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Pioneer Mill Company: A Maui Sugar Plantation Legacy

Large machinery gear in foreground with old mill building in background.

Pioneer Mill, Lahaina, Maui, 2003. (COH photo.)

Pioneer Mill Company, located on Maui’s west side, was founded in 1860. It was one of Hawai‘i’s last remaining sugar plantations at the time of its closure in 1999. By 2002, the abandoned mill, fallow fields, and plantation-era homes seemed to be all that remained of the sugar company’s once-dominant influence on West Maui life.

Plantation camps, developed to house workers and their families, were once scattered among the cane fields from Olowalu to Honokohau. Modern subdivisions now stand on these lands. Nearby Lahaina, the Hawaiian Islands’ former capital, served plantation residents as West Maui’s center of commerce and entertainment.

While Lahaina and the surrounding area are expanding tourist destinations, the mill, fields, and camp lands are reminders of an earlier era, as recalled by the area’s longtime residents, whose stories compose this oral history project.

“I [started working] for Pioneer Mill [Company] when I was fourteen years old. Outside [in the] field, cut grass. All of us. Mr. [John T.] Moir told our teacher that whoever likes to work out in the field to apply for the job. [I made] thirty cents a day. I gave [my pay] to my mother. You know what, when I ask her, ‘Can I have some money that I earned?’ She say, ‘Okay.’ She put down my money and say, ‘This is for your clothing, this is for your food, this is for your shoes.’ Was left nothing. (Laughs.)” —Theresa Delos Reyes, former Pu‘ukoli‘i Camp resident

“You want to work in the mill, there’s welding, there’s electrical work, there’s everything you can think of in the mill. And there’s carpenter shop, there’s tractor shop, mechanical shop. You name it, the plantation had. Every field that you want to learn. And sometimes it depends on the individual, too. If you like to learn, you got to accept some of the conditions, yeah. . . . Sometimes when you doing a mistake or don’t like take orders and stuff like that, sometimes you deprive yourself of learning little bit more.” —Anthony Vierra, former Lunaville resident; Pioneer Mill Co. cane truck driver

The interviews document the social history of West Maui’s Pioneer Mill sugar plantation. They illustrate the range of lifestyles, work experiences, and values associated with Hawai‘i’s plantation era.

“The best part about swimming was when the navy boats, or marine boats, or whatever boats come in, they line up at the pier. Where the Pioneer Inn hotel was, in front, the wharf there. They would come in, and we would dive for quarters, whatever they throw in the water, we would dive for it. That would be during the summertime that they would come. And whatever we collect, time to go home, we would go to the shave ice store called Yamamoto Store. And we would buy shave ice with the money. On our way home, the same time, we would go to the Morikawa Restaurant. We would buy noodles. The nickname for that is ‘fry soup.’ But the noodles, you know, is [actually] chow fun. You know, the fat [noodles]. They would [serve] it in a [paper] cone-like thing. The cheapest one was five cents, fifteen cents, and then the quarter one was the big one. And the Morikawa family restaurant was famous for that.” —Ben Bedoya, former Mill Camp resident

They also represent the plantation residents’ personal recollections of West Maui’s past and their views on the island’s post-sugar social, political, and economic future.

“The future of Lahaina is not my time. I’ll be gone by then. But this area over here, all around Maui, millionaires, multi-millionaires will be owning land over here. And their summer vacation or winter vacation will be over here, whichever they choose. And the only jobs available will be working at the hotel or servicing the people living up here, the rich guys. That’s the only two types of work. No agriculture, no nothing else. You going be working for them. So the local guys going be struggling along.” —Donald Rickard, Kelawea Camp resident; Pioneer Mill Co. crane operator; International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union business agent

The transcripts of these oral histories are deposited in libraries throughout the state. It is hoped these oral histories will inspire and inform landowners, planners, and West Maui residents as they struggle to determine use of the former sugarcane lands.

 

Link to audioJames Higuchi remembers Pioneer Mill Company’s Pu‘ukoli‘i Camp (.mp3 sound file, 748K).

 

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