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Visitors to Kauai might not give a second thought to the sugarcane swizzle stick in their tropical drinks.
But on a tour of Grove Farm Homestead and Sugar Plantation Museum, however, they can gain new appreciation for the crop that defined 19th-century island lifestyle and the people who cultivated it.
Located in Lihue, Grove Farm was one of Hawaii’s earliest sugar plantations. With its immaculately maintained family home, gardens and outbuildings, the attraction is particularly well-suited for history buffs, museum mavens and clients interested in Kauai’s agricultural and social past. Old photos, oral histories and rare artifacts add to the immediacy of the tour, which limits groups to six to keep visits personal.
David Murray, a guide at the museum, calls Grove Farm the “best-preserved sugar plantation grounds in Hawaii.” Indeed, they are splendid. Kukui tree groves — which inspired the estate’s name — as well as tropical flowers and manicured lawns set a gracious stage for this step back in time.
The tour brings to life the story of George Wilcox, a son of missionary teachers, who bought the estate in 1864. George’s brother Samuel also lived on the 100-acre spread, along with Samuel’s wife and six children. Their dedication to the plantation and forays into business and community service turned them into one of the most eminent families on the islands.
For two hours, clients get a firsthand look at life on Grove Farm, including the elegant Wilcox home. Wandering from room to room, it’s easy to picture the family entertaining guests or unwinding in style. On display are preserved keepsakes such as carved calabashes and a grand piano from 1861. Furnishings range from fine oriental rugs to gleaming koa wood floors and tables.
Other stops on the tour include a look at the simple dwelling of Kikunyo Moriwaki, the plantation’s laundress for five decades; and George’s private cottage, featuring his notable collection of books and straw hats. (The museum is open Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.)
Strolling by vegetable gardens and animal pens, Murray explained to our group that Grove Farm produced its own food, which was a common practice among 19th-century plantations. Today, museum employees continue that tradition, from looking after the pigs, chickens, ducks and one turkey, to tending to banana, papaya, macadamia-nut and mango trees.
For me, the highlight of tour took place in the home’s original kitchen. There, Grove Farm cook Paula Rosa demonstrated how she uses a working 1904 oven and wood-burning stove.
Rosa served mint iced tea and fresh-baked sugar cookies as she talked about Mabel Wilcox, Sam’s youngest daughter. Affectionately known as Miss Mabel, she lived on the plantation until her death in 1978 at age 96. A registered nurse and an advocate of historic preservation, she played a key role in maintaining Grove Farm as a museum and historical site. Rosa shared stories of days gone by as we relaxed around a wooden table.
“If you had met Miss Mabel, you would have loved her,” Rosa said. “We keep this kitchen in working order in her honor, so that our visitors feel welcome.”