Sugar Company provided a livelihood for generations of immigrant workers. That abruptly ended in 1995 when the last puff of smoke exited its smokestack. Since then community groups have been trying to fire up Waipahu’s engine.
History of Sugar in Waipahu
Waipahu’s industrial revolution began in 1897 when Oahu Sugar Company began operations. At the start they had just under a thousand workers who were shipped over from the Philippines, Japan, Portugal, Spain, Puerto Rico, and China.
Eventually a town began to flourish. Stores, restaurants, ice cream parlors, and bakeries began to spring up. Hans L'Orange Field, named after a Waipahu plantation manager was built in 1924. It immediately became a hub of activities. In addition to baseball, the field hosted cultural events, concerts, and carnivals.
Waipahu residents could only get an elementary school education until Waipahu High and Intermediate was built in 1938. Workers made an average of $12.50 a month. Laborers lived in rent-free plantation homes set up in segregated camps.
Connie Herolaga lived in “Camp 9” which was mainly Filipino and was situated near August Ahrens Elementary is today. She fondly remembers going to “Japanese Camp” for bon dances to eat andagi and barbecue sticks.
Herolaga is now President of the Visayan Hall on Awanei Street. Her father came to Hawaii in 1931 from Cebu, Philippines. He worked in the plantation and had a second job as a chef in the Officers Club. “We would play in the streets with neighbors. Not too many cars back then. We would make our own toys out of bottle caps,” says Herolaga, “If we were lucky, we could buy 5 cent bags of ling hi mui or shredded mangos. I loved those days. I wish I could go back.”
Back when sugar was king, there were 7 plantations on Oahu: Waipahu, Aiea, Waialua, Ewa, Kahuku, Waianae, and Waimanalo. The Gory Days had Hawaii plantations producing more than a million tons or sugar and employing 50,000 people.
The industry began to sour as developing countries with cheaper labor and land started to take over the world sugar market. Hawaii plantations could not compete. Waialua, the last plantation on Oahu, closed its doors in 1996. The state said goodbye to the last sugar plantation earlier this year when HC&S on Maui processed its last harvest.
Oahu Sugar in Waipahu ended in 1995. The iconic Arakawa Store closed that same year and Big Way Supermarket limped along for another four years. The heartbeat of Waipahu Town flat lined by the turn of the century.
“It was sad,” says Herolaga, “It was the end of an era. I miss it dearly.”
Kula Abiva was raised in Waipahu during the 1960. He has become the town historian, “People used to walk and eat with neighbors, along Depot Rod. We don’t have that anymore. We should be enjoying the arts, performances, sports, or movies together. We can recreate an active and authentic experience.”
WCA is Born
In 1960, the Waipahu Community Association (WCA) was created to strengthening the area. It struggled for funding and relevance for decades, until it was revived in 2000. One of its significant achievements was raising $4 million to renovate the old Big Way site. In 2007 the Waipahu Festival Marketplace opened its doors to become a business incubator for 18 tenants.
The organization has an operating budget of $900,000. About 90% of that comes from rental income. The rest are from grants and fundraisers.
Henry Aquino won election to the State House in 2008 and then became president of the organization in 2010. The WCA puts on community activities, beautification projects, fundraised to cool neighborhood schools, and serves as an educational resource for the young and elderly. Aquino envisions the WCA spearheading efforts to revitalize the social and economic vitality of the area.
Other investments nearby include the YMCA turning the old sugar mill into a $15 million fitness center, with a pool, and day care center. Next door the Filipino Community Center became the largest Filipino center outside of the Philippines. It took a decade for supporters to raise $14.2 million to open the three story building in 2002.
Today Waipahu has a population of 38,000. The average family income is $51,855 and 13.8% of Waipahu residents live below poverty line.
With the demise of sugar, Waipahu is no longer the employment center for residents. Aquino’s neighbors having to drive outside of the district to get to work. “I would like to see our community transform into a destination a vibrant place for people to live. A place where people would like to visit. A place where people live, work, raise a family, and retire.”