An old-timer's tale: "As a kid, I looked forward to harvest time. It was exciting to see the flames. I remember one night we drove up Sunnyside Road. You know, the one that ran from Spreckelsville through the fields up to Kaheka Village above Upper Paia.
"I and my brother were in the back seat. We spotted the guys lighting the fire and started yelling for daddy to stop. The fire guys walked along the edge of the field where the cane had been pushed back. They had these long-handled torches with tin cans on the end. They touched the cane here and there.
"Pretty soon, the flames began roaring. There was a wall of fire. My mother suddenly said, 'My goodness. Look at the cane spiders.' They were crawling out of the field into the road. There must have been thousands of them. We didn't see any rats, though."
That was in the 1950s. There were plenty of opportunities to watch cane fires. Around Paia, the fields belonged to Maui Agricultural Co. In Central Maui, the fields were tended by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. Wailuku Sugar, a company belonging to C. Brewer, surrounded Wailuku. On the west side, Pioneer Mill farmed the fields above Lahaina and out to above Olowalu.
At the height of the plantation era, there were thousands of sugar workers on Maui. Most of them lived in camps located inside or alongside the fields. The idea was to have field workers live within walking distance of their jobs, saving time "on the clock."
The bigger camps were called villages. In Central Maui there were 13. Below Haliimaile there was Paholai and Kailua. Closer to Paia was a string of camps running up to and beyond Paia School and Holy Rosary Church. Spreckelsville and Hawaiian (Camp 1?) villages straddled Hana Highway near the airport. Between Kahului and Kihei lay Hyashi Village, Ah Fong Village, (Puunene) Airport Village, McGerrow Village and villages 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10 and 13. Perhaps the missing numbers were replaced by names. Everyone in those camps and villages lived with cane harvests, fire and all.
Hal Glatzer, a one-time Honolulu Advertiser correspondent on the Big Island, lived in the middle of a Hamakua sugar field. During a visit to his place around 1970, he talked about living through a harvest only yards away.
"Gets pretty exciting. They push the cane 20 or 30 yards from the house. The heat can get intense, but the flames don't last long. It takes a little longer for the aroma, ash and stirred-up dirt to dissipate. It takes even longer to get rid of the rats that scurry under the house."
To keep his squad of cats on the hunt, he fed them only every other day or so. They all looked healthy and plump.
On Maui, the camps and villages were literally plowed under in the '50s and '60s when workers were given the opportunity to own new houses built in 12 Kahului increments developed at about the same time Kihei changed from a sleepy, sparsely settled beach town into a coastal "city" of more than 20,000 population. The big change came when the county, state and private corporations built the Central Maui Water Transmission line from Waihee.
There's a place name in Kihei that recalls the dust storms once common on the shores of Maalaea Bay. The name is Kalepolepo. The one-time village now is a small park, bordered on the ocean side by the Ko'ie'ie fishpond, rebuilt by Kamehameha I and now being restored by volunteers. The name Kalepolepo literally means "the dirt," a likely reference to huge quantities of dirt periodically blown from a barren central isthmus out to sea.
Late 19th century travelers wrote about dust storms so intense no one could see beyond their horses' ears.
Current efforts to stop cane burning concentrate on supposed health hazards. Could the real opposition come from having to deal with "Maui Snow" for a week or so every two years? Did a real estate agent neglect to tell buyers they lived downwind from fields? Do later arrivals bother learning history, the nature of cane growing in boulder-studded fields or the development of cane resistant to pests ready to destroy just about any other kind of crop?
One thing is sure. The best part about going away from Maui is coming home and flying over a carpet of green, even when it's studded with a column of smoke going up, up and away.
* Ron Youngblood is a former staff writer for The Maui News. His email address is email@example.com.