The decline of the whaling industry following the discovery of petroleum oil in Titusville, Pennsylvania in 1859 created a temporary economic vacuum in Hawai‘i.
Although sugar had a relatively slow start after the initial first successful sugar plantation at Kōloa, Kaua‘i (1835,) it soon started to prosper.
However, it wasn’t until the American Civil War, which virtually shut down Louisiana sugar production during the 1860s, that Hawai‘i was able to compete in a California market that paid elevated prices for sugar.
It was about this time (1864) that George Norton Wilcox (known as GN,) the second son of eight boys, born in Hilo August 15, 1839 to missionary parents, Abner and Lucy Wilcox, took over the lease for Grove Farm sugar operation on Kaua‘i and quickly became its sole owner.
The plantation had initially been chopped out of a large grove of kukui trees and was thereafter called the Grove Farm.
Initially schooled at Punahou, he then studied engineering on the mainland at the Sheffield Scientific School, now a part of Yale University; GN was an enterprising innovator of plantation sugar culture.
GN realized that his plantation lacked enough water, which is the key to successfully growing sugar. His first major innovation was the engineering and digging of an extensive irrigation ditch, in which water was brought from the mountains to his thirsty sugar fields.
Many modernizing changes occurred throughout the plantation, from the construction of the innovative water irrigation system to the creation of new cultivating machinery and planting methods to the use of the first sugar cane seed planter in the islands.
His Grove Farm Homestead was the center of operations for the developing sugar plantation and involved the relationship of family life, plantation activity, household work, gardening and farming which continue as a part of the experience of visiting Grove Farm today.
Today, the 100-acre Grove Farm Homestead preserves the earliest surviving set of domestic, agricultural and sugar plantation buildings, furnishings and collections, surrounding orchards and pasturelands in Hawaiʻi.
Grove Farm Homestead is the finest example in Hawaii of a complete plantation operation still in its original form. The estate was added to the National Register of Historic Places listings in Hawaii on June 25, 1974.
The original house (pre-dated 1854; exact date unknown) started as a single story, wood frame structure with a very high pitched hip roof with very wide eave overhand which is supported by square wood posts at the eave and covers a veranda which encircles the house on three sides.
To the rear of this building is a kitchen-food preparation building with access off the veranda.
During a 1915 renovation of the structure (under the direction of CW Dickey,) walls were removed and large openings placed adjoining each of the three rooms creating a feeling of openness and flow from one space to another.
The main estate house has two bedrooms, writing room, two bathrooms and a library on the first floor. A grand staircase leads up to the second floor which has more bedrooms. Behind the main house is a hexagonal gazebo styled after a Japanese teahouse, built in 1898.
To the south is a guest cottage divided into two living areas, built around 1890. Another single story cottage was built in 1877 for GN Wilcox, and an office building was built in 1884. A number of support buildings include a tool shed (dated 1870,) a garage and a number of small, single-story, wood-frame plantation workers’ houses.
The plantation buildings reflect a style adaptive to climatic conditions in the area (wide veranda, high pitched roofs), while the main house is a unique reminder of the 1850s renovated into the 20th Century.
Historically, Grove Farm Homestead is of great importance to Hawai‘i. It was developed under the direction of George N. Wilcox, one of the most important men in Hawaiʻi from the 1860s to 1933, when he died at the age of 93.
GN Wilcox was not only a plantation owner; he was also an engineer, statesman, businessman and a world traveler. More importantly, he was also a philanthropist and humanist, who left an extensive legacy of endowments and public donations behind him.
The main house is now a private museum with tours by appointment. Advance reservations are required for an unhurried two-hour guided tour of the buildings, gardens and grounds at Grove Farm.
Tours are given in small groups and are led by Kaua‘i residents familiar with life on the island, and are offered on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, beginning promptly at 10 am and 1 pm. There is a $20 requested donation for adults and $10 for children 5-12 years old.
A few decades ago, I had the opportunity to have a private tour of the Grove Farm Homestead with Barnes Risnik, then manager of the Grove Farm Homestead Museum. That was an awesome and memorable experience.