Bill Balfour spent 40 years in an industry that helped define Hawaii. The man invested four decades of his life in the state’s sugar plantations; 19 of them as president and manager of Pioneer Mill Company, Oahu Sugar Company, Lihue Plantation Company and McBryde Sugar Company.

Most of the plantations are gone now. So are the well-stocked company stores and the Hawaii Sugar Planter’s Association. It was replaced by the Hawaii Agriculture Research Center, a sign of the incomplete search for other crops to grow on former sugar land.

Today it can seem as though the sugar industry has simply blown away in the trade winds.

But the era of plantations and sugarcane left a permanent and imposing mark on the islands we occupy. The plantations and their crop helped to shape our surface transportation, harbors, docks, rights of way, financial institutions, the most racially and ethnically diverse population in the nation, growth and development.

It also left a mark on us, which is why Balfour’s evolution says something about Hawaii even now.

Bill Balfour holds his photograph of his 1959 graduation image made at the Makiki District Park HSPA.  photograph Cory Lum.

Bill Balfour holds a photograph from his 1959 Hawaii Sugar Planter’s Association graduation ceremony in Makiki District Park .

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Last Luna

Bill Balfour was a late-era Luna.

The early Lunas were different. From 1850 to 1925, a Luna was a plantation overseer who typically carried, and wielded, a whip to enforce company discipline.

In those early days, plantation workers endured some horrible conditions. Some were comparable to slavery. Their food was barely edible and housing was as miserable as it was unsanitary. Plantation management set up rules controlling employees’ lives even after they completed arduous working hours. Workers were prohibited from leaving the plantation in the evening and were required to be in bed by 8:30. After the lights were out, no talking was allowed.

Sometimes there was unrest among workers — and retaliation by the companies. Blood was spilled. People died.

After a slow start dating back prior to the arrival of Captain Cook, sugar plantations gained a foothold in Hawaiian agriculture as steamship deliveries began to provide rapid and reliable transportation to and from the United States. California’s gold rush drove up the appetite for sugar.

The American Civil War added to the demand for Hawaii’s sugar on the mainland because southern sugar couldn’t be delivered to northern states. During the war, the price of sugar multiplied more than six-fold, from 4 cents per pound in 1861 to 25 cents in 1865.

While Americans battled each other on the continent, missionary families in the middle of the Pacific Ocean took control of the Hawaii sugar industry, birthing the Big Five: C. Brewer, Theo Davies, Amfac, Castle & Cooke and Alexander & Baldwin.

The Big Five developed close ties to the Hawaiian monarchy. Their wealth and power grew at exponential rates thanks partly to capital investments, cheap land and labor, and increasing global trade. This allowed the sugar barons to play key roles in the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, the American annexation of the Republic of Hawaii and the creation of the Territory of Hawaii.

Copy of Bill Balfour’s photograph of him in the 1960s.

Balfour, on the job, in the 1960s.

Courtesy of Bill Balfour

As Hawaiian plantations began large-scale production, the need for a much greater workforce became apparent. Plantation owners began recruiting and importing inexpensive foreign labor. Workers, and others, came in droves and in waves. Over a third of a million people immigrated to Hawaii over the span of a century.

About 50,000 Chinese people came to work between 1852 and 1887. Around 200,000 Japanese workers and others arrived between 1885 and 1924. At least 7,300 Koreans came between 1903 and 1910, but unlike many of the other immigrant groups, nearly all of them stayed. And 112,000 Filipinos came between 1909 and 1930.

Many of them worked directly or indirectly in the sugar industry.

At its peak “King Sugar” and its plantations employed more than 50,000 workers and produced more than a million tons of sugar a year.

But then the world changed. Sugar developed a basic economic problem. The value of land and the cost of labor skyrocketed until the cost of production far exceeded what could be recouped selling sugar on the open market. The industry in Hawaii was battered by foreign competition and ultimately decimated by intractably low prices.

The industry began a painful, and inevitable, withering process.

Sam Keala, Civil Engineer and Bill Balfour from the 1960s. photograph Bill Balfour.

Sam Keala, civil engineer, and Balfour in the 1960s.

Courtesy of Bill Balfour

A Life in Sugar

Balfour was born in Kealia, Kauai. His father was a plantation doctor at the McKee Sugar Company.

Sixty-five years ago, when he graduated from Punahou School, he stood 6 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 165 pounds. Today he is an inch shorter and five pounds lighter, but he still stands upright, like a rod.

Balfour’s path to becoming a pre-eminent Luna began in college. He majored in general agriculture at the University of Missouri and went on to graduate studies provided by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association and Stanford University Executive Management programs.

In 1957, at the age of 25, he trained with the HSPA in “technical stuff,” and two years later — as Hawaii was becoming a state — began his career as a plantation employee at Leihue Plantation.

After engaging in agricultural research, he became the department head in charge of irrigation of half the plantation. In the 1960’s he became irrigation superintendent for the entire plantation supervising nearly 300 people, he recalls. After taking on the work of three department heads, he harvested, cultivated and engineered, he was working 80 to 90 hours a week. That last promotion brought him a giant raise: $50 per month.

During his tenure in the industry, plantations evolved to become self-maintained communities. It may be hard to imagine now, but the idea was that employees worked hard and should be compensated from the womb to the tomb. This meant the plantation was a place of employment, but also a home, recreation and entertainment space. There were gyms, swimming pools, sports fields, housing and even a hospital.

Bill Balfour makes some adjustments to a weather station in the 1960s. copy photograph. courtesy Bill Balfour

Balfour makes some adjustments to a weather station in the 1960s.

Courtesy of Bill Barfour

Employees shopped at a company store with their “bongo number,” which was essentially an employee identification. Bill’s was number 4250. Shopping at the well-stocked company store meant showing a bongo number so that the cost of purchases could be taken out of the next paycheck.

The plantations weren’t exactly magnanimous when it came to their appetite for profits. When Balfour purchased appliances from Sears for his plantation home, the company found out and he was called before the human resources director for the Lihue Plantation. The director bluntly told Balfour that he was required to buy any appliances from the company store if he wanted to keep his job. Balfour switched to the GE appliances sold at the plantation store.

Balfour eventually became the head Luna, although by then the position was more of a management supervisor, at the Oahu Sugar Plantation. He was responsible for 19,000 acres and over 900 employees. When Big Sugar was thriving Oahu Sugar was considered — at least by Bill — as one of the crown jewels of Hawaii’s sugar industry.

During his many years on the plantations one of Balfour’s proudest accomplishments involved setting a world record on the sugar tonnage produced per acre crop. The record, certified by HSPA in the 1980s, has yet to be broken, he says.

One of Balfour’s great challenges involved dealing with the aftermath of a 1973 storm that destroyed most of the East Kauai irrigation ditch system. The irrigation system starts in Hanalei, where there is a major water intake system, and ends nearly 50 miles away in Koloa. The system-wide damage was extensive; tunnels caved in, ditches and banks were broken and debris slid into and clogged ditches throughout the system.

1959 Graduation photograph with Bill Balfour center at Makiki District park HSPA.  photograph courtesy Bill Balfour.

Balfour, center, in his 1959 graduation ceremony at Makiki District park.

Courtesy of Bill Balfour

Bill put together an emergency crew of more than 200 men and had them board trucks. They had shovels, picks, cane knives and chainsaws but no heavy equipment because there was no way to get it up the mountains to the water intake system. The repair effort took two and a half months and eventually required the use of a helicopter to repair some of the damage, but they got it done.

Despite working doggedly to keep the plantations — and sugar — afloat, market forces proved to be too relentless. After 40 years, he moved on.

He joined the City and County of Honolulu where he worked as director of Parks and Recreation for 8 years under Mayor Jeremy Harris before becoming the civil defense administrator for two years under Mayor Mufi Hannemann. Later he became special assistant to the director of Parks and Recreation, Gary Cabato, after a stint as a consultant for Monsanto. And I, as mayor, appointed him Cabato’s special assistant.

I did that partly because Balfour was a knowledgeable, experienced and disciplined man with a sharp intellect. The knowledge and experiences that had shaped him, also shaped the state, and his past in the sugar industry gave him tools that were much needed in the city.

After being appointed director of Parks and Recreation, one of his first tasks involved inspecting facilities in 278 of the parks belonging to the City and County. He was walking through McCoy Pavilion in Ala Moana Park with an entourage of city employees when, like a supervisor, he ran his hand along a wooden ridge in one of the rooms. There was termite damage, he told the group.

An engineer suggested calling a consultant. Tapping into his well-honed skills as Luna, Balfour cut to the chase, as he often did, explaining, “You don’t need a consultant you need an exterminator.”

Bill Balfour portrait at his residence in Aiea. photograph Cory Lum.  15 dec 2014.

Balfour at home in Aiea.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

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