PUUNENE, Maui >> It started with two horn beeps delivered by Fermin Domingo from the cab of an 80-ton Tournahauler on Monday morning, and then the final load of sugar cane that likely will ever be produced on a plantation in Hawaii was fed into the mill of Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.
“It’s done,” said Benjie Pascua. “A hui hou.”
Pascua, an HC&S mechanic, bid farewell to the last haul of cane from HC&S fields covering 36,000 acres on Maui that signified the end of commercial sugar cane farming in Hawaii — an industry that lived 146 years.
HC&S was the last and most productive of what had once been more than 100 Hawaii sugar plantations, but owner Alexander & Baldwin Inc. announced in January that it saw no hope in reversing a $30 million financial loss last year and that it would shut down the business after this year’s harvest was complete.
Samuel Thomas Alexander and Henry Perrine Baldwin plant their first sugar cane crop on their newly established Alexander & Baldwin plantation below Makawao, Maui. Their company eventually will become one of Hawaii’s Big Five dominant firms.
Claus Spreckels of San Francisco founds Hawaiian Commercial Co. (predecessor to Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.) with a factory in Spreckelsville, Maui.
The Hamakua Ditch is completed, a 17-mile irrigation system of tunnels, ditches, siphons, flumes and reservoirs built to provide water for over 3,000 acres of sugar cane belonging to A&B as well as several neighboring plantations.
A&B gains a controlling interest in HC&S.
War and scarcity of fossil fuel result in HC&S embarking on the production of “etherized” alcohol, known today as ethanol, from waste molasses to operate its tractors.
HC&S merges with Maui Agricultural Co., making HC&S the largest sugar producer in the United States.
HC&S replaces the railroad as the main sugar cane transportation system with Tournahaulers, the largest motor vehicles in Hawaii at the time, to carry harvested cane from the field to the plantation’s two factories.
HC&S merges with Alexander & Baldwin Inc. and becomes a wholly owned division of the company.
HC&S installs drip irrigation throughout the plantation at a cost of $30 million.
A&B says it will cease sugar production this year, ending 146 years of operations on Maui.
HC&S ends its final harvest, hauling the last truckload of sugar cane in front of old-time plantation workers and community members.
Processing the last batch of cane juice, including what was squeezed out from the roughly 50-ton load transported by Domingo, will take another two or three days, and then probably by Friday or Saturday everything in the mill, including its power plant, will be shut off.
To mark the end of an era, HC&S held a ceremony Monday at the plantation that was attended by around 500 people, including current workers, former workers and government officials.
Chris Benjamin, A&B president and CEO, said the day was one many hoped would never come. He thanked everyone who contributed to making the business last as long as it did, and reflected on an industry that once dominated Hawaii’s economy largely with immigrant laborers who came from China, Japan, Portugal, the Philippines and other places far overseas.
“Rarely has an industry so shaped and influenced a place and helped create a culture — a fabulous blended multiethnic culture — as the sugar industry did in Hawaii,” he said. “This industry, this plantation and these employees and their forebears created something very special that will endure long after the haulers stop rolling and the smokestacks are extinguished.”
Many attending the event reflected on their own plantation roots.
Rick Volner Jr., HC&S general manager, said it was hard to imagine that five generations of his family had worked in the industry that will end with him as the last in the family line.
“After today plantation-style sugar in Hawaii will be no more,” he said.
Monsignor Terry Watanabe of St. Theresa Catholic Church in Kihei brought a pocket watch, retirement watch and circular lunch tin of his grandfather Frank Rocha, who was born on Maui and whose job it was to drive workers from their camp housing to the plantation’s base yard for work and then home afterward.
“Maui is Maui because of the brave people who we honor today, (those) who crossed the seas and came together to call Hawaii home,” he said.
Gov. David Ige, who attended the event, recalled that his grandparents worked on Oahu’s Ewa Plantation, which closed in 1995 after a merger. “This day is a sad day,” he said. “It marks the end of an era. I feel the hurt of the employees here.”
Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa also reminisced about plantation life. “We all grew up together as children of the plantation camps,” he said. “Our fathers worked in the mill, our mothers worked in the fields and the community itself formed around plantation life.”
Benjamin praised HC&S workers for putting total effort into the final harvest in the face of impending job loss to produce 158,000 tons of sugar from the last harvest, which started earlier this year.
“I am proud to have worked with you,” he said. “I’m sorry we couldn’t do more to avoid this day, but we delayed it a very, very long time.”
In a normal year HC&S might produce 200,000 tons of sugar, but some cane this year had to be harvested before it was fully mature. Heavy rain also soaked the plantation in the last week or two and prevented burning cane before processing while also reducing how much cane the Tournahaulers could bring in from muddy fields.
Domingo, who got to take the last load as the company’s veteran driver with 40 years of service, started up the machine and sounded the two horn beeps to applause from the crowd of guests, and then made his way to the mill slowly as the machine’s 6-foot-tall wheels sloshed and slipped in the mud.
Robert Lopes, an HC&S troubleshooter mechanic, watched as a giant suspended rake hooked and then pulled up a chain sling cradling the cane in the hauler to tip it over a wall onto a conveyor belt leading to the rumbling mill.
“Last one over the wall,” he announced.
It was the second time Lopes, 59, got to see something like this, as he previously worked at Lahaina Mill and joined HC&S after the mill shut down.
After his last day on the job at HC&S, Lopes plans to take a more than two-month vacation that includes a cruise to South America. “After that I’m not really worried,” he said. “I’m a certified mechanic. The unskilled workers — that’s who I worry for.”
When A&B announced its closure plan, HC&S employed 675 people and has since reduced the workforce as less was left to do. On Monday there were still about 370 employed at the plantation, and their last workday will be Dec. 23 though they will be paid through Dec. 30.
To date, 196 workers found new jobs before their severance date or after being laid off, and another 58 retired, HC&S said.
After Dec. 30 about 40 workers will stay on in administration, to maintain irrigation infrastructure and transition into diversified agriculture that will include cattle production and crops grown for energy.
Mayor Arakawa said that though he is saddened to see an important chapter of history end for Maui and Hawaii, people are looking forward to new agricultural life taking the place of sugar cane in HC&S fields. “HC&S will always be a part of this community, and that is a very good thing,” he said.