By Léo Azambuja

The staff of Waioli Corporation tried some historic outfits for this photo at the Grove Farm Homestead Museum’s lanai. Here, Maile Kennedy wears a holoku that belonged to Mabel Wilcox, while Brandon Fujioka, left, and Harold Rosa wear palaka shirts (plantation workers’ shirts) that are part of the museum’s collection.

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

The Waioli Mission House in 1917. Photo courtesy of Waioli Corporation

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.