The Money Bean

By Schlatter, Elizabeth | Humanities, May/June 1998 | Go to article overview

The Money Bean

Schlatter, Elizabeth, Humanities

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

"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 Hawai'i to find a better life working on the sugarcane 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 in 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. Sugarcane 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 provided fertile land for coffee cultivation. When he visited the region in 1866, Mark Twain 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 Hawai'ians, 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 hardearned 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. …

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