On the southwest coast of Oahu, Hawaii, the remains of the now-defunct Ewa sugar plantation stand like a relic of a generation and way of life that has faded into history. But in the mid-twentieth century, when Dennis Irie (ARCH ’66) grew up there, it was a bustling community complete with its own hospital, school, post office, store, theater, and fire department.
“You may think ‘plantation’ and relate that to the South and slavery, but that wasn’t the case at Ewa. The plantation treated its workers well,” says Irie, a retired architect who now lives in Honolulu with his wife, Patsy. “The children had a lot of nice amenities and the people in the close-knit community had decent homes. So they generally have good memories about the place.”
He hopes to capture and secure those memories for future generations through his forthcoming book, Cane Tassels, Work Whistles and Labor Day Carnivals.
Irie spent a decade gathering photos, stories, and oral histories from those who lived on the plantation from the 1940s to 1970. After retirement, he wrote a narrative, drew town maps, organized the photos and stories into chapters, and now is close to completing his manuscript. The final book will include the personal accounts of more than 60 former plantation residents.
“Many former Ewa kids contributed to this collection… Some accounts are funny and some are wistful,” writes former plantation resident Carolyn Okinaga in the book’s introduction. “[The book] truly reflects this love for the Ewa where we grew up.”
Irie recalls a pleasant childhood, including playing sports and hanging out at the plantation’s recreation center. Although he had chores, such as raking and cutting grass, he never worked for the plantation company.
“Parents generally made a big push for their children to get a good education and to pursue careers outside of the plantation. It’s interesting that a lot of us went on to become educators, engineers, architects, dentists, or attorneys,” he says.
The grandson of Japanese immigrants, Irie was a third-generation Ewa resident. His grandparents came to Oahu in the late 1800s when his grandfather accepted a position as a contract laborer for Ewa (he was later promoted to supervisor). His parents also worked on the plantation and the family lived in a three-bedroom rental home there for $40 per month.
Their lives shifted suddenly on December 7, 1941, with the attack on nearby Pearl Harbor.
“Friends who were fishing in the West Loch of Pearl Harbor quickly came running up the hill back to the village after seeing all the explosions,” recounts a story from Irie’s book, contributed by two residents who lived on a part of the plantation that overlooked the harbor. “Many gathered at the overlook to take in all that was happening, not realizing this was the start of a war.”
When the United States entered World War II, Irie’s maternal grandparents were placed in internment camps on the mainland, while his mother was allowed to continue working in the plantation’s main office and care for the 1-year-old Irie. His father, who had graduated from the University of Missouri, was part of the U.S. Army’s 100th Infantry Battalion, an all-Japanese unit that was sent to fight in the European Theater. He was among the 10 men from their community of 4,000 who died in the war.
Irie recently rescued a plaque honoring these men and had it installed in the courtyard of the Administration-Library Complex that he designed at the town’s elementary school. He has created a storyboard for the courtyard that explains the plaque’s significance so that, like his book, it can help future generations connect with their town’s past.
Hawaiian Sugar Planters’ Association Plantation Archives: www2.hawaii.edu/~speccoll/p_ewa.html