By Jan TenBruggencate
The Hawaiian sugar industry didn’t start in Koloa, and Koloa wasn’t really the site of the first sugar plantation, but these rural myths aside, this South Kaua‘i community has been key to the history of the sweetest industry.
There was a fair amount of sugar growing and processing in the Islands before 1835, when Bostonian William Hooper started the plantation Ladd & Co., which would become Koloa Plantation, with his partners William Ladd and Peter Allan Brinsmade.
Early Polynesians brought sugar cane to the islands, but never processed it into granular form. The first sugar processing is believed to have been done by a Chinese sugar technologist, Wong Tze-Chun, who arrived on the island of Lana‘i in 1802.
Sugar likes sunshine on its green leaves and water at its roots. Lana‘i had plenty of sun but not much water. It didn’t go well and he returned to China.
But others followed, and the first proper plantation — combining both the growing and the processing of sugar, was operated by two other Chinese entrepreneurs, Ahung and Atai. In 1928 they built a mill operated by a waterwheel at Wailuku on Maui.
There were early sugar growers and processors on Kaua‘i as well. At least three sugar processors were operating before Hooper on the island’s South Shore — but presumably they were millers who bought their cane from local growers.
Hooper launched his venture near the present location of Koloa Town. His first mill was made with wooden logs set vertically. It didn’t work well. Perhaps Hooper’s biggest advance was to use iron rollers, and to set them horizontally, two below and one above. It allowed the mechanization of the processing. While vertical rollers needed to be hand fed, a horizontal mill could be fed sugar cane automatically.
Hooper also quickly figured out that the Chinese sugar experts knew something most Westerners didn’t, and he imported Chinese sugar workers to help. One problem: if you boil down sweet cane juice, you get thick syrup — but there’s a trick to getting it to crystalize into sugar and the Chinese growers knew the trick.
Ladd & Co., the predecessor to Koloa Plantation, finally started producing good quality sugar in the 1840s. By then it was already operating its third sugar mill.
The old mill on Waihohonu Stream was finally replaced in 1913 by the Koloa Mill that most people remember — the one that sits east of Koloa Town, next to the Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative’s 12-megawatt photovoltaic array.
Koloa Plantation was sold to neighboring Grove Farm Co. in 1947, which leased it to McBryde Sugar in 1974. McBryde went out of sugar and closed Koloa Mill in 1996.
Sugar is no longer grown plantation-style on the island. But Koloa Plantation’s long history is recalled by the 1841 sugar mill chimney in Koloa Town, the site of Hooper’s second sugar mill and one of the oldest structures on the island. If you walk around the stack, you can find signs of the factory’s underground brickwork.
- Jan TenBruggencate is a Kaua‘i based writer and communications consultant.