Ask Chris Faye, collections curator for the Kauai Museum, about what visitors say after strolling through her institution's exhibits, and she'll tell you many of them leave with a common reaction.
"One of the things we hear constantly from our visitors is, 'I wish we'd come here earlier in our visit,'?" Faye said. "They'll tell you they heard little tidbits here or there about this story or that person during their trip, but much of it didn't really connect because, of course, so many of the details just go over your head."
Housed in part within what was Lihue's first public library, built in 1924, the Kauai Museum is a worthwhile stop for folks intrigued by the island's history. The museum itself was founded in 1960 and today showcases a range of artifacts, photographs and exhibits full of fascinating stories about the people, cultures and origins of both Kauai and its southern neighbor, Niihau.
Somewhat concealed to passersby, the two-story, two-building complex is home to all sorts of historical treasures and information, which apparently comes as a surprise to many visitors planning a relatively quick stop.
"People often don't realize how big this museum is," Faye said. "They typically just see the one building and don't see the whole other building to go through, so then they save it for their last day, and they'll come in at 3 o'clock and only have an hour."
Kauai is the oldest of Hawaii's major islands and home to geological features not found anywhere else in the state, such as Waimea Canyon and five navigable rivers.
Visitors interested in what it took to shape the island will find answers on the ground floor of the museum's permanent exhibition space, along with details about Kauai's natural history and the Hawaiian people who have called the island home for centuries.
"Some of the unique things we have in there are artifacts found only on Kauai and Niihau," Faye said. "So those are the decorative gourds and the patterned makaloa mats, and these are products that were coveted by all the chiefs. So there were things that were highly desirable specialties of this island, and we have several examples on display."
In the Hawaiian exhibit, visitors will also find a relief map covered with the many legendary, and notoriously difficult, trails Kauai's people traveled long before Captain Cook's arrival at Waimea Bay in 1778.
"It was very different back then because a lot of Kauai towns today [were] plantation towns," Faye said. "So we have the major Hawaiian settlements on the map and some of the heiau [temples] and details that come out of the myths and legends. Most of the places you can't get to anymore because we're either too wimpy to do the trails or there is no trail anymore."
Upstairs in the permanent hall, visitors will find more information about Cook's landing and Kauai's whaling and fur trading periods.
There's also a great deal about the island's missionary families and the many immigrants who traveled to Kauai to work the sugar plantations. One of the museum's most kid-friendly exhibits, in fact, is a hands-on, fully furnished replica of a plantation camp house.
"People of all ages are constantly playing and moving things around up there," Faye said with a laugh. "And it's fun when you get the multigenerational groups, where the grandparents are with the grandchildren and the grandparents are reminiscing and the kids are just like, 'Huh?'?"
Through April, the Kauai Museum will host a pair of temporary exhibits in its Albert Spencer Wilcox Building, a refurbished version of the town's first library. "King Kaumualii and the Russian Fort" and "The Industrial Revolution on Kauai: Steam Power and Other Innovations" both offer visitors a look at the impact Western culture and technology had on the island during the 18th century.
Kaumualii was Kauai's last independent ruler, but in 1810 he traveled to Oahu to surrender control of his island to King Kamehameha, hoping to avoid further violence. Kauai was the only major Hawaiian island Kamehameha never took by force and the final location to fall under his reign.
Constructed in 1817, not far from the southwestern Kauai town of Waimea, the Russian Fort was built in an effort to help King Kaumualii regain rule over the island.
"People often don't realize that what was going on here between Kamehameha and all of the Hawaiian chiefs at the time was really like an arms race," Faye said. "They were collecting as much armament as they could from any of the traders coming through. Kaumualii apparently did a lot of stockpiling, and all of Waimea Canyon used to be full of muskets and powder and things like that."
The museum's "Industrial Revolution on Kauai" exhibit traces technology's role throughout the island's many sugar plantations and the innovative attitude Kauai businessmen embraced regarding ideas and implements designed to reduce cost and boost productivity.
"By the 1880s, almost anything that was invented was basically here right away," Faye insists. "When you look at, say, California and the Western Territories, they had very little compared to us. We supplied the Gold Rush with food ... and we were also a major part of the Civil War and supplied the North with goods that traditionally came from the South. Sugar, cotton, they grew anything they wanted."
Open Mondays through Saturdays, museum admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, $3 for students ages 13 to 17 and $1 for children ages 6 to 12.
Visitors looking to stop by on several occasions should inquire about the museum's multiple-visit options. Docent-led tours of the facility, free with the price of admission, begin at 10:30 a.m., Thursdays through Fridays. On the first Saturday of each month, patrons can explore the museum at no charge.