Yesterday Once More

The Lyman House Memorial Museum Brings Hawaii History to Life

by Lance Tominaga

The Lyman Museum as it appears today. photo credit: Kirk Aeder

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 thousands."

Inside the Lyman Museum. photo credit: Kirk Aeder

Although some of the decor are "extras" added from other homes, most of the items are the residence's original furnishings.

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 funeral.

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 horizon."

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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