Lihuʻe's modern history is steeped in sugar. In 1849 German settlers established the first local sugarcane plantation, which struggled until the development of irrigation in 1856. Thereafter, profitability grew, attracting entrepreneur George Wilcox from Hanalei, who founded what would become the area’s largest plantation, Grove Farm. Lihuʻe’s sugar mill (still standing south of town along Kaumualiʻi Hwy) was once Kauaʻi’s largest.
Lihuʻe’s mill closed in 2000, ending more than a century of operation. But by then Lihuʻe had already morphed into a very different animal. The Lihuʻe you see today is almost entirely a creation of the past half-century. As tourism has replaced the sugar economy, Lihuʻe has had the good fortune of hosting both the island’s biggest airport, and its major seaport, Nawiliwili Harbor. The result is Kauaʻi’s second-largest town and its commercial center. When it comes to trade, exporting sugar has now been replaced by the importation of most of the necessities of life – including sugar, if you can believe that.
The Wilcox Legacy
From Wilcox Memorial Hospital to Gaylord’s restaurant, the face of Lihuʻe is still deeply intertwined with the Wilcox family and its famous enterprise, Grove Farm Company.
The story begins in the latter part of the 19th century, when the family patriarch, George Wilcox of Hanalei, moved to Lihuʻe and founded Grove Farm, just as the sugar business was beginning its long ascent. Wilcox was an innovative entrepreneur who developed new means of irrigation, planting and cultivation. He also became a power player in Hawaii politics, a community leader and a philanthropist. During his long stewardship, from 1870 to 1933, Grove Farm Company flourished. It continued to grow after his nephew Gaylord Wilcox took over the reins. By 1950, the Wilcox family was one of Kauaʻi’s largest landowners, with approximately 22,000 acres. The family was also highly influential in many areas of local life, including pioneering a home ownership program for workers, and donating the land for Kauaʻi Community College. In 1974, sugar operations ceased, and cane lands were leased to neighboring plantations. Grove Farm Company then diversified into land development, management and licensing.
In 2001 Grove Farm company was sold to Steve Case, of AOL fame. He has since purchased another 18,000 acres, making the company nearly twice as large as it was at the height of the sugar business. Interestingly, Case’s father once worked as an accountant for Grove Farm Company.