COURTESY LYMAN MUSEUM / DAVID FRANZEN
The thatched roof of an early Lyman mission church is seen on the shores of Hilo Bay in this 1849 drawing.
Preserving Hilo’s past
HILO » In 1930, Elsie Wilcox of Kauai learned that the Hilo home of her grandparents, 19th-century New England missionaries David and Sarah Lyman, was going to be torn down to make way for a new street.
"I just wondered if there is any chance at all of saving it," Wilcox wrote to her mother.
The sturdy house of local ohia lumber was hoisted onto logs and rolled into a new position, and the home became the basis for today's Lyman Mission House and Museum, said museum director Dolly Strazar.
Today the museum opens a new exhibit marking the 75th anniversary of its official 1932 opening. That date was selected to mark the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the Lymans in 1832.
Special anniversary exhibits, including Elsie Wilcox's letter to her mother, go beyond the personal history of the Lymans and show their significant role in shaping Hilo geographically.
Building their home and church in the present downtown area where few Hawaiians lived, the Lymans shifted settlement away from Waiakea, a mile to the south.
They called their new home Waiakea Mission. Later they changed the name to Hilo, which until then meant only the broad district around the bay.
The Lymans first built a thatched house near Hilo Bay, but in 1839 they built the present house about a mile inland. There they raised seven children. An eighth died in infancy.
Their church, the present-day Haili Church, was built just down the street in 1855.
A taste of their life can be seen in their home. There was a "barter room" where trade goods, especially muslin cloth and umbrellas, were kept for exchange, since early Hawaiians had no system of money, Strazar said.
ROD THOMPSON / RTHOMPSON@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dolly Strazar, director of Hilo's Lyman Museum, stands at the entrance of the modern museum building. Behind her is the Lyman missionary home, built in 1839.
In 1860, Sarah Lyman acquired a melodeon, also known as a cabinet organ, a keyboard instrument powered by a foot-operated pump.
When guests stayed overnight, the children gave up their rooms and slept on cots in the attic amid exposed, hand-hewn timbers of the roof, Strazar said. To this day, schoolchildren visiting the mission house love the attic because such a feature is so rare in Hawaii homes, Strazar said.
Family use of the house ended in the 1880s, and the building was used as a boarding house until its near destruction in 1930.
In the spirit of museums of those times, much of what might have displayed the life of the Lymans was removed, and cabinets were set along the walls holding donated objects, Strazar said.
But family members dreamed of restoring the old house, a dream that came true in 1973 when a new museum was opened below the old building, housing the old cabinets and their miscellaneous displays.
Some the pieces, although never seen by the Lymans, evoke the early years, such as sextants and spyglasses from sailing days.
In recent years the exhibits have been changed to tell the story of Hawaiian geology and culture. They include a flightless Hawaiian goose, much bigger and meatier than today's nene, driven to extinction by hungry Hawaiians.
And they include a delightful goof, a 6-foot flightless bird, Diatryma gigantea, that lived 60 million years ago. A mainland museum supplier built the model and sent it to Hawaii, although the Hawaiian Islands did not even exist when the bird lived.
The museum now displays the bird, called Gertie, wearing a lei and sunglasses to emphasize that it should not be taken seriously.