When the last Pioneer Mill Company building in Lahaina was torn down in 2006, an important piece of Maui’s history went with it. Well, almost. The structures may be gone, but various groups, including the Lahaina Restoration Foundation (LRF), want to make sure the stories imbued within them aren’t forgotten.
Beginning Thursday, July 30, LRF will present a three-day event aimed at celebrating the legacy of plantation era workers, and raising funds to rebuild the top portion of the old smokestack. There will be entertainment, food, a keiki zone, etc., but the main thrust will be remembering—and preserving—a piece of Hawaii’s past.
“The response from the community has been overwhelming,” says LRF Executive Director Theo Morrison. “When the plantation closed [in 1999] they just closed. There was no event, no recognition of people’s lives.”
During its 139-year existence, the Pioneer Mill employed thousands of people, whose disparate cultural backgrounds represented the growing diversity that would come to define the island. Morrison says the mixed plate lunch was born out of this period, when workers who didn’t speak the same language shared something everyone can understand: food.
For the event, LRF has asked people to bring in plantation era artifacts. Morrison says they’ve been inundated—to the point where they’re considering opening a museum on the West side to give these buried treasures a permanent home. “These things have been sitting in people’s houses, maybe being thought of as junk,” says Morrison. “But now people are starting to see the importance of this era, which is going away in our lifetime.”
Morrison acknowledges the plantation’s complex, checkered history, which includes the exploitation of workers and adverse impacts on Native Hawaiian culture. “There was a downside. They took all the water from the Hawaiian homesteads,” Morrison says. “And yes, there was hard work [for] low wages. They brought in different ethnic groups so they wouldn’t organize, although they ended up forming a union anyway.”
Morrison says the point isn’t to celebrate the plantation as a company or to conjure up nostalgia for the Mill’s business practices. “It’s about people,” she says. “People who overcame all this and created a sense of community.”
If she needed proof that Mauians want to keep the memory of plantation workers alive, Morrison says she’s gotten it in the form of impassioned feedback. A letter from a woman who contributed to the rebuilding of the smokestack reads: “Thank you so much for doing this project. I’m buying a brick in memory of my son, who recently died. He was the last employee to leave the mill; he welded the gate shut.”
That people-oriented approach, Morrison says, is in keeping with LRF’s mission. “My whole thing is about people,” she says. “Prior to me, [LRF] was about buildings. Just preserving a building is fine, but for me, that’s not the goal. The goal is to educate people. People need to see it and learn from it, so they’ll go out and understand the value of preserving buildings, the value of history.” MTW
The Plantation Days event will run July 30-August 1 at the Pioneer Mill site. For more info call the Lahaina Restoration Foundation at 661-3262 or visit lahainarestoration.org.