Historic Plantation Manager’s Beach House History
Vast sugar plantations, grand houses, visitors from around the world, servants, high ceilings, formal dining, crisp linen and polished silver, immigrant labor toiling at backbreaking work in hot tropical fields, inhumane working conditions, labor unrest, racial prejudice, World War, tsunami, recycling, and life “off the grid,” and, most particularly, social reform are themes embodied in Robbie and Marjorie Robertson’s Plantation Manager’s Beach home.
William Fraser Robertson
In 1920 a young Scotsman, William Fraser Robertson (or “Robbie” as he was known to his friends) came to Hawai‘i in search of a better life. He had fought in WWI, first as an enlisted man in the Gordon Highlanders, an old and celebrated Scottish Regiment. He was sent to France in May of 1915 and fought in the trenches until he was terribly injured in the Battle of High Wood during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He was shot twice, a shell burst behind him inflicting shrapnel wounds from his head all the way to his feet. He was invalided out of the British Army, but in 1918 returned to the war, this time as a member of the Royal Flying Corps. Despite his wounds, he had volunteered for and qualified as a fighter pilot. In 1918 he was sent back to the front to fly his Sopwith Camel against the Germans. After the war Robbie found there was little opportunity in Scotland. British companies had interests all over the world. In 1920 the sugar business seemed the most attractive. A pound of sugar was worth more than a pound of gold. Robbie was recruited to come to Hawai‘i by Mr. James Johnson, a plantation manager on the Big Island. Mr. Johnson drove a nice car, wore silk shirts with diamond studs and gold cufflinks and a diamond ring. Robbie was offered a good job at a high salary, and departed for the Islands. Six months after he arrived, things changed. Sugar prices crashed. His salary was cut from $200 a month to $60. He lived in the men’s boarding house. Mrs. Johnson’s sold him food from her garden. He worked six days a week, rising at 5:30 a.m. and getting home at dark. Often he had to crawl on his hands and knees through the dense fields of saw toothed sugar cane. Robbie persevered. On 1 January 1933 he became the manager of the Hamakua Mill Company in Pa‘auilo. Only 37 years old, he was the youngest man ever to be made manager of a plantation. Pa‘auilo, as the plantation was called, was a poorly run, nearly bankrupt operation. The manager lived in grand style in a large house on acres of lawns, gardens, orchards and trees. He had a full time cook, and maid, a gardener and a yard man. He was expected to entertain guests from all over the world. He was also expected to make a profit; if he did not, he was dismissed. Robbie was given 5 years to make Pa‘auilo profitable. He succeeded. With his success came the opportunity to change living conditions for people that worked on the Plantation. Promotion regardless of race or creed, elimination of the company store, competent health care, raising the level of education in the local public school (most of the kids’ parents were plantation employees), decent housing, and finally the mechanization of the sugar industry.
Marjorie Elizabeth Babcock
In 1937, Robbie met Marjorie Elizabeth Babcock. Marjorie was a remarkable woman. She was a Phi Beta Kappa, graduate of Wells College, where she majored in biology and minored in French. She ran track, played basketball and field hockey. In 1922 she came to Hawai‘i to work with Stanley Porteus at the University of Hawai‘i in The Psychological Clinic. Porteus had invented the Porteus Maze test, which was designed to test an individual’s IQ regardless of education, or ability to speak English. Marjorie tested people all over the territory of Hawai‘i and did all the statistical analysis for the book “Temperament and Race” (Porteus & Babcock). Temperament and Race posited the “shocking idea” that people of non-Caucasian ancestry were as bright or brighter than individuals whose ancestors came from Western Europe. Marjorie herself shocked people; she smoked, drove her own car, played golf, had a Master’s degree from the University of Hawai‘i, and obtained her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia in 9 months (when she left, Columbia required a year’s residency for a doctorate).
When Robbie and Marjorie were married in 1938, Marjorie gave up her job, her professorship and her profession to move from Honolulu to Pa‘auilo and become a plantation manager’s wife. She had absolutely no regrets. Her principal concern was her husband. Robbie was never in good health; his war wounds and the stress of running the plantation while pursuing his agenda of social reform and industrial innovation took a toll.
Marjorie insisted that they find a place to go to get away from the Plantation. At first they took weekends off. They would drive four hours to Kona and stay at the Kona Inn. In 1946, they decided to buy a lot on the ocean. It was a magical place. There were three sandy beaches and a little lagoon where their children could learn to swim and snorkel. The promontory in front of the lot offered views up and down the Kona Coast. They would build a house. The place would come to be known as the Plantation Manager’s Beach Home.
The Plantation Manager’s Kona Beach Home
Kona, on the leeward side of the Island, was hours away over rough roads that were only one lane wide. The little fishing town of Kailua boasted a pier, an ice house, a gas station, two stores, the Kona Inn, and Hulihe‘e Palace. The seven mile long Government Road (now Ali‘i Drive) ran along the coast from Kailua to Keauhou Bay. There were perhaps ten houses along that road. There was no electricity, no telephones, no sewer, and no public water supply. In the aftermath of WWII, building materials were almost impossible to come by.
Circumstances proved fortuitous. In 1946 a huge tsunami had inundated the Hamakua Coast. At Laupahoehoe, where the public school was on a little point surrounded by water, students and teachers arriving before school saw the water receding and rushed out to look at the sea life exposed on the ocean floor. The tsunami engulfed them and many were drowned. Others were swept out to sea. Some found bits of wood, mattresses or other flotsam to cling to. Currents carried them along the precipitous coast. They could shout to people on the cliffs, but there was nowhere to land. Most of them were never seen again.
A little railroad had been built along the coast. It ran from Hilo to Honoka‘a. There was a series of tunnels and bridges that enabled the railroad to cross the enormous gulches that serrated the coast. The bridges were made of huge redwood timbers. The tsunami had destroyed some of these bridges. As there was no money to rebuild the bridges, the timbers would be sold for building material. Robbie had a house designed for his Kona lot. The architect modified the design so that it could be built with redwood posts and beams and be clad in redwood siding. Robbie bought part of one of the railroad bridges and had the timbers trucked to Tony Ramos’ sawmill to be cut into suitable material.
Robbie’s social reforms and mechanization of his plantation required a reservoir of men
skilled in the construction industry. The plantation had a wealth of tradesmen who could build anything from scratch.
In 1947 there was a labor strike against the plantations. All work was stopped. The striking plantation workers picketed the manager’s house in Pa‘auilo. Robbie thought that this would be a good time to build his Kona house. He got permission from the owners of the plantation to hire some of the striking workers. Robbie hired his superintendents, David Kailimai, and Hiroshi Hiramoto to oversee the building of the house. David arranged for a Hawaiian kahu to perform the traditional blessing of the project. David’s crews put in the driveways, built the foundation, dug the water well, put in the septic system, and installed the water storage tanks. Hiroshi’s carpenters erected the post and beam frame, installed the flooring, siding and canec interior walls and ceilings. All the doors windows, cabinets and mill work were handcrafted on site. In several months the house was completed.
From 1947 until Robbie’s death in 1956, the Plantation Manager’s Beach House served as a refuge for Robbie and Marjorie. It was a place for rest and recuperation and a wonderful venue in which to entertain. Robbie and Marjorie had a remarkable group of friends from all walks of life and from all over the world. They loved to come to the beach house, sit on the lanai, relax and watch sunsets. Robbie was an avid painter. He and his friends Millard Sheets and Muggs Van Sant used the house as home base for their pleine aire watercolor endeavors. Often they chose just to stay at the house. They would set up their easels, sketch in the picture they wanted to paint, and then retire to the card table where they would play cribbage until the light was perfect.
After Robbie’s death in 1956, the beach house became Marjorie’s principal residence. She continued to welcome friends to “Robbie and Marjorie’s house” until her death in 1994. It is a place filled with happy memories. It is the place where Dylan and Katie were married and it is a place where we continue to bring our friends. In 1996 we decided to share this special place with people who enjoy and appreciate Hawai‘i much as it was in the 1940’s and 50s.
We hope you love Robbie and Marjorie’s beach house as much as we do.
Ian and Barbara, Dylan, Katie and Beaudry Robertson