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He used his power wisely

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Posted: Monday, December 27, 1999 12:00 am

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

complex figure.

"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.

What's more,

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.

After shortlived

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.

Wilcox never

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

Farm Homestead.

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?"

He replied:

"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.

"With his

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.

Machinery that

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,

says Riznik.

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

his cane.

"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.

Limits, that

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

a strike.

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.


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

community groups.

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

announcing it.

"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.

But when

it came time for Annexation to the United States in 1898, Wilcox was ready to

support it.

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.

So what

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."

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