German immigrant Hermann A. Widemann (1822–1899) in 1854 started one of the first sugar plantations in Hawaii, which was chopped out of a large grove of kukui trees and was therefore called the Grove Farm.
During the American Civil War the demand for Hawaii sugar grew, but Widemann supported the Confederate States. After leasing Grove Farm to its manager George Norton Wilcox (1839–1933) in November 1864, Widemann moved to Honolulu to work in the capital as a Supreme Court judge. Wilcox would later buy the plantation, and it remained in the family for over 100 years. George’s vision, combined with his education, resulted in his building an irrigation system to bring water from the mountains to the flatter lower elevations where the crops were grown changing his arid farm into a thriving sugar plantation. This idea was later copied by many other planters on the islands.
As the Civil War destroyed agriculture in the South, it helped sugar become a successful venture in Hawaii. Sugar’s success also benefitted the Hawaiian monarchy as an additional source of income for its island kingdom.
George Norton (“G.N.”), the second son of eight boys, was born in Hilo in 1839 to Abner and Lucy Wilcox, who were Congregational Church missionary teachers. In 1846 they moved to Waioli Mission Station in Hanalei on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. George had been schooled at Punahou on the island of Oahu and thereafter studied engineering on the mainland at Sheffield Scientific School, now a part of Yale University.
Throughout his life, Mr. Wilcox was an industrious, innovative sugar plantation owner and entrepreneur who incorporated his solely owned plantation in 1922 as Grove Farm Company. His missionary upbringing influenced him as a quiet and generous philanthropist leaving legacies of churches, schools and the G. N. Wilcox Memorial Hospital. George N. Wilcox died in 1933.
The Wilcox Family at Grove Farm
George’s brother Sam, married Emma Lyman in 1874, a missionary daughter from Hilo. Together they returned to Grove Farm where they raised six children, Ralph, Etta, Elsie, Charles, Gaylord and Mabel. Elsie and Mabel, who never married, lived at Grove Farm throughout their lives, and played significant roles in education, public health, politics, and historic preservation, as well as serving on the Board of Directors of Grove Farm Company, Ltd.
In 1921, the three sisters saved and restored their grandparent’s home, Waioli Mission House, in Hanalei and in 1952 the sisters established the mission house as an historic house museum to interpret the history of missionary life on Kauai.
Grove Farm Preserved
“Miss Mabel” at age 92, with the help of her companion Mrs. Sophie Judd Cluff, announced plans for the preservation of Grove Farm as an historic site museum representing a developing sugar plantation.
Waioli Mission House and Grove Farm are listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Both sites and their furnishings are carefully preserved today after continuous family use for more than a century. Public programs provide the local schools, community and visitors with historic perspectives for present and future generations.
Today at Grove Farm the presence of past familiar sugar plantation experiences and traditions in Hawaii are still strongly felt.
The Success of Sugar
Sugar cane was already present when Captain James Cook discovered the Hawaiian Islands in 1778. His journal notes that, even before landing, “… we could observe several plantations of plantains and sugar-canes…” After going ashore on Kauai, Cook recorded, “… spots of sugar-canes, or plantains…are planted generally as a square or oblong…” Anthropologists believe the Polynesians brought sugar cane, along with other food plants, when they voyaged to Hawaii from other islands to the south, probably about 1000 years ago. Hawaiian and other South Pacific people did not make sugar as we know it; they simply chewed the sweet stalks.
The first recorded planting of sugar cane in Hawaii for the purpose of extracting sugar was in Manoa Valley on Oahu in 1825. The plantation failed two years later.
The first successful sugar cane plantation was started in 1835 by Ladd and Company at Koloa, Kauai. Some of those lands continued to grow sugar cane until 1992 when McBryde Sugar Company gave up its lease with the Grove Farm Company due to the damage caused by Hurricane Iniki.
When the first small sugar cane plantations began to prosper, other businessmen became interested in sugar as an exportable product to bring in income for the Kingdom’s economy. The first recorded export of Hawaiian sugar was in 1837, when two tons were exported with a value of $200.
Sugar cane plantings increased rapidly from the first 20 hectares (50 acres) on Kauai in 1835, to 40,400 hectares (100,000 acres) in 1900 and 89,000 hectares (220,000 acres) in 1980.
As the early sugar planters became more involved in the production of sugar, they recognized that they faced mutual problems on all four sugar islands of Hawaii where they were growing, harvesting and milling their crops.
Many people believe Hawaii has the “ideal” climate all year round because it is sunny and warm without being uncomfortably hot.
The Hawaiian Islands are in a tradewind zone where winds blow much of the time from northeast to southwest. These tradewinds, which pick up moisture as they travel over the ocean, hit their first land in thousands of miles when they reach Hawaii.
Sugar cane is a thirsty crop and takes two thousand pounds of water to produce one pound of sugar.
By 1980 fourteen plantations and about 550 independent sugar growers in Hawaii used about 89,000 hectares (220,000 acres) of land for growing sugar cane and they were producing about a million tonnes (1,100,000 tons) of raw sugar each year. Most of this raw sugar was sent to the continental United States where it was refined and sold as C & H Sugar (California and Hawaii) primarily to the western and mid-western states.
Hawaii supplied about one-tenth of the sugar used by the 215 million people in the United States in 1980.