Onomea Plantation was started in 1863 by Judge Stafford L Austin and EH Allen. Austin “was the eldest of three sons of an attorney who was a self-made man, and who rose from the ranks of the laboring men, of Buffalo, New York.” (Judd, Supreme Court)
“Two brothers followed him to this country and left honorable records on the pages of Island history. Benjamin Hale Austin … was one of the Associate Judges of the Supreme Court, and Jonathan Austin was for a short time one of the Ministers of State under the late monarchy.” (Friend, October 1, 1896)
“(Austin) came to this country in 1852, he being then only 27 years of age, and was admitted to the Bar of the highest Court here.” He later became a Circuit Court Judge.
“As regards the matter of the various improvements, transportation of the cane in flumes, which had its origin in Hilo, I think he may well be said to have been one of the most enterprising and intelligent of the planters.” Onomea Plantation had a reputation for being one of the most advanced and best-equipped estates in Hawaii during its time.
“He worked hard and intelligently to make his plantation, the Onomea plantation a success.” (Judd, Supreme Court) During the early days, Onomea’s crushing plant was water driven. A metal water wheel and boiler had been shipped from Glasgow, Scotland in 1862.
Water from the flumes provided the power to turn the wheel, which in turn moved the sugar cane crusher. The water-driven crushing plant was much larger and heavier than those of other mills. The mill was situated just below Pāpaʻikou at the foot of a gulch, which opened out to the ocean.
It was the first nine-roller mill erected on the island. The mill was connected by rail to one of the best landings and loading devices on the coast.
The sugar cars were hauled to the landing by a cable and sugar could be sent over the main cable to the hold of a ship without rehandling. By means of this device about 1,600 bags of sugar could be loaded in an hour.
In 1888, Onomea consolidated with Paukaʻa, and Pāpaʻikou plantations and was reorganized into the Onomea Sugar Company. (Pāpaʻikou Plantation was originally owned by Charles Whetmore and EG Hitchcock and Paukaʻa Plantation was owned by Jonathan Austin.)
Onomea Sugar Company was situated in the Hilo district on the Island of Hawaii. The plantation property extended along the ocean front a distance of six miles and was at one point three miles deep terminating at the forests.
The elevation ranged from 20 to 1,500 feet. The rainfall in the vicinity was extremely heavy, from 200-250 inches per year, so no irrigation was required.
Water from Honolii, Pahoihoe, Kapue, Kaieie, Hanawi, Kahalii, Kawai-Nui and Waiaama streams was used for fluming and electrical power. Onomea was probably one of the most beautiful plantations with its abundance of streams, waterfalls, forests, ferns, and tropical plants.
A distinctive feature of Onomea was its system of flumes, which spanned gorges and carried cane down the slopes to the mill. Fifty-five miles of stationary and portable flumes were constructed.
The trestle, which carried the main flume across Hanawainui Gulch, was the largest wooden bridge in the territory and the one spanning Kawainui Gulch was the highest, 176 feet.
Onomea’s location in a heavy rainfall belt made it difficult to mechanize cane harvesting and transportation easily. The heavy rainfall also tended to wash topsoil away and leach it out. Onomea was the first Hawaiian sugar plantation to use commercial fertilizer on its fields.
Later on efforts to protects Onomea’s topsoils resulted in the invention of a plow which was adapted to the peculiar topography of the county and the nature of the soil. The shallow, clay-like soils were subject to washing unless properly cultivated.
Onomea was one of the last plantations to stop hand cutting cane. However, progress was made and the extensive road building program begun in 1903 was finally completed in 1956.
Onomea developed into one of Hawaii’s major producers of sugar cane. By 1926, the plantation had grown from 300 acres to 27,427 acres. Since it owned most of the land, its future was not dependent on the favorable extension of leases.
Onomea employed workers who came from China, Japan, Portugal, Philippines, Puerto Rico, and other countries. By 1941, over 3,000 men, women and children were living in six villages on the plantation.
There were 450 company owned houses, which included garden space. Free medical services were also provided. The advent of the labor unions also helped to improve the working conditions of the workers.
After World War II, the company experienced financial problems due to labor scarcity and later to high wage raises. During the course of time, C. Brewer & Co. had acquired controlling interest in the company.
In May of 1965, a proposal was made to merge Onomea Sugar Co. and Hilo Sugar Co. into a single C. Brewer subsidiary to be called Mauna Kea Sugar Co. The goal was to achieve greater operating efficiency and cost savings.
On July 26, 1965, the two companies were merged and the new Mauna Kea Sugar Co. became the third largest in acreage (13,000 acres) on the Big Island. (Lots of information here is from HSPA Plantation Archives – UH.)