The Lyman House Memorial
Brings Hawaii History to Life
by Lance Tominaga
The Lyman Museum as it
Just a few blocks up from picturesque Hilo Bay in downtown
Hilo, on Haili Street, stand two buildings. One is old-the
oldest wooden frame structure on the island, in fact-while
the other is decidedly modern. Together, the adjacent
structures make up the Lyman House Memorial Museum,
which lives up to its mission statement of "(telling)
the story of Hawai'i, its islands and its peoples."
When people come here, they get, in one place, a nice
overall view of Hawai'i and its natural and cultural
history," says Director Paul Dahlquist. "The
only other place that comes close to doing that is the
Bishop Museum in Honolulu."
The centerpiece is the historic Lyman Mission House,
which was built in 1839 for David and Sarah Lyman, the
first full-time Christian missionaries to Hilo. This
New England-style home houses authentic missionary-era
furnishings, photographs, clothing and other precious
artifacts. The number of items on display here, says
Dahlquist, is "well into the hundreds, maybe even
Inside the Lyman Museum.
Although some of the decor are "extras" added
from other homes, most of the items are the residence's
David and Sarah Lyman were practically newlyweds when
they boarded the Averick on November 26, 1831 to begin
their service as Christian missionaries. (All nine couples
on the voyage, in fact, had been married less than three
months.) The whaleship set sail from New Bedford, Massachusetts
and embarked on a 173-day journey to the Sandwich Isles,
finally dropping anchor at Honolulu Harbor on May 17,
1832. David was 29 and Sarah 27.
The Lymans stayed in Honolulu for almost two months,
immersing themselves in the Hawaiian culture and learning
the native language, customs and traditions. During
their stay, Queen Ka'ahumanu-the favorite wife of Kamehameha-died
after a lengthy illness. A zealous convert to Christianity,
the powerful Ka'ahumanu had been a great ally to the
missionaries. Both David and Sarah attended the queen's
On July 5, the Lymans departed for Hilo on the island
of Hawai'i, stopping briefly in Lahaina on Maui. They
arrived in Hilo on July 16 and immediately went to work.
The Lyman family circa
1855 From left to right, Francis, Emma, Rufus, Ellen
with parents David and Sarah in the background.
Sarah taught reading, writing, math, geography and
history to the natives. She also led a sewing class
so the Island women could fashion more modest garments
to wear. She also discouraged the women from wearing
leis or flowers in their hair, and hats became quite
the fashion rage. However, as MacKinnon Simpson wrote
in the authoritative book The Lymans of Hawai'i Island,
"As the novelty wore off, Sarah noted sadly that
women carried their hats until they neared church, donned
them for services, and removed them again after they'd
gone a short ways."
Indeed, getting the natives to fully embrace the ways
of the missionaries proved a difficult task. Wrote Simpson,
"Both Sarah and David and other missionaries bemoaned
the slowness of Hawaiians to adopt their 'civilized'
ways and Christian morality. Their journals lament that
'the people go on to sin' by maintaining their old ways-knocking
out their front teeth as a sign of grief, tattooing
themselves, dancing the hula, wailing and chanting,
surfing-as well as sins of a more Ten Commandments bent:
stealing, lying, adultery and gambling."
David, meanwhile, also dedicated much of his time to
teaching. In 1836, he opened the Hilo Boarding School
for Hawaiian boys. The initial aim of the school was
to train the youngsters to become missionaries, but
eventually the focus shifted to providing them practical
vocational training. During the Lymans' tenure, more
than 800 boys passed through the HBS. Many graduates
later became lawyers, government officials, church workers
and even teachers themselves.
Unfortunately, 1836 also brought much sorrow to the
Lyman family. Their first son, David, born April 12,
1834, died of cholera infantum. Wrote a bereaved Sarah
after the funeral, "As I went into my room...where're
I turned my eye, I saw something to remind me of the
dear departed boy. Desolation reigns in our once cheerful
home." (David and Sarah would have seven more children-five
boys and two girls.)
David and Sarah never left the Hawaiian islands, choosing
instead to spend all their remaining years faithfully
serving their God and the work He had provided them.
David Lyman died in 1884 at the age of 81. Sarah died
the next year at age 80.
The Lyman house as it
appeared circa 1853. Note the thatched roof.
The Lyman home that was built in 1839 was made of native
koa as well as lumber that David had purchased. Henry
Munson Lyman, the second-eldest Lyman son, once recalled
his childhood home in fond detail: "Our house,
as we always styled the paternal residence, was a wooden
building of one story placed on a stone foundation that
surrounded a spacious cellar. There were four rooms
on the first floor...a dining room and common sitting
room, and my mother's bedroom, on the front side, looking
out upon the ocean.
"Behind our Mother's bedroom was a smaller bedroom
for my little brother Fred and myself. Behind the dining
room, opening out of a narrow passage that contained
the stairs, was a small room for the storage of such
articles as were used in barter with the natives for
provisions; in fact it served as my father's office
and reception room for such people as came on secular
business. In the rear of all was a semi-detached kitchen,
with an old-fashioned open fireplace and an oven all
constructed out of rough stones, brick then being unknown
in Hawai'i. Upstairs were two attic bedchambers with
dormer windows, from which were visible the beautiful
bay and the blue ocean that filled the whole northwestern
Today, visits to the Lyman house are permitted strictly
through guided tours ("The building is quite old,
and we have to take very good care of it," says
Dahlquist). The guides are specially trained and can
provide answers to most questions about the Lyman family
and their home. The tour usually lasts about half an
hour. Dahlquist says that many descendants of David
and Sarah Lyman are actively involved with the Lyman
House Memorial Museum, including two that sit on the
Board of Trustees.
The two-story museum, meanwhile, opened in 1973 and
features approximately 20,000 feet of display space.
"Most people refer to us as the Lyman House,"
Dahlquist says, "but we're much more than just
the mission house. The museum was added because our
collection had grown to such an extent that the mission
house itself was bursting at the seams and was housing
all kinds of things that had nothing to do with missionary
life or the Lymans."
The museum is divided into two major galleries. On
the museum's first level is the Earth Heritage Gallery,
which deals with the natural history of the Hawaiian
islands. Under renovation until April 2000, the gallery
spotlights Hawai'i's unique environments, its various
flora and fauna, and impressive displays of seashells
and minerals. Says Dahlquist, "Our (seashell and
mineral) collections are absolutely superb collections,
the likes of which are found virtually nowhere else
in the world."
On the top floor of the museum is the Island Heritage
Gallery, which pays tribute to the many peoples that
make up Hawai'i's cultural tapestry. Included here are
a Chinese shrine, a Portuguese musical instrument and
antique Japanese furnishings.
In 1997, a new section was added to the museum, allowing
for more exhibit space as well as a new orientation
area and a well-stocked gift shop.
Men pushing a stubborn
donkey on Wainuenue Ave. in Hilo, circa 1890.
Dahlquist, a trained cultural anthropologist, oversees
a staff of 28 workers (full-time, part-time and temporary)
and approximately 150 volunteers. The Honolulu-born
historian has been with the museum for the past twelve
years-the last three as director, and previously as
curator. He was a professor at Ohio Wesleyan University
in Delaware, Ohio for twenty years before coming home.
"It was really pure serendipity," he says,
smiling. "When I moved back here, I didn't have
a job or even any (employment) prospects. I just knew
I wanted to be back in the Islands. And within the first
month of moving back here, there was an advertisement
for a position at the museum.
"I'm very interested in Hawaiian history, so it's
great to be able to work at a place like this."
The Lyman House Memorial Museum is located at 276 Haili
Street. Hours of operation are Monday-Saturday, 9:00
A.M.-4:30 P.M. Regular admission fees are $7 for adults,
$5 for senior citizens and $2.50 for students; kama'aina
rates are $5 for adults, $3 for senior citizens and
$2 for students (including University of Hawai'i-Hilo
students). Family rates are also available ($12.50 for
visitors, $10 for kama'aina), providing admission for
up to six people. For more information, call 935-5021.
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