At the very heart of a popular tourist destination on Kauai’s South Shore rests the old Koloa Japanese Camp – a time worn settlement tucked behind the crowded ranch-style homes along Wailani Street and well out of view of the modern Koloa By-Pass Road. It is perhaps the last vestige of plantation life in the state. It soon will be gone as the camp resident’s remove their belongings from the place they’ve called home for more than a half a century.
Hurricanes and floods have wreaked havoc throughout the years but none were as damaging as the capitulation of the sugar industry in Hawaii and the economic catastrophe of recent years. The final straw came late last year when Grove Farm decided evict the camp residents and tear down the houses. While the residents always banded together, pitched in on repairs, and looked after one another during hard times in the past, they are now adrift. Up to this day of this writing, if an unfamiliar car comes down the dirt road that bisects the camp, residents will come out to see who it is.
“It’s a safe place. We look after one another,” said a resident who came out of his house barefooted to see why I was walking down the road.
Cocks crow and hunting dogs bark, providing a raucous cacophony above the whispered pleas of the ghosts of generations of families who have been born, raised and died in this small area. Catherine Fernandez is a living voice; her deceased husband Cereal Fernandez relies on the wind.
For 56 years three generations of the Fernandez family made Koloa Camp their home. I sit and chat with Catherine Fernandez, age 82 and her grand daughter, Shayda Fernandez, 40, in the shade of one of the largest lychee trees I have ever seen, planted when the family first moved in.
“Grandma would wake up and go pick fresh papaya for her breakfast every morning,” Shayda explains. “It’s going to be really hard for her now that she will have to buy fruit in the grocery store.”
Huge lychee trees and mango – thick with liko, or fresh blooms, indicate a record year for fruit. Papaya, banana and pineapple patches abound in the overgrown garden and yard. Everything grows well in this slightly sunken backwater, which landowner Grove farm plans to bulldoze and elevate to minimize future flooding.
“I have so many papaya trees and pineapple – they take a year to grow, you know -- and this lychee is going to give so much fruit this year, but I won’t be here,” Mrs. Fernandez lamented.
“What is sad is that each family took care of their home and surrounding gardens,” explains Shayda. “Grove Farm never stepped in to help with repairs or to help us fix up anything on the property. We planted all this that you see. We fed ourselves from these gardens.”
Immersed in the scents of blooming fragrant ornamental flowers and bushes, the Fernandez home has a way of blocking out the hustle and bustle of the modern day world that exists just outside of its periphery.
“This house was separated and brought up here from the mill, “ Fernandez continues. “It used to be a two family farm house.”
The picturesque structure with 3 bedrooms and one bath was home to the 7-member family for 56 years. Two of Fernandez children – now in their middle age – were born in the house, and Grandpa Cereal Fernandez died here.
“Shayda’s mother was born here and Sunita, my other daughter, was born right in this house,” Fernandez reminisces, sadly shaking her head. “ There have been a lot of memories.”
Under a sea of dishwater colored clouds, Fernandez tells me what happened 29 days after her husband – a former supervisor and the last surviving plantation worker in the camp – passed away in September 2011.
“My husband was the last one that Grove Farm was waiting for. Within 29 days after he died they called up ad said they wanted to have a meeting with our family so they could discuss the future of the camp”.
Between the last months of 2011 and March 8, 2012 – Grove Farm’s eviction deadline -- residents like Fernandez have been faced with dilemmas such as how to get a mortgage at age 60 and above, or where to find an affordable rental nearby.
“My whole life is in Koloa: my church, St Raphael, my friends. Unless I can find a rental in Koloa, I will have to move in with my daughter in Kekaha, but it is very crowded,” Fernandez says looking longingly at her home.
When asked about the alternative of buying one of the structures that Grove Farm plans to build, Fernandez says that the pre-fab homes Grove Farm has slated for the site are way out of her price range. She also noted that Grove Farm has been no help in assisting residents with a place to go if they can’t afford the alternative.
“This was a good place to raise the family. Everybody knew one another. When one family would roast a pig for a party, everyone along the street was invited. There aren’t many places like that left on the island.”
Asked if she thought there was a chance for a last minute change of heart on Grove Farm’s part, Fernandez was quick to answer.
“Grove Farm is not going to budge. We have to go. It said so in the newspaper. There is nothing we can do.”
Fresh chalk marks adorn the sidewalk that leads to the front door, evidence that her great grand children were visiting over the President’s Day weekend. “The kids will really miss it here,” says Shayda. “Actually 4 generations will miss it if you count us all.”
“This is the end of the plantation,” said the elder Fernandez when it came time for me to leave. “Why celebrate Koloa Plantation days when there will be no more plantations? “
And, as a way of life where cultures once intermingled to work the fertile Kauai soil, their descendants now disperse and disappear. The same soil becomes the arena for growth of a different sort -- the lucrative real estate business. And, the “old Hawaii “ that has attracted so many visitors, sinks further into obscurity.