Wahiawä’s Pineapple Camp Nisei Tell Their Stories

Gail Honda
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

In the pre-World War II years, Wahiawä’s pineapple camps were scattered around the outskirts of the town proper. In these self-contained communities, the plantation workers and their families lived and worked together and bonded through both hardships and good times.

For the first half of the 20th century, Hawai‘i was the world’s largest producer of pineapple. On O‘ahu, most of the pineapple was cultivated on the Leilehua Plateau area north and south of Wahiawä and between the Ko‘olau and Wai‘anae Mountain ranges, although pineapple fields stretched all the way from Robinson Camp near Waipahu to Takeyama Camp near Waialua. California Packing Co. (“CPC,” later Del Monte); Hawaiian Pineapple Co., Ltd. (“Hawaiian Pine,” later Dole); and Libby, McNeill & Libby were the main producers on the Leilehua Plateau.

The Japanese who lived and worked in these camps represented the largest group of all the immigrants brought in to Hawai‘i for all plantation labor, including sugar. Japanese men were brought to Hawai‘i between 1885 and 1908 as indentured laborers for the sugar industry. Once their period of indenture was over, many left to take advantage of the easier working conditions, more freedom and greater opportunity for advancement in the pineapple industry. Filipinos were also actively recruited and brought in during the 1920s by the Hawaiian Pineapple Growers Association (established in 1909), becoming the largest ethnic group to work in pineapple. Portuguese, Koreans and part-Hawaiians also lived in the camps. Some companies segregated their camps by ethnicity, while others, like CPC’s Kunia Camp, did not.

Most Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i look back to the plantation experience as the defining immigrant experience of their ancestors. The richness of life on the pineapple plantations in their heyday is now known only to the Nisei who grew up in the camps. While work in the pineapple fields was often backbreaking labor, the Nisei speak of life in the camps with fondness and nostalgia. Their stories are told here and present a way of life in Hawai‘i that has all but disappeared. And yet, the ways of life on the plantation have been passed down from generation to generation and are widely observed today in such local customs as pidgin English, reciprocity and living harmoniously in a diverse community.

1920s-1930s: The Uezu Family in Poamoho Camp

In the mid-1920s, Jeanette Kiyo Uezu Nakagawa, a 93-year-old Wahiawä resident, moved to CPC’s Poamoho Camp, located a little over two miles northwest of Wahiawä. When Jeanette was 2 years old, her parents, Ansei and Mutaru Uezu, moved their family to Poamoho from Lawai Stable in Köloa, Kaua‘i.

Everyone pitched in so the family could survive. Jeanette’s sister Natsuko, the second oldest sibling, watched the children while her parents worked in the fields. “My sister used to opa (carry) us on her back with an obi (kimono sash) and take us out to the fields so my mother could breast-feed us in the fields,” said Jeanette. Natsuko took care of the children — six girls and one boy in all — throughout their formative years.

Work was hard with little pay. The workers made do with what they had. “The women peeled and cut off pineapple tops on a wooden horse. They took off the crown and for 100 crowns, you got ten cents,” Jeanette recalled. “Our gloves were made of Bull Durham tobacco bags. We would put one bag over each finger. We also put Bull Durham bags over the kitchen faucet and used it as a filter.”

Conditions were especially severe curing the Depression years in the 1930s. “I was eight years old when I started going out into the fields to help, too,” she continued. “I was eleven when I started working at Schofield. There were no child labor laws at that time so we all went out to work as soon as we could.”

In addition to the difficult and physically demanding work of the pineapple industry, there were, of course, no modern conveniences, so even everyday household tasks were laborious. “There was a community laundry area outside where we made a fire so we could boil clothes. We would scrub the clothes, then wash them in the tub. I remember we used a red soap to scrub the clothes and get the dirt out. Every weekend was when we washed clothes.

“Our kitchen was a dirt floor, and the cooking area was separate from the house. We ate rice mostly. We had a cast iron kettle with a wooden top, and we would cook rice outside. We also raised our own vegetables and duck, rabbit and chicken for food. It was my job to feed the animals before and after school. The ducks knew who was the one who took care of them. We also caught catfish in the stream, where we would play after school.”

Camp residents also prepared and sold food to other residents. “The camp kept cows and would sell milk, but it was expensive. We relied on others for some foods. There was a Portuguese lady who built an oven and sold bread. Brodie 2 Camp was where the Portuguese lived. Another Filipino lady made and sold brown Filipino mochi. We couldn’t afford candy, so we ate a lot of guava.”

Some residents had jobs within the camp. “There was a boarding house for single men. A lady did the cooking for the single men, which the single men paid for. The bathroom was half men, half women, with a wall dividing the two. But the bath is the same in the middle. Mrs. Uchida made the fire for the bath.”

Yet, even the difficult life in the camps was relieved on occasion. “They used to show silent movies in the plantation dining room. They put up a sheet for the screen and a man used to come in once a month and crank the projector. We also had church services every Sunday. The Buddhist temple Hongwanji came out and gave a service. It was not the bonsan (priest), though, but two or three men from the temple.”

School was an important part of camp life, as well. “I went to Helemano School, and it took about thirty minutes to walk there. When I went to Leilehua High School, that was when I got my first pair of shoes. Until then, we always walked around barefoot.”

From the camp, Jeanette’s family moved to Cypress Avenue in Wahiawä town shortly after she started working at Schofield. Despite years of living the hardscrabble life in Poamoho Camp, Jeanette said she enjoyed her childhood. Asked whether she thought CPC treated the workers well, she replied, “We didn’t think about things like that. All we thought about was working and making a living. The main thing was you can eat and feed the kids. We expected to live that way.”

1930s-1940s: The Sato Family in Libby, McNeill & Libby Camp

Richard Sato, an 88-year-old resident of Wahiawä, retired as an electrical engineer for the United States Navy. He was born and raised in Libby, McNeill & Libby Camp, which was located at the intersection of Kamehameha Highway and Kïpapa Street, near the Wahiawä end of Mililani Town. His grandparents came to Hawai‘i around 1906 to work in the pineapple fields, leaving their then-5-year-old son, Shigetaka Sato, back in Chiba Prefecture, where the Sato family had a big farm. When Shigetaka finished high school in 1917, he came to Hawai‘i on his own.

Shigetaka started working for Sosaku Maruyama, who owned a trucking business that hauled pineapples from independent Japanese growers to the cannery in Kalihi. The independent growers were called “Hyakunin Konpan,” which means “100 persons sharing.” Then the big three plantations — CPC, Hawaiian Pine and Libby — came in and broke up the independent growers industry.

Shigetaka met his boss’ daughter, Toku Maruyama, and the couple married in the 1920s in the Methodist church in the Libby, McNeill & Libby Camp, where they were baptized Christians. Shigetaka and Toku initially settled in Wahiawä town, where he drove a cab from Wahiawä to town, “a point-to-point taxi.” Richard’s eldest and second sisters were born in Wahiawä. His father then became the auto mechanic and handyman for Dan Charles Derby, the Libby manager for all the islands. His parents and two sisters moved to the Libby Camp caretaker’s house next to the Methodist church. It was in that house that younger siblings Kinya, Richard and Doris were born.

“My father took care of Mr. Derby’s car and milked his cows,” said Richard. “Mr. Derby liked him. Mr. Derby told my father that when they plough Kam (Kamehameha) Highway and Kïpapa Street, they want him to open a pineapple stand. So my parents opened the Waipio Pineapple Stand, a stand with shelves and pineapple on it. Across the street was Toda Store, which sold gasoline and groceries.

“Plantation living in camp is altogether different from living in the city. On the plantation, you knew everybody and what everybody’s job was, and everybody knew you. You knew you could get a musubi from any household if you asked for one,” said Richard. “Nobody locked their houses, but if invited to go in, you had to wash your feet because nobody wore shoes. The soles of our feet were so tough from walking barefoot that we could run on sharp gravel and put out lighted cigarettes with no problem.”

Like Jeanette, Richard lived in the camp during the Depression years, but the company largely took care of all of their workers’ needs. “In the early 1930s, the plantation paid about thirty-five cents an hour for your father’s work. But they provided free housing, water, kerosene for the stove and lamps, medical and recreational facilities, playgrounds, transportation for schooling and almost everything else. There were no crime or drugs,” he said. “Everybody in our caretaker’s house was born midwife. During the Depression, we ate a lot of rabbit, which we raised. They ate grass so they were easy to raise, whereas chickens eat feed, so you had to buy the feed.”

Because Hawai‘i was a lot safer in those days, kids had a lot of freedom to go out and explore. “We would hike and ride bikes through the pineapple fields, now known as Mililani Mauka, up to the edge of the Ko‘olau Mountains and park our bikes. There was no need to lock them back then and we would walk into the mountains, totally unsupervised. But we never got lost. We ate guavas, pineapples, mountain apples, rose apples, wild liliko‘i (passion fruit), pohä (gooseberry), pöpolo (black) berries, Portuguese plum and more. We always carried a knife with us and ate plenty of pineapple. We used to ride our bicycles everywhere. It wasn’t dangerous in those days. I don’t know how we survived.

“Then in the late 1940s, the union formed and had a strike against Libby, and everybody had to start paying rent. By 1951, the plantation and growing pineapple was over.”

It marked the beginning of the end of an era, the closing of the pineapple industry in Hawai‘i. But camp life holds many fond and rich memories for Richard. “You cannot beat living on a plantation. It was a good life. Monetarily we were poor, but one thing for sure: Growing up on a plantation is much better than anyone can imagine.”

1930s-1940s: The Sekiya Family in Kunia Camp

Mabel Sekiya, a retired Foreign Service employee, and her brother, Ray Sekiya, a retired bank executive, were born and grew up in CPC’s Kunia Camp. Kunia Camp was located on the central eastern foothills of the Wai‘anae Mountain range between Waipahu and Wahiawä, but closer to the latter. Mabel and Ray are the youngest of 10 siblings. Their father, Fukuzo Sekiya, immigrated to Hawai‘i from Fukuoka Prefecture at the age of 14, and their mother, Chima Koga Sekiya, came to Hawai‘i at age 19 to marry Fukuzo through an arranged marriage. The couple settled in Wahiawä town. Fukuzo was working as a cowboy’s assistant in Püpükea when his father’s cousin, Kichitaro Sekiya, asked him to run the Kunia Camp store, which Kichitaro owned.

While Fukuzo ran the store, Chima worked as a field hand, picking pineapple, doing hoe hana work (weeding), fertilizing the rows of pineapple by hand and other tasks. Her workday began at 4:30 a.m. when the plantation whistle sounded, signaling all of the workers to get up and prepare for work. Chima labored in the fields and also did the laundry of the bachelor laborers, who paid her a small fee for the service. On weekends, she tended to her vegetable garden and a patch of Easter lilies, which bore beautiful flowers every year. “When the school had lunches, Mother would bring a bowl to the school and get leftovers for 25 cents a bowl,” recalled Mabel. Ray added that, “Honouliuli internment camp wasn’t too far from Kunia Camp and Mother would bring musubi to the
Japanese prisoners of war held in the camp.”

Like all of the other plantation kids, Mabel and Ray were expected to work, so they helped out in their father’s store. “The camp gave out bango (identification numbers) to the families, and the workers would come in to the store and charge their groceries to their bango,” said Mabel. “They would sign their name and write down the bango. When we helped out in the store, we used to sort by bango. Money to pay their bills came out of their paychecks.”

As children of the store’s manager, Ray and Mabel enjoyed small perks. “In the tobacco packages for sale, some had a coupon for baseball cards,” said Ray. “We would go through the packages and take out the coupons and redeem them for the cards.” Mabel said that some of the Creamsicle ice cream sticks were marked and could be redeemed for free Creamsicles. “We took the sticks and would go into the stores in Wahiawä town and get our free Creamsicles.”

The store sold meats, produce, eggs, oranges, apples, milk and cheese. “They would bring in whole cows and our father did the cutting,” remembers Ray. They also sold items in bulk, such as umeboshi (pickled plums), dried beans and 100-pound bags of rice, which were kept in barrels. They also helped their father by going around the camp picking up empty bottles. “My dad used to take back the soda water bottles because he could get a deposit back on them,” said Mabel. “The single men used to drink and drop their bottles, so we went out to collect them.”

Like Libby Camp, CPC offered many amenities to its workers in Kunia Camp. “Like almost all plantations, we had boarding houses for single men, an elementary school, a general store, a gymnasium and a ball park,” said Ray. “We also had a beach park in ‘Ewa owned by CPC. It was used for camp picnics with games and prizes, food, swimming and fishing. It was also a favorite camping site for boy scouts.”

Mabel recalled fondly the lavish Christmas parties that CPC held every year for the workers at Kunia School. “Before the party, the camp used to go around and ask how old all the children were for gifts. At the party, there was a Christmas play, and each child would get a gift based on their age. Every family would also get a bag of oranges and apples and Christmas candy and walnuts,” she said. “They also gave the workers a card with the number of years you worked. Then you went to a section of the room based on the years and chose a gift. There was always a Santa Claus, too — a really huge guy. We used to love the candies and nuts. So, once a year, everyone got something really nice.”

Because no one had store-bought toys and games, the kids had to be creative and come up with their own, using materials found around the camp. Ray said they played “Nick-a-baby” or “ala-vea,” filling empty Bull Durham tobacco bags with seeds or sand and turning them into bags that they threw to tag their opponents. They also played with agates (marbles), milk bottle covers (POGS), sen-cava (soda pop bottle caps) and slingshots (guava tree Ys were the best). “These games and toys were unique in that they cost little or nothing compared to what we have today,” said Ray.

Kunia Camp was one of the last remaining pineapple camps. The World War II years brought changes to the community — some of the families began moving away in search of opportunities elsewhere. “In the store, we had employees like the Inouye son, who did bookkeeping, and the Ishigaki boy and Mishina family, who were clerks,” said Mabel. “But when war came along, they left and went to Pearl Harbor to look for bigger jobs.”

While it is natural to look back nostalgically at one’s childhood, Ray noted that these feelings were shared by many. A camp reunion held at the gymnasium around the year 2000 brought together over three hundred people, many of them former residents who lived in Kunia in the 1930s and ’40s. Ray recalled an old refrain that echoes through for the old-timers from yesteryears: “When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, Kunia will shine.”

Gail Honda is a writer in Honolulu. She can be reached at 808-942-4783 or gail.honda@hawaii.rr.com


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