A Bittersweet Future for Hawaii's Threatened Sugar Mills
“Sugar formed the landscape in Hawaii,” Harrison Yamamoto says. “From the mountains to the beach, it was all fields.”
Hawaii’s history -- and Yamamoto’s family history -- is steeped in sugar. The islands’ sugar industry dates back to 1835 when the first successful sugar plantation was established on the island of Kauaʻi. Today, only one operating sugar mill remains -- the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company-operated Alexander & Baldwin mill in Puʻunene, Maui, built in 1901.
Yamamoto, 25, is now a Silman Fellow for Preservation Engineering at the National Trust, and a fourth-generation American of Japanese descent. His great-great-grandfather came to Hawaii in 1885 to work the sugar fields. His grandparents still live in the old plantation workers camp on Kauaʻi.
“I’m not sure if my great-great-great grandmother came with him or if they were married later,” Yamamoto recalls. “But my family has worked at the mills for generations.”
The sugar mills attracted labor immigration that lasted through the 1920s and 1930s. The largest immigrant group was Japanese, followed by Chinese, Korean, Filipino, and Portuguese. Yamamoto’s family worked and lived at the Gay & Robinson mill, where his grandfather was a mechanic.
The workers lived in multicultural clusters of around a dozen houses -- wooden, single-storied structures, usually painted earthy tones.
“It was a small community,” he says. “At first it was segregated by ethnic groups and sometimes there were tensions, but over time, when you’re working together and living together, everyone learned to get along.”
The communities were also culturally vibrant homes for the diaspora. Yamamoto recalls the neighborhood hongwanji, a Buddhist temple, cultural center, and mission school. Children would go to the hongwanji to learn Japanese language, religion, and cultural values, Yamamoto says. (Today, the hongwanjis also host the Obon festivals that light the islands in celebration, as well as support the local Boy Scouts chapter.)
But times have changed in the sugar fields. Sugar remained Hawaii's leading industry until the 1960s when tourism took over as the state's number one income. Then bigger producers like Brazil began to overtake the world market.
As sugar production slowed, the mills began to fall -- first abandoned, then later demolished. Several plantation owner homes and estates have been preserved. And some worker camps, like Yamamoto’s grandparents’, still live on as communities.
Yet Yamamoto has noticed most structures crumble to dust -- and with them a tangible sense of Hawaii's past.
“The mills are sometimes the tallest structures in the area,” Yamamoto describes. “You would drive through the island and look out and see the fields and then you’d see the mill and that’s when you know you’re entering a town.”
While preserving plantation estates is a great step, Yamamoto argues that it’s not enough.
“The house served maybe twenty people, but there were hundreds and thousands of workers who lived in the camps,” Yamamoto says. “In terms of the collective history, there is more weight on the mills and the fields.”
When the Gay & Robinson mill on Kauaʻi shut down in 2009, it left Alexander & Baldwin the lone sugar producing outpost in the state. Today, that last working sugar mill employs about 800 people and cultivates some 36,000 acres of cane. In 2011, the mill produced over 182,000 tons of raw sugar.
Next door to the mill is the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum, one of the rare efforts to preserving the taste and heritage of Maui's sugar industry.
“When I went to school we would drive in the car and I’d look out the back seat and see the fields,” Yamamoto says. “But now, my children or my grandchildren would look out the back seat and I don’t know what they’ll see.”
“My father’s generation has a much closer connection to the land,” he continues. “It’s important to reflect on the land and what the land can provide you. Everyone wants to move forward, but we should ask how should we move forward.”