On September 26, 1849, sea captain Heinrich (Henry) Hackfeld arrived in Honolulu with his wife, Marie, her 16-year-old brother Johann Carl Pflueger and a nephew BF Ehlers.
Having purchased an assorted cargo at Hamburg, Germany, Hackfeld opened a general merchandise business (dry goods, crockery, hardware and stationery,) wholesale, as well as retail store on Queen Street.
In 1850 he moved to a larger location on Fort Street. This store was so popular, it became known as “Hale Kilika” – the House of Silk (because it sold the finest goods available.) As business grew, the nephew took over management of the store while Hackfeld traveled the world for merchandise. The company took BF Ehlers’ name in 1862.
Hackfeld developed a business of importing machinery and supplies for the spreading sugar plantations and exported raw sugar. H Hackfeld & Co became a prominent factor – business agent and shipper – for the plantations.
Its shipping interest, manufacturing and jobbing lines developed a web of commercial relationships with Europe, England and the eastern seaboard of the US. German whalers were still sailing the Pacific in the 1850s and Hackfeld bought and outfitted several whalers, brought in Pacific Coast lumber beginning in 1855 and engaged in the trans-shipment trade.
By 1855, Hackfeld operated two stores, served as agent for two sugar plantations, and represented the governments of Russia, Sweden and Norway. (Later the firm or its principals also represented Austro-Hungary, Belgium and Germany.) When Hackfeld left on a two-year business trip to Germany and Pflueger took charge in his absence. (Greaney)
In 1871 Hackfeld and Pflueger both went back to Europe to launch a German affiliate in Bremen. There they placed into service a line of ships sailing under the Hawaiian flag between Bremen and Honolulu with wheat, oil, wool and hides for the Islands and sugar shipments on the way back.
The old Honolulu Courthouse site was advertised for sale at auction in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser of May 9, 1874; H Hackfeld & Co bought it at the upset price of $20,000. As reported by the Hawaiian Gazette, “It is the best business stand in Honolulu.”
Then, the Treaty of Reciprocity (1875) between the US and the Kingdom of Hawai‘i eliminated the major trade barrier to Hawai‘i’s closest and major market. Through the treaty, the US gained Pearl Harbor and Hawai‘i’s sugar planters received duty-free entry into US markets. Sugar boomed.
In 1881, Hackfeld and Paul Isenberg became partners. Isenberg, who had arrived in Hawaiʻi in 1858, had extensive experience in the sugar industry, previously working under Judge Duncan McBryde and Rev. William Harrison Rice in Kōloa and Lihuʻe.
From that time on Mr. Isenberg was a factor in the development of the Hackfeld business, which became one of the largest in Hawaiʻi.
Hackfeld became the first Swedish and Norwegian Consul in the Islands. In 1862, he returned to Hamburg, and afterwards to Bremen, where he settled and managed the business of H. Hackfeld & Co. there until 1886, when he retired from the firm. In 1886 Hackfeld sold his interest in the company and returned to Germany; he died there on October 20, 1887.
When the partnership was incorporated in 1897, a new building was erected at the corner of Fort and Queen Streets; it stood there for 70-years.
After the US annexation of Hawaii in 1898, Isenberg returned to Germany to live; however, he retained the role of president, with Hackfeld’s son, Johan (John) Friedrich Hackfeld serving as 1st vice president and Isenberg’s son, Alexander Isenberg as 2nd vice president.
John later took over; however, he, too, returned to Germany in 1900. His cousin, George F Rodiek, became the executive in charge of H Hackfeld & Co. (Weiner) In 1905, Rodiek built an estate in Nuʻuanu.
A few years later, with the advent of the US involvement in World War I, things changed significantly for the worst for the folks at H Hackfeld & Co.
In 1918, using the terms of the Trading with the Enemy Act and its amendments, the US government seized H Hackfeld & Company and ordered the sale of German-owned shares. (Jung)
The Alien Property Custodian’s Office noted, “The powerful German hold on the sugar industry of the Hawaiian islands has been crushed. The control of Hawaii’s most important industry has been restored to its people.”
“This is the effect of the announcement of A Mitchell Palmer, alien property custodian, that he had completed the Americanization of the H Hackfeld Co, the threat German owned corporation which for years has played so important a part in the sugar situation of the Hawaiian islands.”
“Mr. Palmer Americanized this German concern by … selling the entire assets and business of the German Hackfeld Co to (an) American company, whose stockholders are all loyal American citizens, most of them residents of the Hawaiian islands.” (Alien Property Custodian’s Office; Daily News Almanac, 1919)
The patriotic sounding “American Factors, Ltd,” the newly-formed Hawaiʻi-based corporation, whose largest shareholders included Alexander & Baldwin, C Brewer & Company, Castle & Cooke, HP Baldwin Ltd, Matson Navigation Company and Welch & Company, bought the H Hackfeld stock. (Jung) Thus, the German-started H Hackfeld & Co became one of Hawaiʻi’s “Big Five.”
(Hawaiʻi’s Big 5 were: Amfac – starting as Hackfeld & Company (1849;) Alexander & Baldwin (1870;) Theo H. Davies (1845;) Castle & Cooke (1851) and C. Brewer (1826.))
At that same time, the BF Ehlers dry goods store also took the patriotic “Liberty House” name. In 1937 a second store was opened in the Waikiki area. Eventually there would be seven stores on Oahu, and several more on the other islands.
During the 1970s, Liberty House expanded into California, Nevada and Washington, but the Washington stores were sold in 1979 and the California and Nevada locations were sold in 1984. In 2001, Federated Department Stores Inc bought Liberty House, Hawaiʻi’s oldest and largest department store chain, and turned it into Macy’s.
American Factors shortened its name to “Amfac” in 1966. The next year (1967,) Henry Alexander Walker became president and later Board Chairman. Walker bought the former Rodiek estate.
Over the next 15-years, Walker took Amfac from a company that largely depended on sugar production in Hawaiʻi to a broadly diversified conglomerate. After adding so many companies, Amfac sales were $1.3 billion by 1976, up from $575 million in 1971. (hbs-edu)
After subsequent sales of controlling interests in the company and liquidation of land and other assets, in 2002, the once dominant business in Hawaiʻi, the biggest of the Hawaiʻi Big Five, Amfac Hawaiʻi, LLC filed for federal bankruptcy protection. (TGI)