LIHU'E — When people today think of George Norton Wilcox, they might think of
Grove Farm, which he founded in 1864. Or they might think of the Lihu'e
hospital named after him. Or still they might think of one of the many pictures
of the man in his trademark McInerny's straw hat and thick glasses.
descriptions were certainly true of the son of missionary parents who was at
one time reputed to be the richest man in Hawai'i.
But to those who have
studied him, like former Grove Farm museum director Barnes Riznik and Robert
Shleck, the present director, the Wilcox family patriarch was a much more
"I think he had an extraordinary intelligence and he was
probably an extraordinary person and that's one of the reasons he is in this
(top 10) list," says Riznik.
"He could have just done sugar but that
wasn't good enough," he adds.
His intelligent curiosity and commitment to
people and to the community kept him pursuing a whole spectrum of interests,
interests ranging from guano companies to island churches.
because it was his nature to work quietly behind the scenes, much of his
influence on the island can be measured indirectly through his philanthropic
pursuits and through his mentorship of his famous nieces, Elsie and Mabel
Wilcox was born in 1839 on the Big Island, but the family moved to
Hanalei seven years later and stayed, founding the Waioli Mission
After attending Punahou School on O'ahu, Wilcox went to new
Sheffield Scientific School at Yale College in New Haven, Conn., to study civil
Returning to Hanalei, Wilcox became involved with the new
efforts to raise commercial crops on the island. He tried to plant cane in
Hanalei Valley but was foiled by the area's sandy soil.
county jobs as a road surveyor and a tax collector, the young Wilcox was
finally asked to put his degree in engineering to good use by overseeing the
construction of a water ditch for then Grove Farm owner Hermann
Widemann, who was also judge, tax assessor and road supervisor of
Kaua'i, had been trying to make the farm profitable, first by collecting nuts
from the kukui grove that at that time extended all the way to the mountains.
He squeezed the kukui nuts to make oil for possible products like candle
fuel or paint, according to Schleck.
When this enterprise bore no fruit,
Widemann tried to irrigate the farm for sugar cane by building cisterns to
collect rainwater. When that too failed, he decided to build the ditch.
Wilcox argued with Widemann about the design of the ditch, saying that the
incline called for in the plan was not steep enough.
When the completed
ditch failed to bring anything but mud to the Grove Farm plantation, Judge
Widemann was won over by Wilcox and offered to lease the failing farm to
So, at only 26, Wilcox became the leasee and general manager of Grove
Farm, the small 400-acre plantation that would ultimitately make him a
FAMILY PATRIARCH: It was only four years later when
Wilcox unwittingly became the patriarch of the family on Kaua'i.
Tragically, both his parents succumbed to fever in 1869 while visiting
family in Connecticut.
"They both died within a few weeks together and that
left G.N. here at Grove Farm pretty much in charge and he took that very
seriously," says Riznik.
The charge of his younger brothers, one of which
was still a teenager, gave Wilcox a strong sense of family responsibility that
stays with him for the rest of his days.
"His sense of responsiblity
probably kept him from pursuing marriage," says Riznik.
married, but he took care of his brothers' children as though they were his
own, especially his nieces Elsie and Mabel Wilcox, who lived with him at Grove
Juliette Rice Wichman, the late daughter of Kipu Plantation
owner Charles Rice, related a story to Schleck which illustrates his sense of
humor about never tying the knot.
Wilcox typically took a trip by boat to
get away from the island on his birthday. Ms. Rice happened to be aboard the
same ship as Wilcox, who was then in his 80's. Both were seated at the
captain's table one evening, when one of the younger ladies, discovering that
this was the very wealthy and unmarried G.N. Wilcox seated at the table,
started to bat her eyelids at him.
At one point, the young woman asked,
"Tell me Mr. Wilcox, to what do you attribute your long life?"
"Good food, black cigars and no women!"
He and his niece Mabel had a very
succinct, drole sense of humor, Schleck says.
Wilcox's great grandniece,
Nancy Goodale, remembers another aspect of Wilcox's relationship with his
She recalls him visiting her father's plantation house in Waipouli
when she was only three or four years old.
"He was very kind to everyone.
He would often stop by and leave us pineapples," Goodale says.
white beard, my brother Dick and I thought he was Santa Claus."
PIONEER: There is no question that G.N. Wilcox was one of the important
pioneers in sugar planting in Hawai'i.
Part of Wilcox's success with Grove
Farm has to be his ability to change with the times.
employed steam was coming into the industry right around the end of the 19th
"So you have steam locomotives, plows and haul cane railroads and
G.N. is right there," says Riznik.
"He really lends his experience and
authority to connecting the raillines on Kaua'i."
With the introduction of
the combustion engine, new technologies, such as tractor engines, are
This follows with Wilcox's reputation as one of the first people to
introduce technological advancements to the island.
In 1880, he helped form
the first telephone company on island and in 1907, he was reportedly the first
person to bring a "horseless carriage" to Kaua'i, much to the amazement of
visitors to the plantation.
It is rather paradoxical then that Wilcox was
said to bathe in an old wooden tub, long after the advent of modern
Wilcox was also known for being very unorthodox in his planting
techniques. In 1885, he bought a load of fish scrap for fertilizer, much to the
chagrin of his neighbors.
According to the book "Grove Farm Plantation",
by Bob Krauss, Wilcox became the least popular man on island when it would
rain, but his next crop showed remarkable improvements.
Wilcox was able to
run a smooth operation at Grove Farm because he chose his middle managers well,
Edward Broadbent, originally a blacksmith from New Zealand,
becomes Wilcox's luna in 1895 and dovetails perfectly with his vision.
"He's a very special guy and G.N. sees in Broadbent himself, continuing
and adapting to changes that have taken place particularly in terms of field
technology," says Riznik.
Broadbent continues to make improvements on field
equipment, from creating a fertilizer gun that does the work of three men to
modifying a Caterpillar tractor to plow on high land.
Within 20 years of
starting Grove Farm Plantation, Wilcox had accumulated over $300,000. It was at
this time that he started investing in other businesses, all of which had some
direct or indirect link with the sugar industry.
To strengthen the industry
as a whole, he invested in burgeoning sugar plantations, like Kekaha Sugar
Company and Waianae Plantation on O'ahu.
Wilcox helped establish the North
Pacific Phosphate and Fertilizer Company by arranging an expedition to Laysan
Island, whose large population of gooney birds produce enough guano to keep
Hawai'i's plantations fertilized for some time.
He also invested heavily in
the Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company, which provided transportation for
"Rather than buy up more and more plantations, he invested not
only in other plantations, but he invested in the infrastructure that would be
steamship, fertilzier. He has that kind of a mind; he diversified," said
This is not because Wilcox was a forerunner of diversification,
Riznik is quick to point out.
Instead, unlike other comtemporaries like
mulit-millionaire sugar refiner Claus Spreckles who vied with Wilcox over
control of the industry, he seemed to have a sense of limits.
is, to what he could manage well.
"He always wanted to be sure that Grove
Farm was run well, that good managers were picked, and that he was not
involving himself in management more than he could bite off," says Riznik.
It was perhaps for this reason that Wilcox was known as a fair person
throughout his life.
While Wilcox was alive, Grove Farm never experienced
When a couple of his immigrant workers ran off, Wilcox declined
to pursue and punish them as the laws of those times dictated. After seeing
conditions on other plantations for themselves, the workers returned to Grove
Farm of their own will a couple of weeks later.
NAWILIWILI HARBOR: Near the
end of his life, Wilcox used his considerable clout to clear the way for
construction of a deep water harbor for Kaua'i. He and other planters on the
island saw the advantage of having a harbor at Nawiliwili so that they could
ship their crops directly to the Mainland.
But Kaua'i plantation owners
faced considerable political opposition from Honolulu-based plantation and
shipping interests. In 1927, when funds had run out for the construction of a
retaining wall, Wilcox, then 88, personally took charge of the project and also
paid the neccessary $200,000 bond issue to move things
CONTRIBUTIONS: To Riznik and Schleck, Wilcox's accomplishments in
industry are only part of the story.
"If you are talking about (Wilcox) as
an industrialist, and in a sense economically building a community, you also
need to talk about him as a community builder when it comes to charitable
support," Riznik said.
Wilcox was one of the early 20th century
philanthropists. He set up a trust in 1916, supporting all types of churches,
students in the form of scholarships, the Salvation Army, YMCA, and other
Riznik said that one can go around the island and point
to physical examples of where he was involved, such as the Wailoli and old
Koloa churches, which he helped preserve.
Much of this, Wilcox did without
"He had a very low profile and he was very humble," says
Schleck. "He didn't really seek out any fanfare."
However, by 1920, it was
discovered that Wilcox had given away over $3 million in charitable
Although much of his giving was focused on the church,
Wilcox also put a lot of focus on social services, which were greatly lacking
on the Neighbor Islands. This was especially true in terms of health
THE HOSPITAL: Although the G.N. Wilcox Memorial Hospital didn't
actually come into being until five years after Wilcox's death, this type of
hospital was on his mind, Riznik said.
As early as 1900, Wilcox was
already heading up hospital reform on the island in an attempt to improve
"What he wanted to do is see the best health care provided on
Kaua'i similar to that which could be gotten on Honolulu and he saw the need
for hospitals to be more than just single plantation clinics," said
Under the old plantation system, each plantation ran it's own
clinic — some better than others.
At the turn of the century, Wilcox
attempted to head towards general health care on the island by consolidating
the efforts of different plantations. Working closely with Lihu'e Plantation
owner Paul Isenberg, Wilcox helped make the old Lihu'e Hospital serve the
Lihu'e, Grove Farm, and Kipu Ranch plantations.
"It was more than a
plantation hospital, so it was the next step," said Riznik.
Wilcox also was
involved in the building of Samuel Mahelona Hospital — then a tuberculosis
sanitarium — in 1917.
Then in the '20s and '30s, Wilcox lent his support
as the president of Grove Farm to his niece, Mabel Wilcox's effort to do a
survey of all plantation hospitals.
Mabel, who eventually helped to found
G.N. Wilcox Memorial Hospital in 1928, was trying to make a case for the
building of a new hospital, one envisioned by Wilcox himself that would be as
multipurpose and general as Queens on O'ahu.
POLITICS: Perhaps the most
overlooked aspect of G.N. Wilcox's career, says Riznik, is his stint in
Convinced by his brother Luther to run for office, Wilcox earned
a seat in the House of Nobles in 1887.
Although a moderate in King
Kalakaua's government, Wilcox soon joined a secret organization called the
Committee of Nine, which was determined to limit the king's power.
effort proved successful after the king submitted to the Constitution of 1887.
A few years later, Wilcox became the prime minister for a brief time under
Queen Lili'uokalani, but was removed from office after opposing her on the
issues of a constitutional convention and appointments to goverment.
was opposed to the overthrow of the monarchy in 1893, which put him on the
opposite side of many of his friends and a couple of his brothers.
it came time for Annexation to the United States in 1898, Wilcox was ready to
As Wilcox had encouraged Mabel in her pursuit of better health
care, he also encouraged her sister, Elsie, to enter into politics, even though
he never really cared for it.
"It's not unnatural in the next generation
that Elsie would become so active in politics, and he was still alive when she
made her choice to run for the (territorial) senate," said Riznik.
would Kaua'i be like had there been no G.N. Wilcox?
"There would be sugar
— it's just that the plantations themselves might not have been as strong as
soon as they were on Kaua'i," said Riznik.
Where would we be if Wilcox
hadn't encouraged his family particularly in terms of these two remarkable
women to pursue their careers?
"It might not have been as easy for his
nieces to assume leadership positions quite as quickly," said Riznik.
"You stand back from this and say how did it come to be? Power is not the
only explanation. You say he could do these things because he was a powerful
person. He had resources, connections, recognition and the same could be said
of others —let's just say he used his power wisely."