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Walking into Hilo’s Lyman Mission House is like entering a time machine. As I followed docent Maria Nagai through its front door, I felt whisked back to late 1831. That’s when newlywed Christian missionaries David and Sarah Lyman bravely boarded a ship for a six-month trip from New England to Hawaii Island.
The Lymans made it to Hawaii in 1832. Now, visitors can stand in the two-story dwelling — built in 1839 — where the husband and wife lived and raised seven children as they worked to improve the lives of local Hawaiians.
Located in the midst of old and new structures in downtown Hilo, this beautifully renovated home was built with native koa and ohia wood.
“Not only is this house one of the state’s oldest structures, it’s the oldest standing wood structure on Hawaii Island,” Nagai said.
That alone makes it a valuable stop for anyone interested in the area’s history.
But there’s much more to this attraction than just the building itself. Through Nagai’s stories and original Lyman family furnishings and keepsakes, the 19th century came to life before my eyes.
In the living room, I could almost hear the tinkling of ivories as I gazed at the piano that Sarah once played. The dining room table is impeccably set, as if guests will arrive any moment.
“David and Sarah were quite the entertainers,” Nagai said. “They hosted dignitaries from far and wide, from Hawaiian royalty to writer Mark Twain and naturalist Isabella Bird.”
A writing table stands ready for Sarah to keep notes in her journal. I saw a cradle where she rocked her babies to sleep. Bedrooms have been carefully prepared for the night, right down to the chamber pots under the beds. Nearby sits an 1836 sewing machine on which Sarah taught island women how to make their own clothes.
The Lymans founded Hilo Boarding School for young Hawaiian men who learned, among other things, how to build koa furniture. Standing in David’s home office, I gazed at some of the actual tables, chairs and other pieces crafted by those students. The office also showcases archival photos, weathered books and a desk where David kept track of his life’s work.
As we stood on the second-floor lanai, Nagai recounted the staying power of the mission house.
“In 1868, the island experienced an estimated 8.0 earthquake, and the house survived,” she said. “Then, in 1929, the house was slated for demolition to make way for a new road. The Lymans’ daughter Emma spearheaded a drive to move it on logs 100 feet to its present location.”
In the early 1970s, when the modern Lyman Museum opened next door with Hawaiian cultural and historical exhibits, the mission house itself became one of the museum’s artifacts.
Before we parted ways, Nagai showed me a photo of David, Sarah and their children. As if they were members of her own family, Nagai pointed to each person and talked about what happened to him or her.
“Two of Sarah and David’s descendants now sit on the museum’s board of trustees, and several more are actively involved with the museum,” Nagai said.
As I walked away with images of 19th-century Hilo in my head, I understood why the present-day Lyman family and other supporters feel so strongly about preserving this important part of the island’s past.
- Lyman Mission House is accessible only on guided tours offered Monday through Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- Admission, which includes entry to the adjacent museum, costs $10 per adult, $8 per senior and $3 per child (ages 6-17) or $21 per family.