The Kihei Cotton Factory

Suda Family Grew Cotton in Kihei


By Wayne Smith

 Maui’s south shore from Kihei to Makena was one of Hawaii’s centers for cotton production. Large tracts of the dry but fertile land along the south Maui coast were planted in both imported domestic cotton varieties and the wild ma’o, or native Hawaiian variety.

The grandfather of Roy Suda, third generation operator of Suda's Store in north Kihei, grew cotton on the family's farm behind the Foodland store until after WWII. The area is now a residential development around Kaeala Street.

Actually, the family grew cotton by default. In 1928 Roy’s grandfather, Heimon Suda, bought the Kihei acreage and moved his family from Haiku to the South Shore. The farm he purchased had been used primarily for alfalfa. According to Heimon's son Yoshiji, Roy’s father, in an 1974 interview  in Valley Isle, a long-since defunct Maui newspaper, "when we bought the place everything was here for alfalfa farming, but we didn't know how to run the equipment and do those things. So we just started farming things we knew how to grow."

The family grew watermelons and tomatoes or what ever they could on the fields. "Mr. Murphy came over from the University and suggested we grow cotton. So we decided to try."

The cotton planting was immediately successful for the farming family, but what were they to do with? Heimon and his wife Hana, decided to complete the production cycle and established the Kihei Cotton Factory on their farm to process the cotton fiber.

"We didn't have the machines (gins) you have to have to grow and produce finished cotton, but decided to buy two machines - a large one from Japan and a smaller one from the mainland," he added.

Gins are used to separate the strands of silky cotton fiber from the small black seeds embedded in the boll. The fiber, which can be blown by the winds after it emerges from the boll, was probably a botanical adaptation which helped the plant survive by distributing the seeds on the wind to more territory.

The Suda's planted ma’o or native cotton because it was naturally suited to the Hawaii climate. "We pruned the plants every couple of years" to keep them short for easier picking, mostly by the children, he added. (Unlike the imported varieties, which are annuals and have to be replanted every year, Hawaiian cotton is a perennial plant and can grow and produce for many years. The plant pictured in Kihei has a trunk diameter of about five inches and indicates that it has been around for some time.)

The Kihei Cotton Factory shipped its cotton all over the state. It was used by companies producing fabric and by individuals who spun and wove the cotton for personal use and crafts.

It was a family affair. Yoshiji and his sisters worked in every phase of the business - picking, drying, ginning, bagging, and shipping. Their mother Hana designed the logo for The Kihei Cotton Factory and, probably with a twinkle in her eye, made her and her husband's initials, H. S., into the prominent ($) dollar symbol for the company.

Yoshiji also started a second business stuffing mattresses and futons with the cotton for local families.

Hawaiian cotton from Kihei Cotton Factory was usually in great demand. "It was silky, nice cotton and all the cotton we planted was not enough. People wanted more," Yoshiji said.

The family stopped growing cotton after WWII because the children were growing up and no longer wanted to work in the fields picking the crop. Ma’o was very labor intensive and could not easily have been mechanized because of its wild and rangy nature.

The family stopped farming cotton after WWII and eventually sold the land for development into what is now a residential tract in central Kihei.

Their success so long ago is but a memory of when cotton was King for a time in South Maui and Hawaii.



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