Passengers in window seats on planes arriving at Kahului Airport are the ones fortunate enough to have a spectacular bird's eye view of Maui's most historically significant plant: sugar cane. Some 37,000 acres of this giant grass paint broad swatches of green across Maui's lower volcanic slopes and sunny central isthmus, giving the island its lush, verdant look.
Once the most influential crop in the daily lives of Maui's residents, sugar cane continues to be an economic contributor for the State of Hawaii, both as a leading agricultural crop and, in the form of bagasse, fuel for steam-driven electrical generators.
Sugar cane is believed to have originated more than 10,000 years ago in New Guinea. From there, early human migrations spread the plant westward into Southeast Asia and India and eastward into Polynesia. In the west, the Arabs began cultivating cane and making sugar, and introduced their techniques to Europe. In 1493, Christopher Columbus brought sugar cane to the West Indies, and by 1751, the plant was grown successfully in Louisiana.
In the Pacific, Polynesian settlers introduced sugar cane to Hawaii more than a thousand years ago. Hawaiians planted cane around their taro patches and chewed the sweet stalk, but did not make sugar. The Hawaiian sugar industry dates itself to 1835 when the first successful sugar plantation was established on the island of Kauai. Sugar plantations would eventually pop up throughout the islands, including, over the years, more than 30 of various sizes on Maui. Over time, consolidations and closures gradually reduced the number to fewer, but larger, plantations. Today, only two remain.
During sugar's heyday in Hawaii, the plantations privately developed an extensive irrigation system that today still provides a significant portion of the island of Maui's water supply. The industry also built company housing, stores, hospitals and churches, which evolved into culturally rich, self-contained communities that included most of the island's population.
As the industry's need for manpower grew, immigrants from around the world were recruited to work on the plantations, hailing from places as far-flung as China, Japan, Puerto Rico, Korea, the Philippines, Portugal, Russia, Germany and Scandinavia. These immigrants became the foundation of the islands' multi-ethnic society, the "melting pot of the Pacific."
Sugar's heyday in Hawaii lasted until the 1960s, when tourism outpaced it as the state's number one industry. It remained Hawaii's leading agricultural crop until, with the closure of several plantations in the 1990s, the crop value of sugar fell below that of pineapples, marking the end of a major era.
Today, the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company operates the state's largest working sugar mill, in Puunene, Maui, just 250 yards across the way from the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum. It employs some 800 people, and cultivates approximately 37,000 acres of cane. In 2005, Maui's sugar mill produced more than 190,000 tons of raw sugar, accounting for five percent of total sugar cane production in the United States. The mill also produced more than 57,000 tons of molasses and generated approximately seven percent of Maui's electrical power.
The Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum encompasses six exhibit rooms plus outdoor
Tim and Trisha Isaeff Outside The Sugar Museum
displays of plantation equipment.
The Geography Room
Explains how Maui's geography and weather patterns influenced the development of the sugar industry and presents information about the extensive irrigation system and network of deep wells developed by the plantations.
The Water Room
Shows how water was arduously brought from the island's windward slopes to the sunny central isthmus, and highlights the bravery of the men who accomplished this tremendous feat.
The Human Resources Room
Displays historical information about some of the pioneers who established Maui's modern sugar industry. Also includes artifacts, photos and documents (including labor contracts written in Hawaiian, Japanese and Chinese) showing the arrival of immigrant plantation workers from around the world.
The Plantation Room
Includes photos and fascinating exhibits showing the rich, multi-ethnic nature of plantation communities and plantation life, such as religious items, household artifacts and a scale model of a worker's camp house. A video presentation created by award-winning filmmaker Edgy Lee shows how cane is processed into sugar.
The Field Work Room
Depicts plantation workers in the fields and includes displays of surveying equipment, a cane knife, and typical items used by field workers such as a "kau kau tin" (lunch pail). A mannequin shows a Japanese woman's complete field work outfit.
The Mill Room
Offers several interactive displays including a 1915 locomotive bell, a "Cuban" sugar mill and an impressive working scale model of cane-crushing machinery. A narrative with special lighting and sound effects accompanies the operation of the model.
Trisha and Tim Inspecting the Cleveland Trench Digger
Visitors can get a close-up look at some of the intriguing equipment and items used by sugar plantations and plantation workers, such as a Cleveland Model J36 trench digger, an outdoor Portuguese oven built in the 1920s, a "bull gear" approximately 11' in diameter and a cane grab large enough for a child to walk under without stooping.