Missionaries’ Kauai house is a rarity
When William P. Alexander and his wife Mary Ann arrived at Waioli in the northern district of Hanalei on Kauai in 1834, they faced the daunting task of establishing a mission from the ground up. In addition to teaching the Hawaiian people the gospel and how to speak and read English, the missionary couple had to oversee the construction of a church, school and housing.
Waioli Mission House
Address: 5-5373 Kuhio Highway, Hanalei, Kauai
Tours: Between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Reservations are not necessary. If no one is at the house, ring the bell by the chimney and a guide will greet you.
Admission: Free; donations welcome
Call: (808) 245-3202
The language barrier, lack of a ready source of supplies and wet, chilly climate presented additional challenges. Alexander noted in his journal: "Waioli is a place of very frequent rain, & it often rains there one or two weeks at a time almost without intermission."
He and his family lived for a year and a half in a thatched house, which deteriorated in the moist environment.
By January 1836, the situation was so dire that Alexander sent an urgent letter to Levi Chamberlain, the Honolulu-based accountant and business agent for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.
"I rather think I had better get timber as fast as possible for a frame house," he wrote. "Unless I get a much better house than I now occupy, the station, I fear, will ere long be abandoned."
Chamberlain dispatched two carpenters, and Hawaiian villagers helped Alexander obtain enough ohia and ahakea timber to erect the frame for a two-story dwelling in November 1836. The clapboard was made of Douglas fir, and the foundation and chimney were fashioned of coral blocks gathered near the mouth of nearby Waipa Stream.
Progress slowed when both carpenters fell seriously ill and couldn't work, but a new crew completed the roofing, flooring, painting and plastering in April 1837.
“Thanks to the vision of three incredible Wilcox women, we are able to see what life was like for their hard-working grandparents and other dedicated missionaries during the 19th century.”
Waioli Mission House docent
One of the first Western-style houses built on Kauai, the two-story, four-room structure sported a front lanai on both stories. The cookhouse was in an adjacent building, along with the storeroom, which was stocked with yams, taro, potatoes, bananas, beans, corn, flour, sugar, lard, molasses, pickles, butter and milk.
The Alexanders stayed in Waioli until 1843. For the next 26 years, two other families -- George and Malvina Rowell (1843-1846), and Abner and Lucy Wilcox (1846-1869) -- led the mission and lived in the house.
As each family grew, so did the house. Additions included a dining room and pantry in 1840, a back lanai in 1843, a small bedroom in 1849 and an upstairs bedroom over the dining area in 1860. Waioli means "singing water," a poetic description that only the missionaries' children, it seemed, fully appreciated.
One of the Wilcoxes' eight sons, George, recalled, "It sometimes rained so heavily at Waioli that we boys used to 'go sailing' around our yard. We had an old tub and a huge poi board of breadfruit wood, 6 feet long by 3 feet wide, a good light wood much liked by the natives. This enormous board could carry two or three of us boys after a heavy rain and we could push ourselves about very well with a pole."
COURTESY OF THE WAIOLI MISSION HOUSE
Waioli Mission House has remained virtually unchanged, as demonstrated by these pictures taken in 1919 and 2001.
GEORGE AND HIS father took great delight in planting trees, shrubs and flowers of all sorts on their lush five-acre Waioli homestead. The family's vivid gardens flaunted blue larkspur, African tulip, pandanus, magnolia, roses, coconut, kukui (candlenut), apple, fig, guava, Java plum, breadfruit, mango and more.
When George was a secondary school student at Punahou on Oahu, he found kamani seeds on a hike in Manoa Valley and sprouted them in old tin cans in his dormitory room. On his next visit home to Waioli, he planted the sprouts in the front yard, and they grew into two tall, handsome trees.
(On Sept. 11, 1992, Hurricane Iniki tore through the grounds, uprooting many plants and trees.
Unfortunately, one of George's kamani trees did not survive. Standing about 40 feet high, the surviving tree graces the front gate of the mission house.)
In 1850, the ABCFM reduced its support and governing role for missions in Hawaii, determining that a self-sufficient church organization could be successful. With the approval of the Hawaiian government and to compensate for its withdrawal of funding, the Board deeded mission station lands to its missionaries.
Abner and Lucy continued their missionary work, and Waioli remained their home for the next two decades. In 1869, they decided to visit family in Connecticut, and their sons purchased tickets for them on the transcontinental train that had just begun service in the Sacramento area.
On the journey from there to the East Coast, the couple contracted a malarial type of fever. Their health worsened when they reached Connecticut, and they died within 11 days of each other.
Although their sons held on to the Waioli property, by the early 1900s, it stood vacant, with a leaky roof, peeling plaster, faded and chipped paint, and grounds that were an unkempt tangle of weeds and overgrown trees.
In 1919, Etta Wilcox Sloggett and Elsie and Mabel Wilcox -- three of Abner and Lucy's granddaughters -- began a two-year restoration of the historic structure. On visits to the East Coast, the three sisters had seen fine examples of building and artifact preservation, and were confident they could do the same at Waioli.
Today, the results of their efforts are evident during a 45-minute tour of the mission house, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
Some of its contents are original, including Lucy's sewing basket, Abner's framed certificate from the ABCFM, their melodian and a trunk that came around Cape Horn with them in 1837.
Among other items owned and used by the family are a whale oil metal lamp, a writing table, an upholstered rocking chair, Blue Willow china, cod liver oil flasks, sandalwood canes with whale tooth knobs, a 12-sided rosewood veneer table and a wood veneer clock that still keeps perfect time.
The mint-condition koa bookcase in the parlor dates back to 1846. Voracious readers, Abner and Lucy maintained a library of over 200 books, most of which are displayed in the bookcase. Titles reflect their wide interests, from Lectures on Revivals of Religion to History of the Sandwich Islands to The Anti-Slavery Record. Of special note is a Bible, circa 1806, that Abner's favorite aunt willed to him.
During trips to the East Coast, Etta, Elsie and Mabel acquired antiques from the era that they thought would fit well in the home, including a dining table, spinning wheel, butter churn, four-poster beds, chairs, candlesticks, and glass and ceramic inkwells. The pieces blend in well with the original furnishings,.
BARBARA KENNEDY has conducted tours of the mission house for the past decade, and enjoys sharing its stories. There's an interesting tale behind everything, she said. In the cookhouse, for example, Kennedy always points out Lucy's iron, which weighs about 14 pounds.
"To use it, you would unleash the pin in the back of it, fill it with hot coals from the fireplace and put back the pin," she said. "Then you'd take the bellows, put it in the hole on top of the iron, pump it a few times to reignite the coals and wait for the iron to get hot."
The wood-and-metal food safe in the pantry also is of note. "When William Alexander built the house, he used big sheets of zinc as roofing material," said Kennedy. "After the Wilcoxes moved in, the roof started leaking like a sieve. Abner replaced the zinc sheets with cedar shingles, but kept some of it to make the sides and front door of the food safe."
When she first became a docent, Kennedy admitted she had virtually no knowledge about the mission house or the families who had lived there.
"I began reading about them and I didn't stop for seven years," she said. "Thanks to the vision of three incredible Wilcox women, we are able to see what life was like for their hard-working grandparents and other dedicated missionaries during the 19th century. It is a fascinating history, and the house itself is a treasure that will continue to keep their legacy alive."
Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based free-lance writer and Society of American Travel Writers award winner.