NHERC’s providential photographic exhibit: Exploring sugar plantation life

Thursday, May 24th, 2012
Click to see slideshow

“I got two job offers—one in Baltimore and one in Hawaii,” said John Bowen, of his choice upon graduation from the University of Maryland in 1965. “Guess which one I took?”

As he and wife Anne packed up to move to the Big Island, little did they know that through their photographic work, they’d play a role in island history.

In 1976, after 11 years working as an agriculturalist for C. Brewer and Company, Bowen received a grant from the Hawaii Bicentennial Committee to create photo and audio documentation of sugar cane plantation life across the islands. Thirty-six years later, his Big Island pictures are being displayed as a cohesive collection for the first time.

North Hawaii Education and Research Center (NHERC) unveiled the Bowen’s special exhibit, “Plantation Life on Hawaii Island,” May 15 at the campus Heritage Center in Honokaa. Hundreds of photos are displayed, with “narration” provided by caption quotes from oral histories, gathered by Heritage Center coordinator, Momi Naughton, who holds a doctorate of philosophy in visual communications from Simon Fraser University from British Columbia. The Bowens were present at the opening, along with numerous former plantation workers, families and friends.

“Some people call unexpected things that happen in life ‘coincidence,’” said Kaye Lundberg, who spoke at the event. “I call it Providence.” Lundberg initially discovered Bowen’s photos while working on an honorary event for Leon and Dora Thevenin at Hamakua Health Center.

Thevenin retired in 1975 as Chairman of the four Hamakua plantations, so Lundberg was seeking historic plantation pictures. At the Laupahoehoe Train Museum she saw some newspaper articles from the 70’s, featuring Bowen’s photos.

Providentially, the Bowen’s were still living in Hilo making it easy to find them. Lundberg and Naughton met John at McDonald’s, looked at the samples he’d brought along, and immediately recognized this as a much bigger project that needed to be shared with a wider audience. Soon after, a search through the Bowen’s storeroom yielded up boxes and boxes of old photos—over 10,000 negatives altogether and 7,500 slides.

“They captured something that I hadn’t seen,” said Naughton. “There’s documentation of plantation work—equipment, machines, men working—but here was the Bookmobile, kids playing, Obon, the Ghost Feast, Union rallies …The looks on their faces at final harvest.”

“They really capture the spirit of what it was like to grow up on the plantation,” she said.

Naughton and her team—assistant Gail Chanley, volunteers Monique Edwards, James Silva and Honokaa High School student Michael McPeek—spent about six months archiving the photos and preparing the exhibit. Chanley took on the painstaking work of reviewing the 35-year-old negatives, scanning each one and editing.

The exhibit shares slices of everyday life, most still fresh in the memory of attendees, who viewed them with glistening eyes.

“We were poor but we didn’t know we were poor,” said Valerie Poindexter, whose family home is in one of the photos.

Addressing the plantation families in the audience at the exhibit opening, she said, “We have a lot of gratitude for what you did for us to make us who we are today, and that’s thetrue aloha spirit.”

The plantation lifestyle dominated Hawaii for over a century. From a 1996 New York Times article: “At the industry’s peak in 1931, Hawaii’s sugar plantations employed more than 50,000 workers and produced more than one million tons of sugar a year, the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center says. That plummeted to 492,000 tons in 1995.”

The Big Island’s final harvest was by Honokaa Sugar in 1994.

The exhibit “Plantation Life on Hawaii Island” will be open at the NHERC Heritage Center through January 2013. The public is invited to come and see the photos, and to share pictures and stories of their own. Volunteers and donations for this important project are always welcome. Historic photos and document donations can be scanned for archiving and the originals returned. For more information, please contact Naughton at 775-8890.