Exhibit highlights woman’s work in the community

Makawao History Museum docent Jim Magnusen views the exhibit titled “Never Idle: The Contributions of Ethel Baldwin” while staffing the museum Saturday afternoon. The exhibit highlights Ethel Baldwin’s community and social accomplishments. The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo

Ethel Smith Baldwin, it seemed, never ran out of things to do.

In the early 1900s, she went from raising funds for Maui families of World War I servicemen to pushing for women’s voting rights to helping oversee pension and welfare distributions for local families.

“She should be remembered as much more than just the wife of Harry Baldwin,” said Gail Ainsworth, local historian and researcher at the Makawao History Museum. “She was an incredible person on her own.”

The museum recently opened an exhibit on Baldwin called “Never Idle: The Contributions of Ethel Baldwin,” which Ainsworth thought fitting for a woman who jumped from project to project throughout her life. Ainsworth said it coincides with an exhibit on Baldwin’s artwork at Hui No’eau.

“We thought if the Hui does the art, we could talk about her community contributions, which were major,” said Ainsworth, who authored the museum exhibit.

Born Nov. 17, 1879, Ethel Frances Smith was raised in Honolulu, the granddaughter of Congregational missionaries who arrived in 1842. She attended Punahou School and married Henry “Harry” Alexander Baldwin in 1897 at the age of 17.

The couple made its home in Hamakuapoko and had three children. Sons Leslie and Jared died at young ages, leaving daughter Frances as the couple’s surviving child. Years later, Ethel Baldwin would design and donate Rainbow Park in Paia in Leslie’s memory.

Harry Baldwin worked as manager of the Maui Agricultural Co. and later served in the Territorial Senate from 1913 to 1921. Ethel Baldwin, meanwhile, found her own ways to get involved in the community.

From 1916 to 1926, she led a campaign to establish a more permanent facility for the Kula Sanitarium, which started out in 1910 as a two-tent structure for tuberculosis patients, according to historical records. In the meantime, she also engineered a Red Cross drive in 1917 to provide social and financial assistance to families of World War I servicemen.

Baldwin’s community involvement ranged from the Maui Humane Society to the Girl Scouts to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She also helped establish a Board of Child Welfare and Old Age Pensions in each county before public welfare systems existed.

“She was also very smart and, in lieu of a formal college education and career, she became a ‘working woman’ without having an paid job,” great-granddaughter Claire Sanford said. “It was the socially acceptable equivalent of having a career back in her time.”

Baldwin had a very egalitarian nature, Ainsworth said. She was concerned about making sure patients of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds were served at the hospital. In 1919, she was unanimously elected to lead the women’s suffrage movement on Maui and established clubs across the island.

As servicemen started coming to Makawao during World War II, Baldwin had the idea to create a USO in 1943 in what is now Casanova Italian Restaurant and Deli. She made it clear that servicemen of all colors were welcome there.

Every week, she organized a beach picnic for 50 men, and also started a chorus that performed for the servicemen. Sanford said that her great-grandmother loved parlor games and hosting parties at the Baldwins’ Olinda home.

“She was incredibly energetic and loved to organize, which made things like her support of the USO such a natural activity,” Sanford said. “But this also tapped into what must have been a joy of being around people. Despite her being very proper in many ways and being the more straight-laced partner in her marriage, she also had a sense of humor.”

In between the community projects, Baldwin also loved to play music and create art. She made paintings, ceramics, metalwork, leatherwork and decorative woodburning. In 1934, she and daughter Frances started Hui No’eau, a group of 20 artists who met at the Kaluanui Estate where the Baldwins lived.

Even in her old age, Baldwin’s hands “were never still,” said Sanford, who was 9 years old when her great-grandmother died at the age of 87 in 1967. Known as “Magar” to her grandchildren, Baldwin always had a huge bag of yarn by her side and would crochet while chatting with people.

Sanford said that according to her mother, the late Mary “Maizie” Cameron Sanford, Baldwin could be intimidating and “was not someone to lavish praise on people,” but the highest compliment she could give someone was to call them a “tremendous worker.”

Both Sanford and cousin Frances “Effie” Cameron Ort think their great-grandmother’s philanthropic zeal stemmed from her missionary roots as well as the fact that she’d lost two children.

“It seems that it was after the death of her second son that she eventually turned her pain and grief into a deep and tireless dedication to bettering her community,” Ort said.

Ort thinks of her great-grandmother whenever she sees the shower trees along Baldwin Avenue, which Baldwin started the tradition of planting in 1931. She thinks Ethel and Harry Baldwin “would be immensely pleased” that their former home still draws artists and students to Hui No’eau.

“Although she passed when I was too young to know of her accomplishments, I now know her through the lasting impression her good works have had on Maui,” Ort said.

The Makawao History Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Entrance is free. Visit makawaomuseum.org for more information.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.