In the Heart of Lihue


In ancient times, Lihue was a minor village. Līhuʻe means "cold chill" in the Hawaiian language.

Lihue is in the ancient district of Puna, the southeastern coast of the island, and land division (ahupuaʻa) of Kalapaki. Royal Governor Kaikioʻewa officially made it his governing seat in 1837, moving it from Waimea; he gave the town its name after the land he owned on Oahu by the same name.

With the emergence of the sugar industry in the 1800s, Lihue became the central city of the island with the construction of a large sugar mill. Early investors were Henry A. Peirce, Charles Reed Bishop and William Little Lee. The plantation struggled until William Harrison Rice built the first irrigation system in 1856.

Subsequent plantation owner Paul Isenberg helped German people emigrate to Lihue starting in 1881, with the first Lutheran church in Hawaii founded in 1883. Services were held in German well into the 1960s. By the 1930s, George Norton Wilcox became one of the largest sugarcane plantation owners, buying Grove Farm from Hermann A. Widemann.

Lihu`e quickly expanded well beyond a wide place in the road. In 1876 the plantation moved the company store to the coalescing hamlet from its original location in front Koamalu, the manager’s home (on the mauka side of today’s Kaumuali`i Highway where Aloha Church is now located). The building was set on rollers and hauled by oxen down the steep, muddy side of Nawiliwili Valley, past the mill and up the other to what is now the parking lot on the Rice Street side of the civic center. By 1880, Lihu`e was consider the most important town on the island; in 1888 it boasted several stores, two schools and a livery stable. Two years later enough travelers passed through the area to justify the establishment of a full—fledged hotel on the main road between the village and Nawiliwili.

The population of greater Lihu`e grew 150 percent in the 1890s, then expanded to over 150 percent in the following decade, claiming 4,434 residents in 1900 when Hawaii became a U.S. territory. By 1913, Lihue Plantation Company accounts recorded over 1,300 laborers, and 1,600 by the end of World War 1. Neighboring Grove Farm plantation though smaller, registered similar growth.

Among the benefits of becoming a U.S. territory, beyond enough optimism to encourage considerable entrepreneurial activity, was an influx of federal funds to develop ports and roads. Given its central location and commercial vitality, Lihu`e Town was an obvious choice in 1905 to be selected as the island’s county seat, and by the end of the decade Government officials had determined the need to construct an imposing new county building to house government affairs 1n the center of town. In 1912 the County bought a five acre tract of land from Lihue Plantation along the main road to Nawiliwili, now named Rice Street but then listed generically on most maps as "government road" and colloquially called the main street. It contracted the prominent Honolulu architectural firm of Ripley and Davis to design an impressive new headquarters. The plantation also utilized Ripley and Davis to sculpt a new commercial center at the main crossroad to reflect the plantation’s prosperity and further transform Lihu`e from haphazard Village into substantial town. In addition, it sold to the Bank of Hawaii a half acre lot diagonally across the street from the parcel the county government purchased for its new building.

By 1916, Lihu`e’s main intersection - some would argue it was Kaua`i’s main intersection - was bounded by the Tip Top theater and commercial building on the northwest, the Lihue Store on the northeast, and a memorial to Paul Isenberg, the nineteenth century mastermind of much of Lihue Plantation’s success, on the southeast. Duplex houses claimed the fourth side of the intersection. They ran downhill toward the mill (as well as elsewhere in the neighborhood) and were constructed primarily for employees of European origin. To the west of the village, mauka of the mill, the plantation erected a grand new manager’s house at Koamalu. With the exception of the lava-rock Isenberg memorial, all Of these buildings, as well as the county building, were constructed of reinforced concrete, a material that helped convey the message of strength and stability in Lihu`e.

From its early days in the sugar business, Lihue Plantation had commissioned the Honolulu—based H. Hackfeld and Company to serve as its factor, or supplies and purchasing agent. The ties between the two companies were strong. Paul Isenberg, Lihue Plantation’s former manager and a guiding force in the company’s success, became Hackfeld’s managing partner in 1881. The overlap between companies resulted in the Hackfeld partners and their family members owning enough stock in Lihue Plantation to give Isenberg outright control of the business at the turn of the century. But World War I brought an end to the sixty-year-old Hackfeld and Co. It was incorporated by new owners as American Factors, Ltd.; four years later, having already received a significant share of the plantation’s stock with the Hackfeld takeover, it purchased enough additional shares to gain majority ownership of the Lihue Plantation.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Lihue Plantation concentrated commercial enterprises along now Kuhio Highway. The telephone the road running north of Lihue Store and Tip Top, eatery, dentist, insurance company, automobile dealerships, soda-making firm, newspaper, insurance agency, and other establishments set up shop in what became the town’s central business district, though workers’ houses would intermingle with commercial buildings in this neighborhood for many years. Between the main intersection and the county building along Rice Street were a few other supervisors’ cottages, the Lihue Plantation’s headquarters, and recreational centers, a two-lane bowling alley and a social hall on one side of the street and a bandstand, later replaced by the library (now Kaua`i Museum), on the other. Behind that was a ball field and tennis courts, with an armory and stables in back of the county building.

As the major landholder in the area, Lihue Plantation had historically driven the town’s planning and controlled decisions about what businesses could set up `shop there. But the land directly across the street from the county building and Elite Street houselots was not owned by the plantation; the family of William Hyde Rice held title to it. That property included his homestead, a dairy, and the Lihue Hotel. The plantation’s exclusiveness was dramatically challenged in 1937 with the decision by William Hyde Rice, Ltd, to sell its dairy land along the main street to the national “big box” of its day, S. H. Kress & Company. Local businesses soon followed. The result was a second commercial district that emerged beyond the plantation’s developmental control. After World War II the historic Rice estate across from the county building was also sold and the buildings demolished. On that land, too, entrepreneurs opened business establishments, as they gradually did along the strip once occupied by the grand homes farther down Rice Street.

In the 1960s, Lihue Plantation, guided by its parent company American Factors (later known as Amfac), embraced the concept of urban renewal by radically redesigning the town core. Almost everything in the square block around Lihue Store was demolished to make way for the area’s first mall. The plantation constructed its new headquarters across the street from the museum; displaced tenants rebuilt elsewhere in town. On Hardy Street, a secondary road that curved behind the civic and shopping centers, county funds subsidized a convention hall, and the State built a new regional library, a three story government office building, and a public health complex, all of which were clustered around the 1950s era police station and elementary school. The metamorphosis also included a residential component. Unionization after World War II had ended the old paternalistic system of plantation—provided housing, and in the late 19405 and early 1950s Lihue Plantation had made fee—simple lots available for worker-owned residences in the Isenberg tract mauka of the Kuhio Highway business district and elsewhere beyond Lihu`e. Fifteen years later the plantation harvested its last crop of sugarcane on land between Hardy Street and Ahukini Road and subdivided it into the Molokoa subdivision. The project coincided with a demographic shift in town.

Disposition of productive agricultural tracts signaled a major shift for many plantation owners’ long—held philosophy that one’s wealth is in one’s land. It was replaced by them as a commodity for development and sale. In the 1970s, Lihue Plantation’s influence in the town it built virtually disappeared after Amfac sold nearly 40 percent of Lihu`e commercial property to freewheeling entrepreneur Harry Weinberg. Parcels included Lihue Shopping Center, lots on both Rice Street and Kuhio Highway, and the industrial park at the northeastern edge of town. After Grove Farm, the sugar plantation turned development company, opened Kukui Grove Center at Puhi in 1982, many retailers left Lihue Shopping Center and moved into the new mall. Five years later the county government purchased the older shopping center from Weinberg’s company HRT, Ltd., and converted it into a civic center as a solution to its pressing need for additional office space. Today, a significant portion of central Lihu`e is dedicated to government affairs, which in the twenty—first century promises to require still more space. Police, Civil Defense, and the judiciary have already moved out of the town core and into massive complexes near the airport.

The Wilcox family home, Kilohana, has been converted into a restaurant and gift shop. The surrounding plantation now grows crops and livestock. A narrow-gauge tourist railroad with vintage diesel locomotives from Whitworth and General Electric offers tours of the plantation; horse-drawn carriage tours are offered as well. The grounds are also the site of luaus, many of which are offshore excursions booked through NCL America.

Lihue also houses the Kauai Museum, which details the history of Kauai.

Click here to view "Lihu`e: Root and Branch of a Hawai`i Town" by Pat L. Griffin, published by the Kauai Historical Society. Excerpts used with permission.