, camp at Māhā‘ulepū with his family and take the train to Po‘ipū to spend the day. He is still married to Setsuko Kobayashi, a second-generation Japanese from a family of pineapple farmers in Lawa‘i.
Otani learned to weld at Kalaheo Vocational School as a teenager, and landed a job at McBryde Plantation in Kalaheo after graduation. But when World War II broke out, the government only allowed three gallons a week per driver. Unable to drive to work, he quit and worked for Kōloa Plantation.
During WWII, he said, many plantation workers wanted to work for the government, which offered better pay. But their jobs were “frozen,” he said, they couldn’t get drafted or join the army. Sugar was in high demand and prices were high during the war.
After the war, Otani joined the army and served three years in Europe. He met his wife in Germany and brought her to Kaua‘i to live in Kōloa, where he worked for the plantation again. They’re still married. He later worked as a construction leadman for the plantation, and moved on to Lihu‘e Plantation, where he retired in 1987.
Otani said while he was growing up, Kōloa was a “sleepy town.”
“Not too many people walking up and down the street. But in the evening, it was pretty busy because they go to the movie shows and all that,” he said. “Other than that, nightlife was not that active”
A local favorite spot, Otani said, was Okutso Manju Shop.
“They used to make the best manju on the island, everybody used to go there,” he said. “The manjus used to be three for five cents; three big manjus for five cents!”
Kagayama said when he looks back at Japanese Camp, it’s amazing the kinds of services and businesses that were right there. There was a dry cleaning lady, Ms. Gushiken, and close to her there was the tofu lady. Right next door to his house, Mr. Shigematsu made wooden sandals, and a blacksmith, Mr. Kawakami was there too.
“It’s really interesting we had all these different trades right in the camp,” Kagayama said.
Otani said Kōloa Town had everything they needed. Besides the Plantation Store, there used to be four or five smaller Japanese stores. They would take orders early in the day and deliver the groceries later in the afternoon.
Kagayama said because they were all laborers in the plantation industry, Labor Day was big.
“We always had a big event on Labor Day,” said Kagayama, adding there used to be a big parade in Lihu‘e, complete with floats. After the parade, everyone would end up in Isenberg Field, where they played games and had food.
Though John Kruse’s family is from Kōloa Camp, his parents later moved to O‘ahu, where he was born in 1943. He would return to Kōloa Camp in the 1970s, after meeting his future wife while both were doing work for the Polynesian Voyaging Society aboard the Hōkūleʻa sailing canoe.
John Kruse and son Kepa Kruse lived in Kōloa Camp until 2012, when everyone was told to leave after landowner Grove Farm announced plans to build a housing project on the site.
The last of the plantation camps in Kōloa, Kōloa Camp was behind the Kōloa tennis courts and was a part of Japanese Camp. It was also known as Japanese Camp C.
Other Kōloa Plantation camps in included Filipino Camp, Māhā‘ulepū Camp, Spanish Camp, Banana Camp, Old Mill Camp, Shinagawa Camp and New Mill Camp.
Kōloa Plantation shut down for good in 1996. Kepa Kruse said he hopes Kōloa always remain Old Kōloa Town.
“The things that remain will forever be a part of the local lifestyle, the language, the culture, the mix of ethnicities, the infrastructure of the town, the way the roads were developed, the architecture, all these things remain because of that singular point right there,” he said of Kōloa Plantation.
Every July, the Kōloa Plantation Days festival celebrates the many ethnic groups that came to Hawai‘i, and also the Hawaiians who welcomed them.
This year’s festival kicks off July 15, with several events for two weeks, ending July 31. Visit www.koloaplantationdays.com for more information and a detailed schedule of events.