comscore Artifacts, images recall plantation life
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Artifacts, images recall plantation life

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    A visitor at the Plantation Museum examines the bell from a Pioneer Mill locomotive, named Kahana, that operated from 1921 to 1953.
    The museum's exhibits includes photos, maps and items that date back to the early 1900s. The museum was restored and opened in February.

Every morning shortly before 9 a.m., Theo Morrison, executive director of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, opens the door to the Plantation Museum. She turns on the lights in the 650-square-foot attraction, then starts playing the video "The Last Harvest," which documents the closure of Pioneer Mill Co.

The museum is quiet save for sounds from the video: soft slack-key guitar music and the voices of former employees of the plantation that operated from 1860 to 1999. In one poignant sequence, an elderly man is seen walking around the grounds of the abandoned mill.

"I worked for Pioneer Mill for 50 years," he says. "To see so many years (that) this mill was rotting and they closed it down, everybody feels sad because the fields are going to be dry. Nobody is going to water the cane, so it won’t look nice, all green. … Whenever you look up at the mountains, you’re only going to see dry fields."

It’s a chicken-skin moment for Morrison, who sees the demise of Pioneer Mill as the end of a significant chapter in Lahaina’s history. "Plantation life wasn’t an easy life," she said, "but just about everyone who worked for Pioneer Mill has very strong, very positive memories about it."


» Address: Wharf Cinema Center, 658 Front St., Lahaina

» Hours: Daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

» Admission: Free (donations are welcome)

» Phone: 661-3262

» E-mail:

» Website:

» Notes: Contact the Lahaina Restoration Foundation to make arrangements for pickup of donations. All donations are tax-deductible. Volunteers who are at least 16 years old are needed to collect, catalog and organize donations.


Opened Feb. 12, the Plantation Museum is one of the most recent projects of the restoration foundation. On display are about 150 artifacts, ranging from photos, furniture and steamer trunks to tools, tea sets and sewing machines from Lahaina’s "plantation era," which Morrison roughly defines as the years Pioneer Mill operated.

"The exhibits focus on Lahaina’s sugar plantations, although there is a section on pineapple, too," she said. "They provide a glimpse of what daily life was like for the people who were living and working on the plantations between 1900 and 1960."

When plans were being made for the inaugural Lahaina Plantation Days celebration in 2009 (see "Plantation Days revived," Star-Advertiser, Oct. 10), the foundation put out a call for artifacts to display. "Initially, there was no response. Then the coconut wireless kicked in and the phone began to ring," Morrison recalled. "We told everyone we talked to that we were planning to open a museum one day, not realizing we would do so in less than a year."

Among the museum’s latest acquisitions are seven radios dating from the 1930s through 1950s that were donated by the children of Itsuo Yano, a retired Lahainaluna High School teacher who died in May. Yano collected and restored old radios as a hobby, and when Morrison was at the family’s house last month, she saw his workshop — a small space crammed with wires, tools and boxes of electronic parts. On the floor was a homemade backpack made of metal pipes and fencing. It had a tin lid and canvas shoulder straps that Yano likely salvaged from an Army bag.

"Mr. Yano’s daughter told me it was her dad’s fishing pack, and she was surprised I was interested in it," Morrison said. "I told her it was a work of art to me, and I would love to have it for the museum because it represents the essence of the plantation era. Because there were only a few stores with limited, expensive merchandise back then, people made most of the things they needed or wanted from materials they had at home. Not only did Mr. Yano get the fishing pack he needed, he had the pleasure of creating it himself exactly the way he wanted it, and he probably made it in his workshop using tools and supplies he already had."


The Lahaina Restoration Foundation is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization chartered in 1962. It spearheads efforts to restore, maintain and preserve the history and physical and cultural legacies of Lahaina, which served as the first capital of the kingdom of Hawaii from 1802 to 1845.

The foundation oversees 11 significant historic structures in Lahaina, including the Baldwin Home Museum, Hale Pai (printing house), Hale Paahao (prison), Wo Hing Museum and Old Courthouse, all of which are open to the public daily. The foundation is also the steward of thousands of artifacts, manuscripts, maps, photographs, logs and other materials that document Lahaina’s rich history. These collections are available to the public by request. See for more information.


Morrison believes the plantation era rewards visitors with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the community of Lahaina. "Anyone from Lahaina who’s over 20 years old probably knows about plantation life in some way — either by living in a camp themselves, having family members who worked in the mill or in the fields, seeing the cane trucks and cane fires, or hearing the noise of the mill’s machinery," she said. "People who are living today can talk about their plantation experiences, and it’s exciting to be saving this part of Maui’s history because it’s relatively recent and so much of it remains."

The foundation collects donations of plantation-era artifacts on an ongoing basis, recognizing that a big part of that effort is education. "It’s an urgent situation," Morrison said. "We’re saving artifacts from the dump that in a decade will be the only items left to chronicle this very important period. People are hearing about the museum, realizing things they’ve had in their garage or closets for years have historical value, and deciding to donate them to us rather than throw them away."

About 300 artifacts are in storage; to display them all would require a space quadruple the size of what the Plantation Museum currently occupies. Morrison dreams of housing the museum in an actual plantation house one day.

"It may be a house that’s in danger of being demolished, and it would be wonderful to save it," she said. "It would be the perfect repository for our collection, and it in itself would be an artifact."

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won multiple Society of American Travel Writers awards.


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