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North Shore Soap Factory
Image: Christen Vidanovic

Fables of the reconstruction

Happy days are here again at Waialua Sugar Mill

North Shore Soap Factory / Vintage warehouses and an exhausted bagasse bin that was once territory for the remains of processed sugarcane during the heyday of Waialua Sugar Company are continuing to be the lifeblood of small town Waialua, long after the mill shut down its sugar production.

The sugar may have stopped pouring in 1996 but the mill itself has been in a state of rebirth since 2001 when North Shore Soap Factory owners, Jerry and Deborah Driscoll, along with other Waialua business owners, began revitalizing the historic industrial area using eco friendly strategies—a new way of life in a very old place.

From the outside, the massive cone shaped bin-turned-building mirrors the elegance of the Waianae Mountain Range behind it. On the inside, alongside organic and locally produced soaps and skin therapies, is a mini museum of plantation day artifacts. The renovation of the mill’s bin into a factory for organic skin care wasn’t easy for the Driscolls but the impact on the community has made the struggle worthwhile.

“It was the hearth of the North Shore…it’s so beautiful to have people come by and say that [they’ve] been on the mainland for 30 years…and then we get out the old workbooks and look up their names. The gentlemen that come by and see it get all teary eyed.”

Old workbooks filled with the names and worklogs of sugar mill employees, along with antique time clocks and tokens from the 1800s that were used as tender in the Sugar Co.’s general store fill the entrance to the soap factory.

Most of the North Shore Soap Factory’s interior comes from reused materials. Everything is built by Jerry, who also innovated most of the natural soap-making techniques after learning about the benefits of all-natural skin therapies from an organic chemist friend. The sustainable rennovations include countertops made from old Nanakuli bowling lanes and a soap stamping station created out of a 100-year-old monkeypod limb that saw all of the Waialua Agricultural Company come and go, according to Deborah. “It’s been a real community effort—everyone’s told a little story, all of our neighbors have dropped off little things that they’ve found,” she says.

Jerry and Deborah’s goal to continue to sustainably refurbish the Sugar Mill building comes out of a necessity to think globally and act locally. From the building they inhabit to the products that they sell, doing business with an eco and community friendly focus is their number one goal.

“We don’t want to use bleach…we don’t go to a supplier and get a gallon of lotion and then put our scent in it. We formulate, create and try it on everyone before we put it on our shelves,” says Deborah. Everything sold under the name of Hawaiian Bath and Body is made at the North Shore Soap Factory, with its ingredients coming from local producers and even neighbors. “We use guava and organic white honey from the Big Island, locally grown ginger root, kukui nut oil and tangerines peels from Waialua. When we run out, our neighbors bring us tangerine peels and we give them soap.”

The soap factory also features Akane coffee and North Shore Chocolate, both of which go into their coffee and chocolate soaps and scrubs.

The soap and skin care line was recently picked up by Whole Foods and is also distributed at Down to Earth and throughout the North Shore.

Jerry and Deborah aren’t the only ones in the Sugar Mill community dedicated to conserving resources by recycling and reusing materials most consider trash. At Third Stone Surfboards, Steve Matthews says that despite working in an industry that leaves a big carbon footprint, the Third Stone team does its best to offset the process by reusing scrap metal and plastic. “We’re using every piece of garbage that people dump over here,” he says pointing to refurbished and painted chemical drums and platforms.

Across the street at the historic and newly renovated Bank of Hawaii building, the Woolley Brothers screen printing shop is also doing its best to use old materials. Shaun Woolley points out that the rafters, railings, beams and wood framing are from used material that his handyman dad salvaged from a länai he was working on.

Ironically, says Shaun, that länai was Bill Paty’s, a plantation manager at the Waialua Sugar Mill for over 40 years.

Bill Martin, owner of Island X Hawaii, is proud of how far Waialua has taken its sense of authentic commerce without becoming a tourist trap. “When the Chamber of Commerce first made a little map, it didn’t even have Waialua on it,” he says, “Now, it’s not just a building, it’s a historical monument.”