Maui museum enshrines' state's sweet history

KAHULUI, Hawaii -- Hawaii has many attractions with plantation themes. However, only one is adjacent to an operating sugar mill, one of a handful left in the islands.

The Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum is in Puunene, 10 minutes by car from Maui's Kahului Airport. Visitors driving Route 350 from the airport to South Maui resort areas usually pass through Puunene. Few stop. Puunene is not really a town anymore. Only a post office and a few families remain.

Fronting the road is the huge mill, Hawaii's largest, which can be seen from miles away from the airport area amid A&B Hawaii's cane fields. The museum is a former plantation manager's home. It was built in 1900, the same year as the mill. Inside, one room of memorabilia and photos is devoted to plantation life and the years when a thriving Puunene was surrounded by plantation camps housing different Asian ethnic groups.

The museum features the history of Maui and its sugar, with emphasis on Samuel Alexander and Henry Baldwin, who started A&B in 1869. Included are interactive displays, scale models of the machinery, photographs and mill artifacts. Visitors learn about the massive irrigation system built by the founders -- now 74 miles of ditches and tunnels -- that brings East Maui water to the arid central plain.

The museum celebrated its 10th anniversary in July of 1997 and recently attracted its 300,000th visitor. Gaylord Kubota, museum director, said the building had 28,000 visitors last year, and this year numbers are up after years of little or no growth in attendance.

Although the sugar company was instrumental in establishing the museum, the facility is operated by a private, nonprofit group dependent on its own resources. Kubota hopes that one day the company will open the mill for tours, combining it with the museum to make for a more comprehensive experience.

The A&B Museum is open daily except Sundays, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Admission is $4 (guests ages 6 to 17, $2).

Sugar plantations are fast becoming a historical legacy. In recent years, five Hawaii sugar plantations closed, ending the industry on the Big Island and Oahu, and the Koloa area of Kauai, where commercial sugar production began in the 1840s. Hawaii once had more than 100 plantations. With consolidation and mechanization between the wars -- and competition and unprofitability in the past 25 years -- the number dwindled.

A&B Hawaii's sugar division, with 36,300 acres on Maui, in fact, is the result of 14 plantation acquisitions since its formation. Today, Hawaii has only four sugar plantations and six mills.

A&B Sugar Museum, Phone: (808) 871-8058

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