homepage logo

Keeping a Sharp eye on our heritage

By Staff | May 28, 2009

LAHAINA — Missionaries and whaling captains in the news (because of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation Progressive Dinner last weekend) are a reminder that the lives of these New England wayfarers remain as interesting today as they were 150 years ago. 

Just ask Barbara Sharp, who for ten years served as research director of the foundation and penned a Lahaina mystery series. Sharp performed the feat of transcribing 3,000 pages of historical documents gathered together as the Windley Files. A better name might now be the Windley/Sharp Files.

Windley, recovering from a diving accident in the 1950s that left him paralyzed for a time and later unable to pursue his passion for ocean depths, recruited a team to go to Oahu to visit history repositories. The group copied on small cards hundreds and hundreds of passages from logs, letters, journals and first person accounts of what life was like in Lahaina in the 1800s.

Years later, Sharp — new on Maui and answering an ad to transcribe old microfilm records for Lahaina Restoration Foundation — soon found herself capturing tens of thousands of words from deteriorating Windley carbon copies and putting them on a computer. The task took three years, and the result is a printout of 13 books up to 400 pages long.

Reading just a few of the Windley pages, a fascinating and colorful picture emerges of Old Lahaina.  Reverend and physician Dwight Baldwin, the most prominent of the missionaries who made his home here from 1834-68, during those years saw Lahaina flourish and then begin to decline.

Most whaling ships manned by 25 sailors would spend two weeks in Lahaina for new provisions and “R&R.” Lahaina was filled with wall-to-wall people at night, just like today, with whalers ferried to town in shifts to get drunk on rum and local beer made from potatoes.  Soap was added to make the beer foam, leaving imbibers with powerful headaches. Meanwhile, the missionaries were continually pushing for prohibition. Captains, a more mature lot who tended to be religious, often spent their time in the Masters Reading Room scanning six-month-old newspapers.

In 1843, Lahaina boasted three chandlery shops to supply 96 whaling ships in port, 15 retailers, three doctors and the new Lahainaluna Seminary. By 1859, a bowling alley, seven eatery houses, six sly drinking establishments and one billiard room had been added.  More than 100 ships arrived that year, down from a peak of 393 in 1856. The heyday of whaling was soon over, transforming the town into “a dirty and dilapidated village” by the 1870s, according to one account.

Early on, Baldwin firmly opposed foreigner’s participation in local government, telling Hawaiians prophetically, “you better watch out for your sovereignty.” Wearing many hats, Rev. Baldwin practiced medicine here and on Molokai and Lanai, and by 1860 was preaching to crowds of 2,300 people (100 foreigners and 2,500 Hawaiians lived in Lahaina at the time).

“People think the missionaries were anti-hula and anti-everything,” according to Sharp. The truth is they learned the Hawaiian language on the ships that brought them here and loved Hawaiians. They worked with people like Hawaiian scholar David Malo to write down history.

With missionaries and Hawaiians, “it was mutual love.” One Hawaiian even requested burial next to his missionary friend, after they became buddies through their common interest in astronomy.

The New Englanders viewed Maui like most of the rest of us. They fell in love with island beauty. “They didn’t have to stay here all their lives; it wasn’t a jail sentence. They could have gone home but they didn’t want to leave. They were not necessarily all religious.  Some went on to become businessmen, some good, some bad. This became their home,” Sharp noted.

The Windley Files transcriber has self-published six “Lahaina Mysteries” with numerous passages providing historically accurate tales of older times. More than 7,000 copies of her books — sold only at Buns of Maui, the Lahaina Visitor Center, shop at Baldwin Home and Village Gallery — are now in print. A seventh mystery is due by Christmas.

The main character in the series is a cat-loving historian — actually a thinly disguised Sharp. Both grew up in Seattle and had gourmet coffee shops there.  

The mystery writer’s only lament these days is how Lahaina has changed. She used to find peaceful inspiration along the seawall on Front Street, where she said she would “go into a Zen-like state” and find new ideas for her books. “Now noisy leaf blowers have taken over,” she complained.

Sharp never set out to be a writer, yet finds writing surprisingly easy. Her greatest contribution, however, may not be in her books, but in her dedicated work preserving the Windley Files. Windley died at a young age, but thanks to Barbara Sharp, his legacy lives on.