Kō, or sugarcane, was one of the couple dozen canoe plants brought to Hawai‘i by early Polynesian settlers. The few Hawaiians who lived in the Kōloa area grew a variety of sugarcane called kōloa, or long sugarcane. But they didn’t produce sugar; they chewed the sweet stalks of sugarcane.
In the early 1800s, there were attempts by different Chinese entrepreneurs to grow and process sugarcane on Lanaʻi and Maui. On Kaua‘i, there were a few attempts at sugar plantations between 1820 and 1832. None of those enterprises lasted long.
Then in 1835, Hawai‘i’s first large-scale, successful sugar plantation was established in Kōloa. The first mill — fitted with koa hand-rollers and whaling try pots — was built in 1836 at Maulili Waterfall down Waihohonu Stream. The first crop produced a little bit of sugar and 100 barrels of molasses.
In 1837 a new dam and second mill — now with steel rollers and copper pots — were built downstream, producing 30 tons of sugar and 170 barrels of molasses.
In 1841, a third mill was built near the junction of Waihohonu and Omao streams. The mill’s smokestack is still standing across the street from Sueoka Store, serving as a landmark in Old Kōloa Town. In 1913, a larger mill was built in Kōloa, about a mile east of the 1841 mill.
Over the years, the sugar plantations became a very profitable business — and the main economic engine of the Hawaiian Islands. The plantations would shape the socio-politico-economic landscape of the Islands like no other industry. They built much of Kauaʻi’s early infrastructure, including roads, water lines, homes, schools, etc.
During the sugar era, hundreds of thousands of farmers from different ethnicities poured into Hawai‘i. The first ones to come were the Chinese. From 1852 to 1887, nearly 50,000 Chinese came here. The first Japanese came in 1868 in small numbers, and between 1885 and 1924, about 200,000 Japanese arrived here to work in the fields. Roughly 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.
All these ethnicities mixed into the local culture, adding their own cultural flavors. This wide range of cultural aspects evolved into what is considered local Hawaiian culture today. The saimin is arguably the poster child of this cultural melting pot. It is basically Japanese noodles loaded with ingredients from every ethnicity working in the sugar plantations.
Kōloa Plantation shut down for good in 1996, but its legacy is forever embedded on Kauaʻi’s community, culture and lifestyle.