Up in Smoke: The Rise and Fall of Kona’s Tobacco Industry

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This Kona Tobacco Company photo entitled “Hawaiian Girl Employees” was published in 1912 in The Evening Bulletin, part of an extensive article reporting on the flourishing state of Kona’s newest agricultural venture of the day – raising tobacco. Here we see thirteen Hawaiian women of various ages seated on the floor inside an airy tobacco shed. Those darkish things piled on the floor beside them in stick enclosures or held in their arms are tobacco leaves picked by hand from acres of Nicotiana tabacum planted extensively at that time in South Kona. Although Governor Kuakini had Hawaiian women weaving cotton in Kailua in the early 19th century, no photo exists to show us their dress and their demeanor. Photographs of groups of women of any nationality in early 20th century Kona at work are a rarity, so this image is a surprising treat.

The genesis of commercial tobacco growing in Kona can be traced directly to the United States Department of Agriculture and the Hawaii Agricultural Experiment Station in Hamakua. Jared G. Smith and Charles R. Blacow, employees at this aforementioned experiment station, published U.S.D.A. Bulletin No. 15 in 1907. In it, they reported on the success they had had in growing tobacco on abandoned coffee land in Paauilo, particularly Sumatran and Cuban type wrapper leaves. In 1908, both men resigned their positions and headed to Kona to manage tobacco farms. Mr. Blacow landed in Keauhou, North Kona, in charge of the Hawaiian Tobacco Plantation. Mr. Smith headed south to Keokea, an area between Honaunau and Kealia, where he managed Kona Tobacco Company. Naturally, prospects seemed rosy and statements were made that “No man can tell the difference between the Kona article and the finest Havana-grown leaf.” (Manager J.L. Daniels, 1910 -1912)

Tobacco plants flourished from April to October and were harvested in the fall. Although men did the heavy work of harvesting and hauling the crop, women provided much of the labor needed to turn a green leaf into something worth smoking. In an oral history held our KHS archive, the tale is told of a young Hawaiian girl working with her older relatives in the “stringing room,” a space that may have looked very much like this photo. Once the fresh leaf reached this stringing room, women got out their needles to stitch 50 to 60 leaves, back to back and front to front, about an inch apart, onto a 5 foot long doubled piece of cotton string. I suppose one might say the ladies were stringing a tobacco leaf lei! The distance between the leaves was readily gauged with the fingers and the string was attached at both ends to a 4 ½ foot long wooden tobacco pole. These leaf-laden poles were then placed upon racks in a curing barn, each pole carefully placed 9 inches away from its neighbor. No tobacco leaf was allowed to touch another tobacco leaf, or bad things might happen! (Fungus, disease, improper leaf color, etc.)

The object of curing was to produce a yellowing of the leaf by prolonging the death of the green cells in the leaf. The yellowing was essential. Too short a cure produced a green leaf. The worst color was black, so that had to be avoided at all costs. These curing barns were tall, rather flimsy looking, structures with fabric covered walls, designed for thorough ventilation and perfect control of temperature and humidity! Quite a tall order in early 20th century Kona! Strung-up leaves spent one month in the curing barn, followed by six to seven weeks in the fermenting room.

With Kona’s normally wet summer rains promoting optimum growth and dry, sunny winter months providing the best possible curing weather, it would seem Kona was indeed a perfect location for this burgeoning industry. Alas, many curses of agriculture, among them enemies of tobacco – slugs, snails, nematodes, flea-beetles and damping off fungus – also include unpredictable weather. A horrible drought afflicted Mr. Blacow’s crop and he collapsed in his tobacco fields while tending his plants in 1909. The collapse of his company soon followed and the Keauhou experiment faded from memory.

Down at Keokea, the tobacco crop fared better. By the time our charming photograph of Hawaiian females appeared in print, 60 women were employed in curing and grading the crop. Over 6,000 pounds of leaves had been sold to the Keokea Cigar Company and manager J.L. Daniels felt that no greater opportunity existed for the small farmer in South Kona than planting his fields with tobacco. While Mr. Daniels traveled to the East Coast to attend the tobacco auction there, leaving his son in charge of the company, hideous fate took the upper hand. A disastrous fire broke out in late 1912, completely destroying numerous company buildings and two year’s worth of tobacco stored in them. The company never recovered. With the advent of World War I, tobacco took a back seat to bombs and slowly withered away in Kona.

According to Marie C. Neal, wonderful expert on all things in Hawaii’s plant kingdom, “The source of commercial tobacco is a large, sticky-hairy annual herb to about 6 feet high, native of tropical America. Since about 1812 it has been growing in Hawaii, where from 1908 to 1929 it was tried out on a large scale in Kona, Hawaii, as a possible industry.” (In Gardens of Hawaii, 1965)

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P.S. I am unsure how to describe the dresses. The definition of holoku is not quite right. “1. A loose, seamed dress with a train and usually a yoke, patterned after the Mother Hubbards of the missionaries. Cf. the mu`umu`u, which formerly was not yoked and has no train or seam. Both garments are frequently made of gaily patterned material.” (Pukui and Elbert) The first definition for mu`umu`u is “1. Cut-off, shortened or amputated.” The second meaning refers to the dress: “ 2. A woman’s underslip or chemise; a loose gown, so called because formerly the yoke was omitted and sometimes the sleeves were short.” So, an amputated holoku`u – a Mother Hubbard with no train, short sleeves, no yoke, no side seams (?) – is a mu`umu`u.

The dresses worn in this photo are a wonderful mix of calico, plaid and white fabrics; many have long sleeves, but several sport shortened versions, some with ribbon trim; many high necked yokes are decorated here and there ruffles and a bit of lace; and all the long dresses have seams up the sides; and I spy one or two cinched in waistlines (and some jewelry)! So, as far as I can make out, neither definition fits. Hair is worn long, pinned up, or pulled back, and there is not a trace of lipstick in sight. I like the open expressions on the ladies’ faces as they pose for the photographer; a roomful of wahine with a solitary man lost in the background, along with a lauhala hat. These Hawaiians are part of the great sisterhood of working women who transformed 20th century America. This is an American photograph taken in the Territory of Hawaii. As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, I wonder what barriers will fall and what doors will open for women next?

Aloha and Hau`oli Makahiki Hou, o Kona.

by Maile Melrose