Honokaa Sugar Company

Europeans and Americans moved to Hawaiʻi in the early 1800s with visions of agricultural development. Market demand, especially in the U.S., made sugar the most profitable crop. Englishman J. Marsden (b. 1849) and German J. F. H. Siemsen (1848-1888) started the Honokaa Sugar Company in 1876, the first plantation in the district of Hāmākua. With Hawaiian laborers, the men planted the first crop and processed it with a two-roll crusher mill. In 1878, Marsden and Siemsen with German Frederick August Schaefer (1836-1920) organized a new company along with Hawaiʻi-born James Clark Bailey (1846-1891) and Irishman Patrick Michael McInerny (1831-1896).

Over time the company hired Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Puerto Ricans, Koreans, and Filipinos as well as a few Russians and Spaniards. Honokaa Sugar Company merged with other companies, finally becoming part of the Davies Hamakua Sugar Company in 1978. It was later purchased by Frances Morgan and renamed Hamakua Sugar Company, which closed permanently after a final harvest in 1994.

The Lyman Museum preserves various records from the Honokaa Sugar Company as part of the Hamakua Sugar Company Records. That corporation consolidated seven original companies: Hamakua, Honokaa, Kaiwiki, Kukaiau, Laupahoehoe, Paauhau and Pacific. To learn more, the Archives is open for research by appointment: https://lymanmuseum.org/archives/.

Note: Hawaiian diacritical marks comprise just two symbols: the ʻokina (glottal stop) and the kahakō (macron). We use them with Hawaiian place names, but do not add them to proper names if a family or a company does not use them.

This March 30, 1897 letter from Frederick Schaefer, F. A. Schaefer & Co. of Honolulu, to John Watt (1862-1929), Manager of the Honokaa Sugar Company, describes the steamship Iwalani delivering a cargo of sugar to Honolulu and then returning to Hāmākua with 50 tons of fertilizer. Schaefer’s company imported supplies and acted as a business and insurance agent. Other letters relate to purchases of equipment, fertilizer, tools, and vehicles.
This letter, dated June 23, 1898, from Schaefer to Watt mentions the U.S. House of Representatives passing a resolution to annex the Hawaiian Islands which would benefit the sugar trade. The year before, Queen Liliuokalani and her fellow citizens delivered the Kūʻē petitions and the Senate blocked an attempt at annexation through a treaty. A few months later, as the U.S. battled with Spain, Congress passed a joint resolution of annexation. On July 7, 1898, President McKinley made annexation official. Other letters describe tariffs on sugar, sugar prices, land purchases and disputes, requests for laborers, hiring undercover detectives to investigate a crime, and weather conditions.
Sanborn Fire Insurance Company map of the mill and landing at Honokaʻa. The map shows buildings and a tramway. The base map was printed in 1914 with changes through 1957
A plan showing the location of buildings at the landing in Honokaʻa, December 1924. The mill was connected to a boat landing by an incline tramway, which transported bags of sugar to the warehouse at the wharf. A wire rope extended down the cliff to the ships. Bags of sugar were sent by steamer to Honolulu and reloaded on U.S.-bound ships. By 1919 the company shipped sugar directly to the mainland.
This map shows the complexity of “Field 103” surveyed in 1947. The map is one of a series of seventy-five Honokaʻa field maps from the 1940s through the 1960s. The plantation began with 500 acres and eventually grew to more than 9,000 acres. The fields ranged in elevation from 280 feet at Kukuihaele landing to 1,955 feet on the slopes of Mauna Kea. The temperature and rainfall variations at different elevations and the problem of transporting cane over rough terrain made producing sugar challenging. Some land also included macadamia nut orchards and cattle ranches.