A Promise To Miss Mabel
It’s hard to imagine Grove Farm museum without Bob Schleck. After working at the historic sugar plantation homestead nearly 50 years — more than 20 of which he served as director — he officially is hanging up his hat.
What’s more difficult to discern is who will miss him more, the staff or the property’s four-legged residents. As Schleck sits in the Grove Farm museum office in Lihue on a recent weekday afternoon, a feline companion, Yoda, nestles on his lap with a purr so loud you can hear it across the room. But Yoda isn’t the only one who’s enjoyed Schleck’s company throughout the years.
“Working with Bob has been a wonderful experience,” says Julie McLeod, Grove Farm museum secretary. “He has taught me and everyone he works with so much.”
His dedication to the protection of the property, as well as the others associated with Waioli Corporation — Waioli Mission House, Mahamoku on Hanalei Bay, the Grove Farm locomotive collection and Lepeuli ahupuaa — is unrivaled.
“He will be truly missed by the staff, but also by the sites he’s cared so well for over the years,” says McLeod.
You can tell Schleck has an affinity for details, especially if you’re lucky enough to have him show you around the 75-acre Grove Farm homestead, which was purchased by Mabel “Miss Mabel” Wilcox, the niece of Grove Farm Company founder George Wilcox, for preservation purposes in the late 1960s. Schleck will carefully rearrange items as you move through the property, which is why still it looks like its inhabitants from the 1800s only stepped out for the day.
He’s committed to making sure everything remains in its rightful place, all the way down to the order of the books on the shelves. He has such a keen eye for detail that even when repairs are needed, Schleck ensures everything stays the same, from paint colors to materials, “which is what has kept the sites authentic and pristine,” says McLeod.
That was Schleck’s promise to Miss Mabel after she died at age 96 in 1978. He still tells stories about her with great fondness, including their first meeting on Christmas Day 1969, when she hosted a get-together at the Grove Farm homestead. He arrived with his friend, who happened to be one of her cousins, and by no surprise, he recalls every detail of the celebration from the fireplace to the cocktails served. He even remembers her gift of homegrown peanuts, roasted on the wood-burning stove, which is still in operation today.
His friendship with Miss Mabel grew from there, and when he learned of her intention to turn some of the Wilcox properties into historical relics, he offered to help.
“I was privileged. I was really very fortunate to be involved in the development of this site as a historic site museum,” says Schleck, whose first job was taking inventory at Grove Farm museum.
By the mid-1970s, when the site began developing its museum structure and before officially opening in 1980, he moved into the position of curator. Schleck took over the role of director in 1995 and has relished the experience ever since.
“It has been phenomenal,” he says.
Conserving such a large aspect of Hawaii’s history is something of which Schleck’s especially proud.
“People left homes, left cultures to come to a strange land and new language — all these different characters and personalities integrated so beautifully,” he says of the immigrants who arrived on Kauai to work in the sugar industry. “They deserve a memorial and to be remembered.”
The integration of so many cultures is one of the things that made Schleck fall in love with the island.
“I’m so charmed by Kauai,” he says. “When I came here, it was like it was caught in amber.”
He remembers communities resembling “stage sets,” with sweet shops, theaters and quaint stores selling various knickknacks.
“And such a different pace; the people were just so sweet,” he says. “And I always say, ‘Well, of course they were, it was a sugar island, so it was in their blood.'”
While the days of yesteryear are long gone, along with flowers purposefully planted along the side of the roads and beaches void of crowds, he has no plans to return to his native state of Wisconsin.
“It was those winters,” says Schleck.
Instead, he plans to spend time relaxing beachside with a good book, and gardening at his home in Koloa. But he also wants to help the museum once a new director is hired. And it’s likely he won’t be able to entirely stay away after that either, as he admits there’s still much more inventory to attend to.
Above all, he hopes the community will continue to cherish and care for each one of the living museums that Miss Mabel, and her family and friends, including Schleck, have committed to preserving all these years.
“It’s a pretty generous request but also a responsibility,” he says. “We really need the community to engage in it, support it and enjoy it.”
A luau in celebration of 100 years of Waioli Corporation’s preservation that began with the restoration of the Waioli Mission House is set for Saturday (May 13) from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Grove Farm museum. Entertainment will include performances by Frank De Lima and Halau Kaulupuaonalani. Tickets cost $100 and proceeds will go toward the continued preservation of Waioli Corporation sites. Call 245-3202 to purchase tickets or for more information.