The crop that once defined Hawai‘i is facing its final harvest. Next month, Hawai‘i Commercial & Sugar Company will close its operations. For many, the industry was more than just a place to work—it represented an entire way of life. HPR’s Molly Solomon recently visited Maui and has this report.
Robert Luuwai opens the door to the Pu‘unēnē mill for one of the last times. The VP of factory operations has been working at HC&S on Maui for more than 30 years.
“When I first started in 1983, it was 13 mills,” said Luuwai. “We’re the last of the Mohicans right now.”
Inside the building, it’s loud. The ground vibrates as a conveyor belt above us carries freshly cut cane through a wash cycle. Every gear and piece of machinery is covered in a layer of brown dust and a sweet, slightly burnt smell permeates the building. All of these things, Luuwai said, he’ll miss.
“It doesn’t feel too good, but life goes on,” said Luuwai. “We kind of saw it coming. The valley already looks different. It used to be green, now it’s brown.”
Six years short of retirement, Luuwai says he’s not sure what he’ll do next. “Hopefully I’ll find something,” he said. “But I guess it’s the next stage of my life.”
Sugar has reshaped life in Hawai‘i for more than a century. Dorothy Pyle is a retired history professor at Maui Community College. She says when western whalers arrived in the islands in the 1800s, the Kingdom of Hawai‘i saw an opportunity for trade. But unfortunately, their arrival also brought some unintended consequences.
“With all the westerners came all the diseases,” said Pyle. “And the population starts to decline. What had been a very full land, full of people living a subsistence life, now becomes empty land.”
That empty land created room for sugar. Plantations in the islands began to grow, and became big business after the Kingdom of Hawai‘i reached a deal with the United States, removing tariffs from Hawaiian sugar exported to the U.S.
“It grew and grew through the 1880s up to the 1890s period of time,” Pyle explained. “And sugar is very labor intensive. Back then it took a lot of hands, the cutting, planting, hauling. So it make sense for the sugar industry and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i to look for people from the outside.”
That need for labor brought immigrants from Asia, shaping the unique ethnic makeup of the islands. Some were likely the ancestors of Teri Freitas Gorman, the President of the Maui Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce.
“Actually my ethnic heritage is what I call plantation pedigree,” said Gorman. “I’m almost in the order that they came: I’m Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese. And I’m Native Hawaiian as well.”
A Wailuku girl, Gorman grew up encompassed by sugar cane. Some of her memories from small kid times include running in the fields and hearing the crackle of cane burns at night.
“We all called it Maui snow,” said Gorman, as she remembered watching cane burns from her grandmother’s house in Wailuku. “The ash would fall out from the sky and you just knew they were burning cane. It was just part of life, you didn’t really question it.”
Gorman remembers growing up in a simpler time, when Maui was still a sleepy agricultural town. Just the smell of molasses brings her back to those days.
“There’s a word in Brazilian Portuguese, saudade, and it means kind of a bittersweet memory. It’s bitter because you miss it, but it’s sweet because it has such wonderful feelings associated with it,” Gorman said. “So whenever I would come home to Maui from college or after traveling, that really distinctive smell of the molasses being processed, it really created that feeling of saudade in me.”
Pua Canto also has strong memories tied to sugar. She’s a Hawaiian Homes Commissioner who now lives in upcountry Maui. As a young girl, she grew up in the plantation camps in Pu‘unēnē. The camps, now long gone, were some of the first homes for waves of immigrants to Central Maui. Her father, a machinist, would spend his days making intricate tools in the mill, whose smoke stacks still loom over the valley. They still carried memories for her on a recent visit.
“I walked by there and it was tough,” Canto said. “I envisioned where I used to come and pick up my Dad. I could see him walking out with the rest of them. Hard work and good work, good people.”
It’ll be hard to accept for many, like Canto, who have considered sugar a part of their identity. She wonders what will happen to the remaining workers once the mill shuts down later this year.
“As for the future, we’ll have to see,” she said. “But when the final close-down days for HC&S does happen, they’ll be a lot of teary-eyed folks.”
Canto says she’ll be one of them. Before we leave, she reaches in her purse and hands me a bottle from one of the last batches of Maui Brand cane sugar. She tells me to hold onto it, it’ll be a part of history soon.