By Léo Azambuja
Last month, the Kaua‘i Historical Society unveiled a colossal project that took nearly 15 years: The preservation and cataloguing of about 1,000 maps and roughly five tons of ledgers corresponding to more than a century of operations at the former Kekaha Sugar Co.
“It’s like a sampling of the plantation culture and history that was on this island,” KHS consultant Donna Stewart said of the project.
The maps show in great detail how the Westside’s wetlands became plantation fields, how those fields changed over a century, the location of irrigation ditches and drainage pumps, and where plantation camps were built.
A 10-foot-long by 8-foot-wide map reveals the wetlands that once covered much of the land between Waimea and Polihale, former KHS President Randy Wichman said. Those were the largest wetlands in the entire Pacific.
“It’s the only map I’ve ever seen of the wetlands,” he said.
The ledgers recorded the plantation workers’ daily life in the camps, such as who bought what at the stores, how much the workers got paid, which days they worked and who got hurt. Some even have passports with photos.
“In a way, this whole collection is to reconnect the generations,” Wichman said.
In November 1999, after more than a century in operation, Kekaha Sugar folded. In 2000, Chris Faye, great-granddaughter of the company’s founder, Hans Peter Faye, saved some records from going to the trash. But there was a lot more than what she could keep, so she called KHS Executive Director Mary Requilman.
Wichman said it took him and a team of volunteers three days to retrieve hundreds of maps and records spread all over the floor of the company’s main building, and tons of ledgers and documents upstairs and in the attic.
Author and KHS member Pat Griffin was mostly responsible for cataloguing the ledgers years ago, according to Stewart.
Then in 2010, Malina Pereza put together a system and a volunteer team to catalog the maps. In June 2014, Pereza lost a battle to leukemia, at 26 years old. Marianne Buley, who had been trained by Pereza, finished the project.
“She left a legacy … for the Historical Society and the people of Kaua‘i,” Requilman said of Pereza. “What she’s done for us will live on forever.”
The seed that sprouted into Kekaha Sugar Co. was planted in 1880 by 21-year-old Norway immigrant Hans Peter Faye. Once on Kaua‘i, he founded H.P. Faye & Co. sugar plantation by securing a loan from Paul Isenberg and leasing lands in Mana from his uncle, Valdemar Knudsen.
In 1898, H.P. Faye helped to merge three sugar companies into Kekaha Sugar Co., operating on lands leased from the government. By the late 1930s, those lands were considered the most valuable asset of the former Territory of Hawai‘i, said Mike Faye, H.P. Faye’s grandson.
At the height of their employment, Kekaha Sugar had about 2,000 workers, according to Mike Faye. By comparison, the nearby Waimea Plantation had somewhere between 200 and 250 workers.
Over the decades, they employed thousands of workers and built plantation camps, the Kekaha Mill, the 27-mile Kekaha Ditch and the 21-mile Koke‘e Ditch, among many accomplishments. The plantations were responsible for a lot of the infrastructure in Hawai‘i, Chris Faye said.
“It was like a mini county government, they had to take care of their own plumbing, electricity, infrastructure, making roads, trains, machines,” she said.
In the early days, Chris Faye said, there was no Kekaha Town — there was no water there. The nearest village was Poki‘i, which rested on the foothills of the mountains, where water was available. There were also other villages along those foothills.
And there was Mana, an old Hawaiian village near Polihale, turned into a camp. Over the years, Mana Camp developed into what Wichman called a “full giant-little-city.” At one point, Chris Faye said, there were 3,000 people living in Mana. There was a movie theater, a swimming pool named after a hometown boy who died in the war, schools, stores and many homes.
In 1989, Mana Camp was shut down for good, and the last two residents left. Chris Faye said many factors contributed to the closure: Tight government control of sugar prices, rising expenses, labor unions, field mechanization and stricter health regulations.
Mike Faye moved six or seven structures — including the store, the school and H.P. Faye’s original home — to what now is the Waimea Plantation Cottages, a charming resort made entirely of restored plantation homes. Those structures are still a gathering place for reunions for former planation workers and their families.
The old Mana site is now flattened and covered by brush.
Gone too are the days when Kaua‘i’s main corporations were local.
“Everybody made money off the sugar plantations,” Chris Faye said. “All the sugar was owned by Hawai‘i corporations, all the money stayed in Hawai‘i.”
But the plantations left a living legacy. Commercial success meant bringing more foreign workers, and that was the basis of our population, Stewart said.
“I don’t know, if we had never had sugar plantations, what the population would be like or what the island would be like,” she said.