Family seeks new owner for treasure trove of plantation-era items

Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A sign depicts how average monthly plantation wages from 1888 to 1890 differed between ethnic groups.

Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald An old Hawaii County Band sign is on display among many other plantation-era signs at the Hawaii Plantation Museum.

Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald An original Palapala document signed by Kamehameha IV is on display at the Hawaii Plantation Museum in Papaikou.

Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A sign signifies the last day of harvesting and producing sugar cane at the Honomu Sugar Plantation. The sign is on display at the Hawaii Plantation Museum in Papaikou.

Robert Thornton talks about some of the items on display at the Hawaii Plantation Museum in Papaikou. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

Wayne Subica sits recently in the Hawaii Plantation Museum, which is filled with his lifetime collection of plantation-era items. (Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald)

For over 50 years, Wayne Subica has been collecting rare items from the 85 former sugar plantations on Hawaii Island.

He never intended to open a museum, but as his collection grew and the last plantation closed in 1996, friends and neighbors suggested he share his history with the community.


“I had a lot of this stuff at home, and my neighbor came over and said, ‘Why don’t you make a museum?’” Subica said. “Now, we’ve got a lot of history here.”

Subica grew up in Mountain View and remembers plantation life, but ended up working for the federal government as part of the Soil Conservation Service.

“I worked with all the farmers and ranchers around the island, and a lot of times, I’d go visit them and see something in their barn and say, ‘What do you plan on doing with that?’ And they’d say, ‘Why, Wayne, you want it?’” Subica said. “But of course my wife would get mad when I’d come home with all this stuff.”

Subica’s first museum opened in 2002 in Hilo, but after two years, he ran out of space.

Then in 2013, he moved the museum to Old Mamalahoa Highway in Papaikou.

A mural depicts plantation life at the entrance, and when guests step inside, they’re transported back in time via mom-and-pop shop signs that hang from the walls and ceiling. They pass glass cases with rare items like an original ‘Olelo Hawaii bible and a Palapala document from 1855 signed by Kamehameha IV.

There’s also 1920’s Maunapua Man Stick & Baskets, carpentry and black smith tools dating back to the 1880s, a hand-crank shave ice machine from the early 1900s, a Koa-wood carving of local legend Ikua Purdy, and photos that contextualize all of the objects on display.

Scattered throughout also are old newspapers from every plantation that guests flip through and spot wedding photos of their grandparents or articles about their ‘ohana.

“People go through here and say, ‘Man, this brings back memories,’” Subica said. “Some ladies walk out of here with tears in their eyes, seeing signs and pictures and stories of their family.”

But Subica is 79 years old, and following the COVID-19 pandemic, volunteers are harder to come by. Even with nonprofit status, the museum and collection is costly to maintain.

“One time a guy came in here and went through the museum, and after he came out he was talking to me, he took out his checkbook and wrote me a check for $5,000, saying, ‘This is a good museum — here’s a donation,’” Subica said. “But we don’t get that every day.”

Subica’s children have jobs of their own, and the family is looking for a new owner or investor to inherit the collection.

“For as long as I can remember, we’ve had antiques in our home,” said Subica’s daughter, Sharri Thornton. “When you talk about the old days, (Wayne) can remember everything. He can sit here and talk with people about everything in this museum.”

The family recently completed a pricing estimate, but declined to share the total value.

“We do have that, though, for anyone interested,” she said. “We’re hoping we can find someone to take it over, that could bring the museum into its next phase, maybe in a new space with an air-controlled environment, because these things are delicate, especially the documents.”

Those documents include an original registration book documenting all of the travelers from Portugal who came to work on the plantations.

“If they came from Portugal from 1878 to 1913, they’re in here,” Subica said, displaying the thick volume. “We get all kinds of stuff that’s interesting, stuff that no one has seen.”

The records are sought by visitors from all over hoping to uncover family history.

“Some people come all the way from the mainland to find out if their family was here,” said Sharri’s husband, Robert Thornton, who also helps with the museum. “Wayne always tries to help them out, find out where their family lived and grew up.”

Some guests catch a glimpse of their aunty or uncle in a photo, too, and Subica will update the pictures by adding new names.

Some of Subica’s favorite items in the collection include an original wagon from Pete Beamer, whose great grandson, Keola, came to visit and sat in the back one last time. There’s also original bango tags from plantation workers.

“You weren’t identified by your name, but by these bango tags,” Robert said. “You got paid by these tags. You had to have it, it was your license, passport, everything.”

Children would also use the tags to purchase goods at local stores on credit, including at the Onomea Plantation Store, which is where the museum is located today.

“This place used to be a plantation store, built in 1902. That’s the original cash register behind you,” said Subica, pointing to the early 1900s’ machine with keys and tags for various prices. “Everybody used to come to this store.”

Subica has documented his collection in several books, and nearly 25 of them are available for purchase at the museum. Most feature before and after photos of Hilo and other Hawaii Island landmarks showing the changes that have taken place.

Students from schools across the island still visit to learn about their family’s history.

“When you talk to the people here, they say their dad, or their grandpa, worked on the plantation, sometimes their whole family,” Subica said. “That’s why we opened the museum, to share this stuff with them.”

For the time being, the museum remains open from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, but the family hopes the museum, and its unique collection of Hawaiian history, won’t disappear altogether.

“Carrying it on as a museum would be ideal. We’ve even thought if maybe the state or county would be willing to take it on,” Sharri Thornton said. “But really, we just hope people can remember this place while it was here.”

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