Miss Mabel’s Gift Of History

Thanks to the foresight of Mabel Wilcox, who as a headstrong young woman ignored her mother’s protests and became a nurse, two Kauai museums take visitors back to the days of sugarcane and mission houses

Visiting Grove Farm Homestead Museum is like stepping back in time. Besides the many pairs of cat’s eyes peering at you from every corner of the property, you can’t help but notice how well-preserved and intact everything is at this historic site. From the picturesque landscape and the main residence’s immaculate lanai to its interior furnishings and wood-burning stove (which, by the way, still creates delectable cookies that everyone gets to savor when they visit), everything is exactly the way it would have been decades ago when it was operating in conjunction with a sugar plantation.

The property, acquired by the late George Wilcox in 1864 during the height of sugarcane agriculture, is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The land once housed the plantation’s main headquarters, including the owner’s residence and workers’ homes. It also contained gardens and farm animals, many of which the current feline residents are likely descendants.

Robert Schleck, museum director, is very knowledgeable about the 100-acre property located in the heart of Lihue — not to be mistaken for Grove Farm Company, which is an entirely different entity owned by AOL co-founder Steve Case. Schleck has been working at the museum since he moved to Kauai in his 20s when the property was still owned by one of Wilcox’s nieces, known as “Miss Mabel,” who later transferred it in trust to Waioli Corporation, where it remains in perpetuity.

Mabel Wilcox lived at Grove Farm (where a kukui tree grove was cleared to make way for sugarcane) most of her life, and chose to turn the property — including her grandparents’ Waioli Mission House in Hanalei, which Schleck also oversees — into museums so that others could visit them and learn about missionary and plantation life on Kauai.

“It’s a testament to vision, ingenuity and preservation,” says Schleck.

Schleck’s experience working for Wilcox was “unique.” He was introduced to her through one of her family members Schleck had befriended. She had just succeeded in purchasing the property for approximately $750,000 during the late 1960s to early 1970s, and wanted to start an inventory of assets, when he offered to assist her.

“She was a very quiet, soft-spoken lady,” he recalls. “She intimidated a lot of people because she didn’t say much, but she could be surgical in what she said.”

Wilcox, to whom credit is given for her efforts to conserve the property and ensure that it didn’t end up as a real estate development, was born and raised on Kauai. She was homeschooled until she attended Punahou School on Oahu. After graduation, her goal was to become a nurse so she could care for her ailing mother.

“But her mother was horrified because ladies were not nurses,” says Schleck.

Nonetheless, at age 25, Wilcox was accepted to Johns Hopkins Hospital School of Nursing, from which she graduated in 1911. She always must have had an altruistic spirit because she signed up with American

Red Cross shortly thereafter to serve in World War I before returning to Kauai and establishing public-health nursing.

So it’s no surprise, given her ambitious history, that her house was supremely organized and professionally run.

“It was very orderly and ran by the day and the hour,” says Schleck.

Every morning, when he arrived at work, she’d be sitting in the same position on the couch after having completed her morning ritual, which included checking the weather and having a smoke.

“I’d say, ‘Good morning, Miss Mabel,'” he recalls, and jokes that she’d always look at her watch to make sure he was punctual. “I was amused by the procedure. But it was very effective. I was never late.”

There was so much structure and routine at Grove Farm because she liked it that way. It’s remarkable that the house still looks as though she could step right back through its front doors and go about her business as usual. Schleck believes she would be pleased with how well operations continue to run, and how caring and dedicated the museum’s staff, volunteers and board members are about carrying on her legacy.

“It really has been a labor of love,” says Schleck.

Grove Farm Homestead Museum, a nonprofit, has been open to the public since 1980. Tours are offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, where guests visit the buildings on-site, greet the current farm animals and learn about the Wilcox family as well as sugar plantation history.

“They go away feeling like they’ve been to old Kauai,” explains Julie McLeod, secretary and community outreach coordinator at the museum.

Keeping the property the way it would have looked 150 years ago is motivating for McLeod.

“It gives us the devotion to continue on and inspires us,” she says. “It’s great to be a part of something that you can be so proud of that isn’t even yours.”

The museum will sponsor a fundraiser luau Nov. 8 from 5 to 10 p.m. Call 245-3202 or email grovefarm@hawaiiantel.net for more information. To make a donation to the nonprofit, visit grovefarm.org.