Robert Castro has been a volunteer at Plantation Village Hawaii for nearly 25 years. The 78-year-old grew up across the street and now leads village tours.
“It’s always exciting that the story is tied to my family,” he said. “And I hope people who go on tour understand why our mix of chop suey people are here, why they came and how they lived and things like that.”
Castro’s family was among nearly 400,000 people hired to work on Hawaii’s sugar cane plantations. His family came from Portugal and they eventually moved to Waipahu to work for the Oʻahu Sugar Company.
While leading tours, he likes to stop at the Portuguese complex in the village to share memories. In particular, he points to a bread oven that was used to bake sweet bread on special occasions. He remembers his grandmother doing the same thing at Christmas.
It’s stories like these that the Plantation Village hopes to keep alive, said Executive Director Evelyn Ahlo. She and many community members are celebrating the village’s 30th anniversary with thought and pride.
“Only people come through here and only people I work with,” she said. “Because you learn every day. Even with our guests who come here, you just learn where they come from, what they do. Some of them have connections. And you’re just surprised at the connections they have with us here.
Opened in 1992, Hawaii’s Plantation Village on Waipahu Street is considered one of the few remaining museums in the islands dedicated to the history of our sugarcane plantations.
Operated and maintained by the non-profit organization Friends of Waipahu Cultural Garden Park, the 50-acre open-air museum tells the stories of plantation life from the 1850s through the 1950s.
The museum features around 20 structures that are restored or replicated to resemble plantation houses and buildings representing the different ethnic groups of people who worked and lived there. This includes Hawaiians, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, Okinawans, Portuguese, and Puerto Ricans.
Hundreds of artifacts are also placed in the structures and throughout the museum. Most were donated to the village by former plantation workers and their families, Ahlo said.
When the plantation village opened, she said it was a dream for many in the community.
“We had a lot of group leaders here who wanted to preserve the heritage and wanted future generations to know what it was like to be part of the immigration, what it was like to live on a plantation and all the hardships , the struggles , the happiness that they experienced here,” she said. “Waipahu was a big part of it here.”
Before the pandemic, she said they welcomed hundreds of people every month. Ahlo said she faced challenges including vandalism, homeless encampments, staffing and funding. They were also closed to visitors for a while during the pandemic.
But she said the community always got away with it. She said they hoped to expand their education programs and were excited to see more school groups returning.
Ahlo also pointed out that she is one of six employees, so much of what they do is handled by their 75 volunteers.
Besides Castro, one of them is 84-year-old Yoshiko Yamauchi. His father left Okinawa to work on plantations in Kauaʻi. And she’s been a part of the Plantation Village since it opened – first as a teacher coordinating school visits, then as a volunteer after her retirement.
“When I arrived, I wanted it to be a special place unlike any other museum,” she said. “It really worked because it was about all the different people that are part of Hawai’i. So it’s a mixture of cultures.
The plantation village plans to hold a 30th anniversary celebration next month. It is open from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Saturday. For more information, click here.