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Sugar plantations take center stage at museum in Papaikou

<p>HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald</p><p>Hawaii Plantation Museum is packed with a more than 50-year-old collection of historical items from the sugar plantation era on the Big Island on Wednesday afternoon in Papaikou.</p>


Tribune-Herald staff writer

To the old-timers, the ones who lived on and worked East Hawaii’s sugar plantations, it’s a bit like stepping into a time machine.

“They tell me, ‘This brings back so many memories!’” said Wayne Subica, founder and director of the Hawaii Plantation Museum, which is now open to the public at its new location in Papaikou.

“They’ll come in and look at all the things, and they’ll end up teaching us,” he said. “Each thing they see, it will trigger a memory. We’ll talk story, and I’m so interested. I could stand there all day listening.”

Subica is a born collector. He sees an old soda bottle, a business sign or a gas pump from Hilo’s early days, and the next thing you know, he’s started a new collection. He has to get his hands on as many as possible. “I can’t get just one of anything,” he says.

Ask his wife, and she may have a slightly different take on his hobby.

“She calls me a pack rat,” he said, laughing. “That’s what she calls me. She just wants me to get it all out of the house.”

So that’s what he did. In 2004, he founded the Hawaii Plantation Museum on Keawe Street in Hilo, with the goal of helping newcomers to the island learn about life on the plantations, while simultaneously giving the folks who had lived through that time a place to come and remember.

The collection, which he has worked to build for more than 50 years, spans the sugar plantation era from its earliest beginnings in the 1800s, to the closing of the very last mill in 1996.

Unlike the sugar industry, the museum thrived, with the help of a dedicated corps of volunteer workers, and a public that regularly visits and returns to see new exhibits, Subica said.

But, he said, space in Hilo became a problem.

“We just didn’t have room for everything,” he said.

So, over the last year, he and his volunteers have worked to populate the former Onomea Plantation Store in Papaikou, which dates back to 1902, with the various glass cases and displays that make up the eclectic museum collection.

Subica has partnered with the Edmund C. Olson Trust, which owns the Onomea Plantation building, as well as an enormous collection of old plantation maps, photographs, documents and sugar plantation employee records.

“We want to be a part of the community as a public resource,” said Andrew Hara, art director and managing archivist for the Olson Trust, of the trust’s support of the museum. “We’re working to preserve these important documents, and we want to make them available to the public.”

Hara, a Hilo native whose background in digital photography, imagery forensics, and archiving procedures prepared him for the daunting task of preserving and cataloguing the wealth of historical documents, said Thursday that the Olson Trust’s collection is remarkable because of its completeness and continuity.

“We have maps and records that can trace the ownership of a piece of property back to its first sale,” he said. “The plantations used them to determine things like water rights and the use of a river, based on who first owned the land. … We have some records that go back to original land sales, hand-written and signed by King Kamehameha III.”

In one collection of record books, he showed a Japanese passport for a worker at one of the plantations.

“We think this might be an example of an indentured servant,” he said. “Someone the company paid to help ship over, and they died before they were able to pay it (the money) back.”

While the documents — numbering in the hundreds of thousands, Hara estimated — at the Olson Trust next door provide an interesting paper trail of East Hawaii’s history, the museum itself is where visitors can find a visual treasure trove of history.

“There’s something here for everyone,” Subica said.

There are dozens and dozens of old photographs on display — of workers in the fields, of plantation baseball teams in full uniform, of long networks of flumes used to transport sugar, of the building of bridges, railroads and facilities.

There’s the collection of sugar cane knives and machetes that are unique to Hawaii, shown next to an example of a larger Louisiana cane knife, upon which they were based.

“The workers here, many were Japanese, Chinese, they were smaller,” Subica said. “They had to make their own tools to fit them.”

There’s a glass case filled with nothing but the contraband of the day. Brass knuckles. A heavy leather blackjack. A coin-operated slot machine. Bottles of moonshine made from ti root.

One corner serves as a history of automobiles, complete with a list of the first 100 licensed vehicles and their owners on Hawaii Island, and a pair of gas pumps that were the first and second gas pumps to operate on the Big Isle.

The front wall of the building is adorned with a bright and detailed mural featuring scenes of plantation life by Hilo-area artist Kathleen Kam. A mannequin near the entrance — dubbed Mrs. Hanabata — displays an authentic ensemble of clothing worn by workers in the fields, including the thick cloth gloves used to protect workers’ hands from the thin, sharp sugar cane leaves, and the heavy foot coverings and leggings designed to protect them from the sting of Hawaii’s nasty centipedes.

As well as the regular exhibits, the museum will also feature traveling exhibits from other facilities and collections, said volunteer Ron Takata.

“During the Merrie Monarch Festival, we’re going to have a special exhibit of old ukuleles… including a Nunes, the first Portuguese ukulele maker on the island,” he said.

So far, the museum has been open for three weeks at its new location, and Papaikou has proven to be a welcoming new home, Subica said.

“People come in, they stay and talk story. It’s just like being part of a family,” he said. “It’s a lot like the plantations. You know, the workers, they didn’t make a lot of money, at least not until the strike, but they had everything they needed. They were from different places, spoke different languages, but they had a village. They had hospitals. They had gyms. … They had a community.”

For more information, call 443-7679 or email While not currently in operation, the museum will also have a website at

The Hawaii Plantation Museum is located at 27-246 Old Mamalahoa Highway in Papaikou, across the highway from Pinky’s. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Admission is $8 general, $6 kamaaina/seniors, $5 military, $3 youth, and children under 5 are free.

Email Colin M. Stewart at


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