Wheels have been turning

WAIKAPU – The Maui Tropical Plantation has embodied Hawaii’s past and present for the past three decades as an agricultural and tourism destination.

When it opened in 1984, the plantation signified a shift from the shrinking sugar cane industry into the burgeoning tourism market, complete with a restaurant and tropical plant market. The popular attraction was a first of its kind – an ode to a bygone era.

Mike Atherton, owner of the plantation, is paying respects to that era again 30 years later.

Major renovations are being completed on the plantation’s restaurant, including new floors, a remodeled stage and construction of a brand new bar area. The bar includes a locomotive engine from Maui’s old plantation days and a passenger train car dating back to the Hawaiian monarchy.

The landscape outside of the restaurant and next to the new bar has undergone a complete overhaul with the addition of a pond and fountain that showcases remnants of the old Wailuku Sugar Mill that once sat off Mill Street with St. Anthony Catholic Church on the other side of the road.

“I bought this property from C Brewer & Co. in 2006, hoping some day I would resurrect the mill as a sculpture,” Atherton said while staring at the restaurant last month. “When we’re all done, this will be The Mill House.”

Atherton pointed to old equipment, such as giant sugar cane grabbers, flywheels, rollers, gears and a locomotive smokestack that have been built into parts of the approximately 1,000-square-foot bar. He added that about two dozen royal palm trees have been planted inside and outside of the open-air bar.

The plantation had not previously undergone a major renovation in its three decades of business.

“It’s cost a few bucks,” Atherton said. “We’re about two-thirds of the way done. The hard part is behind us so we’ll have to spend the next year to get it done, maybe sooner.”

While Atherton is revitalizing the old mill through the plantation, he credited former Wailuku Agribusiness Co. Inc. (predecessor of Wailuku Sugar Co.) President Avery Chumbley for acquiring the equipment and coming up with the idea.

Chumbley, a former Maui Tropical Plantation general manager, helped build the attraction after the Wailuku mill shut down in 1978. Chumbley said the mill’s parent company, C Brewer & Co., looked to diversify into tourism, as well as other foods such as macadamia nuts and pineapple.

About two decades later, the sugar company liquidated its assets and sold some of the Wailuku Sugar Mill equipment to a company in Indonesia and scrapped other parts for metal.

Chumbley, now president of Wailuku Water Co., a spinoff of C Brewer, gathered as much equipment as he could, even contracting a crane and bulldozer to transport them to Maui Tropical Plantation. He said that the equipment has sat in the “boneyard” at the plantation until Atherton began the renovations.

“I was very excited when I found out they’re using some of those old sugar mill pieces,” he said. “It was an important part of our history. I miss the sugar plantation days.”

Among the additions to the outside area is a statue of John “Doc” Buyers, a chairman and chief executive officer of C Brewer & Co for more than 25 years. The statue was acquired from a wedding chapel in Hilo, where he moved the company’s headquarters in 1998. Buyers died in 2006 at age 77, according to published reports.

Buyers was known for diversifying the “Big Five” company out of sugar and into tourism, which included the creation of Maui Tropical Plantation. His statue is placed next to the main pond, “getting ready to walk on water,” Atherton said.

“It was his vision,” Atherton said. “Sugar was waning and sugar mills were selling left and right. Doc diversified and built this place as an ag-tourism attraction.

“Over 5 million visitors have rode the tram and learned to a husk a coconut, so I want to carry that tradition on and educate tourists on agriculture history on Maui.”

A crowd of tourists and residents posed for photos and fed dozens of ducks on the newly built bridges and walkways.

Stina Kiili and her 3-year-old son, August, were with a group of Maui mothers and children at the plantation last month, and immediately took notice of the changes.

“I think two years ago was the last time we’ve been here so we haven’t seen any of this,” Kiili said of the construction. “It’s really nice. We live in Wailuku so we’re definitely going to be here more often.”

Chumbley said he has seen the ongoing transformation and that he’s eager to see it completed.

“It’ll bring back memories,” he said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.