takes the cake
A Gay & Robinson plantationBy Anthony Sommer
tour brings rave reviews from
a host of enthusiastic visitors
KAUMAKANI, Kauai -- "Molasses is the smell of my childhood," says Jolene Valente, watching a centrifuge sucking white raw sugar out of syrupy brown massecuite at 1,200 revolutions per minute.
In the old days, she notes, they extracted the sugar crystals by boiling, which smelled the same, only stronger and therefore better.
"Sometimes I think that if the sugar mills all closed, my childhood would disappear," she adds.
It's a great tag line at the end of two hours of looking at cane fields and shredders and clarifiers and evaporators tracing the making of sugar from seed stock to raw crystals.
And even if it's said twice a day every day, it's also straight from the heart.
Valente is a tour guide at the Gay & Robinson sugar plantation on Kauai's west side. A third-generation sugar mill employee, she's as at home on a computer as she is driving a crane grabber ... or a tour bus.
In August, Gay & Robinson began the first tours of any operational sugar plantation opened to the public in decades anywhere in Hawaii. The annual harvest is scheduled to end Tuesday (although the tours will go on without cane being processed; next year's harvest begins in April), and tour manager Chris Faye is declaring the first effort a success.
There are even plans to add tours of the Olokele Valley, including what is now known as Jurassic Park Falls and currently is not open to tourists.
With a shoestring promotion budget -- "Our best advertising is the sign on the highway, and the county sign ordinances make it a very small sign," Faye says -- the twice-a-day tours have been pulling in seven to 10 people every day at $30 a head.
The glowing comments with lots of exclamation marks in the tour company's guest book make it clear they've had many satisfied customers.
They've also had some nice surprises.
"We've had quite a number of elderly sugar workers from mills that are closed now bring their children and grandchildren here to show them what it was like," Faye says. "It's often very emotional."
The tours have become a major source of pride among the company workers, who are flattered that tourists are actually interested in what they've been doing for generations without anyone paying the least bit of attention.
"Nobody told them to. They just took it on themselves to start dressing better. They hose down the factory every day so it looks nice," Faye says. "They wave at the visitors and pose for pictures."
Even relative newcomers to the company like Valente, a veteran tour guide on Kauai and owner of a small travel agency, have jumped in.
"If it wasn't for the immense amount of time Jolene has spent talking to the factory workers and the managers and their eagerness to teach her, and her curiosity, the tours wouldn't be nearly as good as they are. If visitors show an interest, she can talk about the whole operation in very technical detail," Faye says.
It is a difficult topic to discuss, particularly with visitors who come with preconceptions.
At Gay & Robinson, they handle it by refusing to get into revisionist views of history.
Were the workers who came to Hawaii exploited?
Faye, whose family lines go back generations on the management side of sugar, points out that at the same time sugar was expanding in Hawaii with the use of imported labor, the Industrial Revolution was going on over on the mainland and working conditions for immigrants were even more horrid than in Hawaii.
Plantation managers in Hawaii tended to be the best and the brightest and the most socially enlightened, Faye says.
Everything was not harmony, and the handouts to visitors recall the 1923 labor riot in nearby Hanapepe in which six workers who clashed with police were killed. And the strikes in 1946 and 1957 are duly noted.
The enduring legacy of the sugar camps is the string of close-knit, multicultural small towns along Kauai's west shore. Those towns have a tradition of community found in few other places, even in Hawaii.
"Everybody looks out for everybody, sometimes even more than you may want them to," says Valente, who lives in Kekaha.
Valente says she also gets many questions about the private Robinson family, and she sticks to the familiar histories.
The plantation land has been owned by the same family since 1865 when New Zealand immigrant Elizabeth Sinclair purchased it from the Hawaiian government.
The year before, she had bought the island of Niihau, but found it too dry and inhospitable for a permanent home.
The family moved to what was then called Makaweli on Kauai and in 1889, her grandsons Francis Gay and Aubrey Robinson formed Gay & Robinson.
In the same year, the family leased 7,000 of its 13,000 acres of prime sugar land to Hawaiian Sugar Co., which built the mill.
That's the land and factory that visitors see today.
Hawaiian Sugar was acquired by Alexander & Baldwin and the land was farmed by A&B until 1941 when C. Brewer & Co. obtained the lease.
The plantation was then called Olokele Sugar Co.
The Robinson family took control of the plantation in 1994 and for the first time farmed all of its land.
Mechanization that began in the 1940s has reduced the payroll from 1,900 to 285.
The raw sugar is carried by ship to the California and Hawaiian Sugar Co. refinery near San Francisco and comes back to Hawaii grocery stores in pink and white boxes marked C&H.
The one thing the tour can't sell as a souvenir is the raw sugar it produces.
"It's 99.5 percent pure, but the FDA says it isn't fit for human consumption," says Valente, tasting a few crystals off the tip of her finger. "I've been eating it all my life. It's great in coffee."