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Feature

The Money Bean

A working coffee farm on Hawai'i captures a segment of history

By Elizabeth Schlatter | HUMANITIES, May/June 1998 | Volume 19, Number 3

"Those persons who are in pursuit of wealth would do well to plant coffee, for it is the same as money."
--King Kamehameha

The story of Hawai'i’s coffee industry and the role played by newcomers to the island is now told in a living history museum run by the Kona Historical Society.

The museum had been a coffee farm owned by a family named Uchida, who were among the wave of Japanese immigrants arriving in turn-of-the-century Hawaii to find a better life working on the sugar cane plantations.

For many, life on the plantation was not what they expected. Unhappy with working conditions and their economic prospects, they fled to the remote region of Kona for a new occupation, coffee growing.

The Uchidas owned and operated a coffee farm on Kona from 1913 until 1994, when they sold it to the historical society. "We felt compelled to preserve something of the history and culture that had once dominated the district both culturally and economically, while there were still enough people, material culture, and architecture to do it,” project director Sheree Chase says. “If we had waited even ten years it would have been too late.”

Coffee had been introduced to Hawai'i in 1825 when Chief Boki, Governor of O'ahu, brought Brazilian coffee plants to his island. Sugar cane was still the major crop, but by the 1850s, with the encouragement of the government, coffee had become the second largest agricultural industry. With its favorable geography, the Kona district of Hawai'i outpaced the others. Protected by the slopes of nearby volcanoes, the region's mild climate and well-drained soil proved fertile land for coffee cultivation.

When he visited the region in 1866, Samuel Clemens wrote in Letters from the Sandwich Islands, "The ride through the district of Kona to Kealakekua Bay took us through the famous coffee and orange section. I think the Kona coffee has a richer flavor than any other, be it grown where it may and call it what you please.”

Demand grew, and so did the need for labor. Most of the farms owned by haoles (caucasians) hired native Hawaiians, but the availability of cheap foreign labor induced farmers to employ Chinese, Portuguese, and Japanese immigrants.

"They, all in the camp, heard so much about Kona,” said Yosoto Egami, talking about his father, Kuyutaro Egami, who left his job on a sugar plantation to become a coffee farmer. “. . .one thing is they want to get away from plantation because they want to be boss of their own. They don't want to be tied down at the plantation."

As large coffee plantations became less profitable, haole planters in Kona divided up their farms and leased the sections to tenant farmers. In 1910 more than four hundred Japanese families lived in Kona and earned their living there. Daisaku Uchida, like Kuyutaro Egami, came to Hawai'i during the turn-of-the-century immigration. He worked on a sugar plantation for three years before moving to Kona, where he held several different jobs, including picking coffee. In 1913 he took over the lease of a coffee farm from a Japanese friend and moved with his bride of a year, Shima Maruo, to the farm. They eventually had five children who grew to adulthood.

The arrival of Japanese women, many who came to Hawai'i as "picture brides," stabilized the Japanese community. Chase says, "Before women arrived in numbers men spent hard earned money on gambling, drinking, and prostitutes. With women came civility, religion, children, community foundation blocks. . ." The wives restored traditional customs and religious practices.

"Large families meant many hands," Chase says. "Children started working as soon as they could walk. Everyone had responsibilities which changed over the years. The average size family was ten to fourteen people." In order for the children to help with the harvest, schools had a "coffee vacation" from August to November instead of a summer vacation.

The remote location of the Kona district and the language barrier led to an insularity among the first generation, or issei, and a clinging to old-world customs. "Because the majority of folks who came to Hawai'i came before or during the Meji Restoration,”Chase says, referring to the industrial revolution in Japan, “the Japanese in Hawai'i have maintained language and different traditions and customs no longer followed in Japan today."

The second generation, the nisei, continued some traditions such as arranged marriages, the practice of Buddhism and Shinto, and the forming of kumaias, mutual support associations. They also, however, integrated their lives with mainstream American culture. As children they joined Boy Scout troops and 4-H clubs; at school they played basketball and competed in track and field.

Coffee farming was neither an easy nor a lucrative profession. According to Chase, "For the issei, they stuck with it because they were stuck with it. Limited skills, language barriers, and scarce resources prevented them from leaving. The older nisei who stayed with the lifestyle stayed because they liked the life, or they too had limited opportunities."

World War II radically altered the issei and nisei’s lives. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese community was placed under surveillance by the military, and some people, mostly issei, were sent to detention camps on the mainland. But thousands of nisei voluntarily served the U.S. military, primarily in the 100th Infantry Battalion. The battalion merged with the 42nd Regimental Combat Team and became the most decorated unit for its size and length of service.

Returning from World War II, the nisei gained more economic and political power in Hawai'i and ended the haole's reign over the coffee industry. Although the 1940s produced meager coffee profits, the early 1950s experienced a boom, due in part to increased productivity and to a freeze in Brazil that destroyed that country's crops.

Decreasing prices and subsequent decreasing production nearly collapsed the Kona coffee industry in the 1960s and 1970s; in the 1980s an improved economic climate and the trend toward gourmet coffees helped the industry rebound. It continues to thrive today.

Contemporary Kona coffee production is quite different from the practices of the earliest Kona farmers. Chase says, "With the passing of the nisei generation and the increase in new development as old farms are being bulldozed, a way of life that once defined Kona was disappearing before our eyes."

To preserve a piece of Kona’s heritage, the historical society bought the Uchida farm and restored it as it might have appeared between 1925 and 1945. The farm currently offers two tours a week to groups of fifteen; over the next few years it hopes to offer ten a week.

Visitors start at the Historical Society with an orientation video then walk through the exhibition "The Kona Coffee Story: Along the Hawaii Belt Road." Developed and donated by the Japanese-American National Museum of Los Angeles, the multimedia exhibition presents the Kona coffee industry's history, its varied immigrant heritage, and its impact on the district.

A five-minute drive takes visitors to the farm, which includes a six-room house built in 1925, six acres of land, and a donkey, otherwise referred to as the "kona nightingale" for its contribution to farming. According to Chase, approximately 30 percent of the artifacts are original to the site. The rest are typical of the period and were donated by the nisei community.

While explaining the history of the farm, a guide takes the visitors through the coffee orchard, past an interpreter dressed as a farmer from the 1940s picking coffee cherries from a tree. The farmer explains coffee growing practices at the farm, on which the historical society currently grows coffee beans and macadamia nuts.

In accordance with Japanese custom, visitors take off their shoes before entering the front room of the family home. An actor portraying Daisaku Uchida sits on the floor reading a Japanese language paper. Uchida talks with the audience about his farm, his family, and his way of life, up to the day of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Visitors also see the children's study, which contains a typewriter, schoolbooks, newspapers, Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs, dolls, toys, and Buddhist and Shinto shrines. The guide explains how the issei stressed education as the key to success, but that the demands of farming sometimes forced children to leave school prematurely. For the second generation, the focus became maintaining ethnic identity. Some nisei went to Japanese language schools which taught the children language and traditions from their parents' homeland.

Another room on the tour belonged to the Uchida's eldest son Masao and his bride Masako, whose marriage was arranged by their parents. Masao raised his family on the farm and grew coffee until the sale to the historical society in 1994. In the sewing room, his wife and daughters had a sideline as seamstresses, making clothes for the family and for sale.

Passing through the sleeping room, visitors enter the kitchen, where they are greeted by an interpreter portraying a farm wife. She explains how the family grew much of its own food and describes the meals--generally rice, miso soup, tofu, vegetables, and of course, plenty of coffee. American foods such as cake and bread entered their diet when the children went to public school, and poi was introduced through interaction with the native Hawaiian population.

Outside of the house stands a chicken coop and a furo, a Japanese bath house built in the early 1940s. Visitors end their tour by walking through a coffee processing and drying facility where another interpreter describes the processing of beans and the economics of coffee farming.

"We understood that people learn in a variety of ways. We wanted people to have a number of approaches to choose from,” Chase says. “We wanted it to be fun, entertaining as well as educational."

To reconstruct the family history, Chase conducted two hundred hours of interviews with Uchida family members and with people who grew up on similar farms such as Yosoto Egami. Since few issei are still alive, the memories of the nisei generation is crucial to the history of Kona. "They have a very clear recollection of their growing up years. In their own adult lives they carry on many of the traditions, foodways, religion, language, etc. So we still have a large but shrinking number of folks who lived the immigrant lifestyle."

Daisaku Uchida's youngest daughter, Fusae, has been an important source of information. As a volunteer, she documents, conserves, and catalogs artifacts, and acts as a liaison between the historical society and the Japanese community.

Chase hopes visitors leave the historical society with "an understanding of daily life on a Japanese coffee farm in Kona during the early twentieth century and all that it entails." The Uchida story, like that of similar Japanese immigrants, is an important part of America's rich immigrant history, cultural diversity, and agricultural heritage.

When asked how Shima and Daisaku Uchida might feel today knowing their farm was being preserved, Chase responded, "They would think we were nuts! But I think they would feel honored as well."

A view of the inside of the Kona Historical Farm is online at www.konahistorical.org .

About the Author

Elizabeth Schlatter is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding Information

The Kona Historical Society has received three grants from Public Programs and one Challenge Grant to expand facilities and programs at the Kona Coffee Farm.