Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 25, 2004

Kahuku will miss its mill

By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Windward O'ahu Writer

KAHUKU — Another vestige of Hawai'i's plantation heritage is about to disappear.

Angel Ramos, who worked as a machinist at the Kahuku Sugar Mill, stands by a flywheel of the type that was found inside the mill.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

The Kahuku Sugar Mill, built in 1890 and for eight decades the lifeblood for the Portuguese, Japanese and Filipino immigrants who came to work the plantation, will be torn down soon — a victim of decay and the high cost of cleaning up polluted land.

This tiny North Shore community grew up around the mill, and everyone in town had a connection to it. Only a few people worked at jobs outside of sugar, and even today a majority of people living in Kahuku have relatives who once labored in the fields or the mill.

"The sugar mill has been our icon. It was our identity," said Angel Ramos, 75, who worked in the mill from 1949 until it closed in 1971.

Recently it was hoped that the mill could be the heart of the community again, as parts of it anchored a mix of shops, restaurants and Hawai'i history that would bring tourists and prosperity.

It wasn't to be.

The structure is considered a hazard, with collapsing roofs and rusting support beams, and it must be torn down for safety and health reasons, according to the landowner, the Estate of James Campbell.

Plans call for demolishing the building and cleaning up pollutants left behind by sugar operations, with some kind of historic preservation to commemorate the mill's importance to the community. Work is expected to start in March.

In the 1950s, when sugar was king, the Kahuku Sugar Mill, right, was one of 38 mills in Hawai'i. The building, now considered a hazard, will be torn down.

Angel Ramos photo

The cost to clean up the site and save the building was so high that Campbell Estate entered into an agreement with environmental consultant Tetra Tech EM Inc., essentially deeding the land to the company in exchange for a reduced fee for cleanup, said estate spokeswoman Theresia McMurdo.

McMurdo would say only that the cost would have been in the millions of dollars.

The remediation is a costly problem, and the estate wanted to be sensitive to the historic value the community placed on the mill, she said, adding that the agreement worked well for all parties.

"We feel positive about Tetra Tech and its ability to work with the community," McMurdo said. "That was a good incentive for us."

Jason Broderson, operations manager for Tetra Tech in Hawai'i, said the agreement was good for the estate, cut red tape because the company dealt directly with state agencies, and helped with any potential liability issues.

Tests have found oil in the groundwater and higher levels of arsenic in the soil than allowed, he said. A contractor has been hired to remove asbestos and lead-based paint.

Once the property is cleared and cleaned, which could take 2 1/2 years, the land will be sold.

The Kahuku Sugar Mill, built in 1890, has collapsing roofs and rusting support beams. The landowner plans to demolish the building and sell the land after cleaning up pollutants left by sugar operations.

Bruce Asato • The Honolulu Advertiser

The project will have no effect on the 10 businesses at the mill site, which include a gas station, bank, restaurants, medical offices and the property manager, Broderson said.

Hawai'i once had 80 sugar plantations, and in 1956 — when sugar was king — the state had 38 mills. Today, just two companies in Hawai'i grow sugar, one each on Maui and Kaua'i processing at two mills.

About half of the old mills have disappeared or fallen into disrepair. Between 18 and 20 mills or their remnants are still standing, said Robert Hughes, former president of the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association. Until a few years ago, the Kahuku mill remained intact, though not operating, and tourists could stop in for a look.

"Kahuku may be the last sugar mill that still is complete, with equipment and building ... "

Hughes said. "You can't blame Campbell Estate for knocking it down, but it's too bad that had to happen."

The community has plans of its own for some kind of development at the site, such as a replica of the mill, said Don Hurlbut, a Ko'olauloa Neighborhood Board member who represents Kahuku.

The mill was never a historical site. But history was made there, and many feel a strong connection to the building, Hurlbut said. "To the old-timers, that's their livelihood," he said. "That's where they got their paychecks."

Ramos still lives in the community. When the plantation closed, he was able to purchase his home through a special agreement with the landowner. The modest home and carport are filled with boxes of photos, memorabilia and collectibles he has acquired over the years to document his life in Kahuku.

A wiry, energetic man, he laughs at one of his prizes from the mill, a wrench as tall as he is — 52 inches.

The plantation provided for everyone, said the former mill machinist. In its heyday, stores, shops, a theater, golf course, gymnasium and clubhouse surrounded the mill. The railroad brought goods and provided opportunities for outings. People would board a train in Kahuku and ride to Punalu'u with a Dixieland-style band playing all the way.

Ramos captured many of those early scenes in photographs, but not all of them have survived.

He has pictures of the mill, his children bathing in washtubs and people he worked with.

Life was simple, he said. There were only two types of soap — cake soap and Rinso — so when you sent the kids to the store they never bought the wrong one. "We know everybody, when they get birthday," he said. "We know who catch fish. The life here was so laid back."

Plantation workers had good values, said Ramos, who lectures at schools about life on the plantation. They were industrious and frugal. They didn't try to keep up with the Joneses and they kept their families together.

He said the mill is a symbol of those values. "That's where our spirit is."

Ramos was part of the sakada (recruited contract workers) group of thousands of Filipino laborers brought to the islands to work on sugar and pineapple plantations in 1946.

He would like to see a museum dedicated to telling the story of the plantation and its workers.

A stone marking the spot won't be enough, he said.

"We were the grassroots. We built Hawai'i. I would like to have a building where we can house our mementos and memorabilia, a building where we can teach people what we were, what we went through."

Reach Eloise Aguiar at eaguiar@honoluluadvertiser.com or 234-5266.