By Léo Azambuja
Nearly a century ago, the restoration of the Waioli Mission House in Hanalei became the seed that would eventually turn into the Waioli Corporation, a nonprofit organization committed to preserve five historic sites comprising many significant buildings and 785 acres of land on Kaua‘i.
“It was three sisters getting together to preserve their grandparents’ house; Mabel, Elsie and Etta,” Waioli Director Robert Schleck said of the task the Wilcox sisters started in 1919 to restore the iconic North Shore property.
Mabel Wilcox, the last-surviving and youngest sister, died in 1978 at 96 years old. Today, besides overseeing the Waioli Mission House and more than 40 acres of taro farms adjacent to it, Waioli Corporation is the steward of a 100-acre Lihu‘e property which is home of the Grove Farm Homestead Museum and other historic buildings, the 1914-built Mahamoku Museum in Hanalei Bay, and a 635-acre property in Lepeuli, Kaua‘i’s North Shore.
“These ladies had the foresight to recognize that these were historic buildings and were part of the history of Hawai‘i,” Schleck said of the Wilcox sisters.
Waioli Mission House
In 1837, Abner and Lucy Wilcox arrived on the Big Island as part of the Eight Company of the Congregational Missionaries to Hawai‘i. In 1846, they came to Kaua‘i to teach at a missionary school for Hawaiian children in the Waioli Mission District.
By the late 1840s, American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions pulled the funding for its missions, and offered the Wilcox couple either passage back to New England or the land and the home in Waioli, and they took the latter, according to Schleck. They had eight sons, four of them born in Waioli.
The couple lived in the Waioli Mission House until 1869, when both died within a week of each other after falling ill while traveling in the United States. The house sat pretty much empty for 50 years, being occasionally used during North Shore visits by the family. In 1919, Mabel, Elsie and Etta, daughters of Sam and Emma Wilcox and granddaughters of Abner and Lucy, acquired the decaying house damaged by termites, and set out to restore it.
“They were visionaries, they saw the importance of preserving the history (of Waioli),” Schleck said.
The project was headed by prominent architect Hart Wood, one of the main proponents of the Hawaiian style of architecture in the first half of the 20th century. Wood took great care in restoring the house to its original condition. He finished the project in 1921, and the house was used as a vacation home by the Wilcox sisters. In 1952, it was incorporated as a museum.
Still in the Waioli Mission District, several ancient taro patches dating back hundreds of years have been tended by four generations of farmers, according to Schleck. The district is in the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.
Grove Farm Homestead Museum
In 1864, German immigrant Hermann A. Widemann leased his Grove Farm sugar plantation to George Norton Wilcox and moved to O‘ahu. Ten years prior, Widemann had cut a grove of kukui trees to plant sugar, hence the name Grove Farm. Later, George would buy the plantation and transform it into one of the most successful and long-running sugar endeavors in Hawai‘i. Grove Farm Company produced sugar until the mid-1990s, and was sold to AOL co-founder Stephen Case in 2000.
George was educated at Punahou School on O‘ahu and at the Sheffield Scientific School (now part of Yale University) in Connecticut as a civil engineer. He ran Grove Farm from his house in Lihu‘e, where the Grove Farm Homestead Museum stands today. Besides running the plantation, he invested in other businesses and served as a politician in the government. He died a bachelor in 1933 at 93 years old, leaving behind one of the largest private estates of the former Territory of Hawai‘i. After his death, Grove Farm Plantation’s main office moved to Puhi.
Mabel and Elsie never married, and lived the rest of their lives in the Grove Farm house. Elsie died in 1954. Schleck said Mabel was concerned that if Grove Farm Company shut down, they would sell the house and all its history would be lost. So in 1971, Mabel, in her late 80s, bought the Grove Farm house from Grove Farm Company. The property is in the National Register of Historic Places since 1974.
In 1975, Mabel turned the then-Waioli Missoin, a private foundation, into the nonprofit Waioli Corporation. The board is made of 12 community members, “really wonderful, active board members who oversee the operations,” said Schleck, who has worked most of his life for the corporation, and also doing inventory for Mabel prior to the corporation
Mabel died in 1978. The house still looks pretty much the way it was when she spent her last days there. The collection of Hawaiian relics, including a first edition of Capt. James Cook’s journal is still intact. The kitchen still functions on a daily basis. The furniture is impeccably clean. Artworks that have been professionally restored adorn the walls. The exquisite ‘ohi‘a wood floors are spotless. Mabel’s 1971 Buick Skylark is still parked at the porte cochere. The 1861 piano still plays beautifully.
A tour of the house is much more than a look into Mabel’s daily life; it is a travel back in time to an era when sugar was king on Kaua‘i. At every direction you look, you become immersed in the past.
The land surrounding the Grove Farm Museum extends for about 100 acres in Lihu‘e, and it includes many other historic structures, railroad tracks and four original locomotives — three of which are restored. Two of them, Paulo and Wainiha, still fire monthly to take people on short tours. The locomotives made the National Register of Historic Places’ list in 1979.
Mabel graduated as a nurse from the John Hopskins Hospital School of Nursing in 1911. She served with the American Red Cross in Europe during World War I. She helped her uncle Albert Wilcox and his wife Emma to open Samuel Mahelona Hospital in Kapa‘a, according to Schleck.
Elsie served as the first woman for the Territorial Senate of Hawai‘i from 1932 to 1940, chairing the Education Committee. The Elsie H. Wilcox Elementary School in Lihu‘e honors her legacy. She was also a founding member of the Kaua‘i Historical Society, where she served for 40 years as a secretary and treasurer.
Lepeuli Ahupua‘a is a 635-acre property facing Lepeuli Beach, also known as Larsen’s Beach, just north of Moloa‘a on Kaua‘i’s North Shore. The site was used by early Hawaiians to fish and harvest limu. Its pristine reef is still used as a source of food for Hawaiians today.
Abner Wilcox acquired the land from Kamehameha III in 1852, with the intent of raising cattle to produce butter, according to Schleck. At one point, he said, the former Kilauea Sugar Plantation leased the land to grow sugar. Then Meadow Gold leased it to raise cattle. The land is currently leased to a different rancher.
Schleck said Waioli’s intention is to make Lepeuli a “museum of life,” working in partnership with the Kaua‘i Albatross Network and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to protect endangered species, such as albatrosses, Hawaiian monk seals and nesting green sea turtles.
Schleck said “Ms. Mabel” could have just travelled the world, but instead she chose a life dedicated to the community.
“Ms. Mabel left this to the community, so it is her trust and her faith that the community will continue to preserve it,” he said. “The community will act as stewards of these properties and buildings.”
On May 13, Waioli Corporation will host a luau fundraiser at the Grove Farm Homestead Museum, featuring Frank De Lima, Halau Kaulupuaonalani and emcee Ed Kaahea.
Tickets are $100, and can be purchased at Waioli Mission House in Hanalei, Magic Dragon in Princeville, Kaua‘i Music and Sound in Kapa‘a, Grove Farm Museum in Lihu‘e, Ha Coffee Bar in Lihu‘e, Island Soap & Candle in Koloa, and Talk Story Bookstore in Hanapepe.
Call (808) 246-1020 or (619) 857-2868 for more information on tickets.