In 1835, the first successful sugarcane plantation was started at Koloa, Kauai with the Old Koloa Sugar Mill. William Hooper cleared 12 acres, planting the first sugar cane ever in the Hawaiian Islands. Its first harvest in 1837 produced 2 tons of raw sugar and was sold for $200.
While sugarcane had been raised by ancient Hawaiians previously, it was done on small individual plots; it was the first large-scale commercial production in the Islands.
The sugar era also opened the door to a wave of immigrants that are today part of the Islands’ multicultural population.
172 years later, on October 30, 2009, Kauai’s last sugar cane company, Gary and Robinson made its final harvest on the island. With the end of sugar production on Kauai, there is just one producer of sugar cane left in Hawaii, Maui’s Alexander & Baldwin’s Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar co. Many feel that Hawaii’s sugar industry may be entering its final chapter and that within only a few short years it will be a thing of the past.
What remains of the very first sugar mill can be seen today in the grass park of historic Old Koloa Town. The mill began with large stone sugar grinders with plantation cut-cane hauled here by ox-cart until 1882 when the train tracks were built. All that is left is part of its foundation and a 30-foot stone brick smoke stack, representing the rich history of sugar cane in Hawaii.
In 1912, the old mill was replaced by a much larger one to the east, with management changing hands several times, becoming a part of the Grove Farm Company in 1948. That plantation was shut down in 1996.
The site of the old building and its remains was designated a National Historic Landmark on December 29, 1962 with a plaque erected in 1965 stating that the site “possesses exceptional value in commemorating or illustrating the history of the United States.”
Koloa was developed as the company town for the sugar mill with a number of informative signs throughout the town describing the history of the area with most of the architecture refurbished while still remaining unique to a typical sugar plantation town.
Every year in July, Koloa Plantation Days is held to commemorate this rich past. For nine or ten days, depending on the year, the festival celebrates the ethnic groups that came to Hawaii to work the sugar plantations as well as the Hawaiians who welcomed them through music, dance, costumes and food. In 2013, the event takes place from July 19-28 with the 2014 festival to be held July 21-29.
If you aren’t fortunate enough to be in Kauai for this fun celebration, you can find out more about the history of sugar here by visiting the History Center in Old Koloa Town. The center allows visitors to trace the history of Koloa, the sugar industry and life in the plantation era through artifacts and photographs.