Picturing the Past at Maui’s Sugar Museum

I’m heading off for another day trying not to read old newspapers. That might not make much sense to you, but it’s a real issue for me, no pun intended. My latest project is a picture book about Hawaii’s last sugar plantation, HC&S, which will close at the end of this year. While many focus on the rather autocratic history of sugar in Hawaii and its impacts on stream flows and the environment, and others complain about the last cane burns we’ll ever experience, a lot of people are grieving the loss of green fields and a culture that grew up in the plantation camps. This book will be for those people, the ones who remember with fondness the sharing and caring of the camps, the pride sugar workers took in their jobs, and the opportunities their labor provided for the next generations.

The Sugar Museum, across from the Puunene Mill, is full of sugar lore and displays.

The Sugar Museum, across from the Puunene Mill, is full of sugar lore and displays.

This book came about because I went to see Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum Executive Director Roz Lightfoot about a picture I needed for my Lahaina book. What do you know—they had it, a picture of pre-development Kaanapali. They had it because HC&S published a prize-winning in-house newspaper called the HC&S Breeze, whose staff (particularly Larry Ikeda) took thousands of photos, most of them about the plantation and its people, a few about other parts of the island. Roz had been thinking those photos should go into a series of books, and when I heard about the collection, I thought one should be published immediately, in time for the plantation’s closing.

That means a marathon of work, particularly since I’m already in the final stages of publishing The Story of Lahaina. But I couldn’t let this opportunity go by, and I’m doing my best to record for the future a glimpse of the mid-twentieth century on Hawaii’s biggest plantation.

So back to those old newspapers. The museum has a collection of the Breeze and its predecessors, and they are absolutely fascinating. I want to stop and read the stories, but I really have to discipline myself to zip through them, because this is the quickest turnaround I’ve ever faced in completing a book.

All this is possible because the museum is a treasure trove. First credit goes to Gaylord Kubota, who founded the museum and collected an amazing amount of material. When Gaylord retired, Roz came on board, and she is perhaps the most organized person I’ve ever seen. She has led the effort to organize Gaylord’s collection, indexing, digitizing, storing in acid-free containers. She is helped by operations administrator Holly Buland and a bunch of volunteers and donors, and they are making great progress. Meanwhile, a small staff runs the museum every day, with a gift shop that, alas, soon will lose one of its major products—Maui sugar.

But the museum will go on, even after the plantation closes. It is an independent nonprofit with a lot of community support. So for years to come, hundreds of schoolchildren will be trooping through to learn about Maui’s sugar history, and farmers from around the country will stop by to see what interesting equipment the sugar crews invented to grow and process their crop. And lots of people will be able to find out genealogical information.

One project that will help with genealogical and historical research is the digitization of thousands of labor records from Maui Agricultural Company and Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company (they merged in 1948), dating from about the 1920s through the 1980s. In 2014, Sonia Pacheco, library archivist from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, partnered with the museum to make this project happen. Maui staff and volunteers first entered the workers’ names into a database and had the records digitized by a firm called ArcaSearch.  Now the university’s Center for Portuguese Studies and Culture is developing the programming and entering metadata so that it can be on their servers. Soon it will be possible to search the data without having to look at thousands of little cards full of information.

That’s just one way the museum is preserving this history—they have maps, oral histories, original newspapers, films, and thousands of photographs. I’ve seen quite a few of them and have many more to see. But first I have to get through those newspapers, which contain information that will help me write captions for beautiful black-and-white shots. Today, no reading for fun—just a concentrated page-by-page search for stories of HC&S in the mid-20th century. I can only skim the surface—future researchers will find plenty of history remaining in this rich collection.

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4 thoughts on “Picturing the Past at Maui’s Sugar Museum

  1. Exciting project! I look forward to seeing it.

    • Jill

      Yep, it’s going to be cool. Right up your alley!

  2. Jane Marshall

    Thank you Jill.

  3. Cynthia Conrad

    Thanks, Jill. This is a monumental task and you’re just the one who can do it justice!

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