What was once a hub of the sugar industry is now the sweet spot for makers of everything from surfboards to soap on O‘ahu’s North Shore.
Text by Anna Harmon
Images by John Hook
On the road to Waialua cars wind down the road through towering grass. Minutes pass before the town comes into view, and with it, the iconic smoke stack left behind from what once served as Dole’s sugar mill through 1996. Looking at the remaining structures, the year doesn’t matter—it could be 1975 or 2014. Only now, it houses local mechanics, surfboard makers, and other craftsmen who rushed in to claim the space shortly after the sugar operation shut down. As one tenant explains, it is the only legitimate industrial space on the North Shore.
Here, there are more shapers and glassers at the mill than can be counted on your fingers and toes. At the back of a surf shop located on the parking lot is a window that looks onto a glassing room. Here, the shop’s owner, Steve Matthews, pulls fiberglass cloth over a board. Also at work in the building are other shaping and glassing ventures, a photographer, a screen printer, and a handful of artists. “I compare [the mill] to how the North Shore is called the Seven Mile Miracle,” says Matthews, owner of 3rd Stone Surfboards. “As far as surfboards for the island, I would have to say this is probably a third of the business.”
The earliest surfboard shapers to stake their claims here are also some of the industry’s best. There is Eric Arakawa, whose client list has included Andy Irons, Reef McIntosh, and brothers Seth and Josh Moniz. Behind 3rd Stone is Pyzel Surfboards, whose riders include North-Shore born John John Florence, the youngest-ever Triple Crown of Surfing champion. Along the road leading to the mill is Schaper Surfboards, a factory and surf shop where boards are made from blank to finish. While they don’t schedule tours, if you ask nicely, you can get a view of the entire process. To the left of their structure is a flourishing nursery.
But surfboards are far from the whole story. The common thread is the creation. “Everyone in the mill is making something. The soap factory is making soap, Island X is making the coffee. There’s the papaya seed dressing, Waialua sodas,” says Matthews. The Island X Hawaii warehouse shop, North Shore Soap Factory, and V Boutique are three such spots that are centered around the parking lot and open to foot traffic. At Island X Hawaii, visitors snatch up trinkets alongside powdered kava, imu-roasted wild boar, and shave ice made with homemade liliko‘i syrup. In the 3rd Stone building, Vanessa Pack of V Boutique handcrafts her jewelry with one other employee, soldering pieces together and pounding shapes into forms to create wave bracelets, metal coral charms, and framed sea-glass necklaces. “I lived in New York City for five or six years before I moved here, and I feel like there is something raw, artist loft-esque about the sugar mill area,” she says. “It’s a whole conglomeration of aspiring artists, creators, woodworkers.”
In front of her boutique, within the cone-shaped structure that has become the mill’s visual cornerstone, is North Shore Soap Factory. Owners Debora and Jerry Driscoll started making their products here 10 years ago and have worked hard to keep the structure’s integrity and history. “People from the neighborhood bring us things they find at tutu or uncle or dad’s place,” says Debora of the bits of mill history displayed around the space. Out front are large gears left behind from the production infrastructure, and inside, visitors can watch production manager Jeff Matyniak making soaps, balms, or washes through framed windows. After buying a bar of soap, you can take it to a wooden counter and pound a design into it with a mallet and rubber stamp, making your own mark amidst the mill’s history.
The Waialua Sugar Mill is located in Waialua at 67-106 Kealohanui St. For more information, visit waialuasugarmill.com.