In the early 1800s, Koloa was scarcely inhabited by Hawaiians who grew a variety of kō, or sugarcane, called kōloa, or long sugarcane. But Hawaiians didn’t produce sugar, they chewed the sweet stalks of sugarcane.
In 1789, the first Chinese came to Hawai‘i working in trading ships. One of them, Wang Tze-Chin, settled in Lawa‘i and produced sugar for the first time in Hawai‘i in 1802. Though his production only lasted one crop, other Chinese produced small amounts of sugar in Kōloa, Waimea, Lawa‘i and Māhā‘ulepū between 1820 and 1832, according to Donald Donohugh in his book, “The History of Koloa, a Kaua‘i Plantation Town.”
In 1833, William Hooper, William Ladd and Alan Brindsmade arrived in Honolulu and founded Ladd & Company, a company that sold supplies to whaling ships. The store had a branch in Kōloa. Aware that sugarcane crops were already grown in the area, Hooper came to Kaua‘i in early 1835 to survey a potential plantation.
In the summer of that same year, Ladd & Co. entered into a 50-year lease for 980 acres of land in Koloa, east of Waihohonu Stream. The lease was signed by King Kamehameha III and Kaua‘i Gov. Kaikio‘ewa.
The lease — the first ever of its kind in Hawai‘i — set many precedents for the entire Kingdom of Hawai‘i. Under the lease, local chiefs were excluded from receiving taxation (usually in the form of labor and products) from Hawaiians working in the plantation. Instead, the king and the governor of Kaua‘i would be paid.
Furthermore, Hawaiians workers at the plantation would receive wages and benefits, a concept completely foreign to the Hawaiian lifestyle.
Hooper built the first mill — equipped with koa hand rollers and whaling try pots — at Maulili Waterfall down Waihohonu Stream in 1836. The first crop, only a few acres, produced 100 barrels of molasses and a little sugar. A new dam and a second mill — with steel rollers and copper pots — were built downstream in 1837, and the second crop produced 30 tons of sugar and 170 barrels of molasses, according to Donohugh.
Despite a promising business Hooper had many problems, from labor issues with Hawaiians not used to money and the plantation lifestyle, to alienated chiefs undermining the business, and even forgery of scrip — the first form of paper money in Hawai‘i — introduced to buy goods at the Plantation Store.
Discouraged by three years of losses, Hooper left the plantation, but Ladd & Co. continued the business with other managers, who also encountered problems.
In 1841, the sugar industry was taking off, and a third mill was built, near where Waihohonu and Omao streams meet. The smokestack for this mill, still standing across the street from Sueoka Store, is a landmark in Kōloa. Right next to it, there is a monument acknowledging all ethnicities that came together to shape the island’s future.
Ladd & Co. eventually withdrew from the lease in 1845, and Dr. Robert Wood, Hooper’s brother-in-law, took over the plantation business.
Throughout the years, the sugar industry grew in Hawai‘i and became so profitable that it was the island’s main economic engine. Immigrants who came by the thousands from all four corners of the world to work in the plantations in Hawai‘i.
The first to come here specifically to work in the plantations were the Chinese. From 1852 to 1887, nearly 50,000 Chinese came to Hawai‘i. The first Japanese came in 1868, but it was between 1885 and 1924 that 200,000 Japanese came to Hawai‘i. About 7,300 Koreans came between 1903 and 1910. The first, Filipino arrived in 1906, but it was between 1909 and 1930 that nearly 113,000 Filipinos came here. There were also Portuguese, Spanish, Puerto Ricans and other ethnicities in smaller scale that came for the plantation industry.
Despite ups and downs, the sugar plantation industry in Kōloa remained strong throughout most the 19th and 20th centuries. In the 1880s, locomotives were introduced to he plantation, increasing efficiency especially for transportation of sugar cane after the harvest. In the 1890s, the steam plow increased efficiency in harvesting. In 1906, Koloa Plantation built the Waitā Reservoir to irrigate more than 1,600 acres of sugarcane crops. In 1913, due to increasing production, a larger mill was built in Kōloa, about a mile from the 1841 mill.
Kōloa Plantation shut down for good in 1996, after changing ownership a few times.