Family ties: 'The Descendants' hits close to home for descendant Wil Patterson | March 21, 2012 | Almanac | Almanac Online |


Cover Story - March 21, 2012

Family ties: 'The Descendants' hits close to home for descendant Wil Patterson

by Barbara Wood

When Wilcox Patterson of Portola Valley first read "The Descendants," the book on which the Academy Award-winning movie was based, it was a deja vu experience — the history of main character Matt King seemed an awful lot like the history of Mr. Patterson's own Hawaiian ancestors.

Watching the movie provided even more deja vu for Mr. Patterson, known as Wil, and his wife Sandra. The beach house in the movie looks just like one owned by a cousin on the north shore of Kauai, and other scenes were suggestive of Mr. Patterson's family background as well.

"I thought, wait a minute — this is getting awfully familiar," Mr. Patterson says.

Some of the characters' names even matched those of his family. "We actually have a cousin Hugh in the family, but the character played in the movie is the antithesis of our cousin Hugh," Mr. Wilcox says.

It turns out there is a very good reason for the similarities: Author Kaui Hart Hemmings is a distant cousin of Mr. Patterson's, and although she has denied in interviews that her book follows any specific family, it borrows a lot of the history of her, and Mr. Patterson's, own family.

Mr. Patterson and Ms. Hart Hemmings are descendants of Abner Wilcox and Lucy Eliza Hart Wilcox, missionary teachers who settled on the island of Kauai in 1846. One of their eight sons, George Norton Wilcox, became one of the wealthiest people in Hawaii and an influential politician and philanthropist before he died at the age of 93 in 1933.

George Wilcox's brother, Charles Hart Wilcox, was Mr. Patterson's maternal great-grandfather and Kaui Hart Hemmings' maternal great-great-grandfather.

George Wilcox, who never married or had children of his own, left his fortune in trust to his great-nieces and nephews, including Wilcox Patterson's mother. A board of directors including many family members managed the business, called Grove Farm, until 2000, when it was sold to AOL founder Steve Case, a native of Hawaii with family ties to Grove Farm.

Like the sale of the family land in "The Descendants," the sale was not without controversy. An unsuccessful lawsuit filed by some family members to try to reverse the sale was dismissed by a federal judge in 2008.

While Wil Patterson has strong family ties to Hawaii, he did not visit the islands until he was an adult. His great-grandfather left Hawaii for California in 1857, and Wil Patterson was born and raised in California. He and Sandy have lived in Portola Valley since 1988.

He knows his family in Hawaii well, though. In 1980 Mr. Patterson, who has a background in the banking industry, was asked to join the board of directors of Grove Farm. He served until 2000, attending quarterly meetings in Hawaii, but was no longer on the board when Grove Farm was sold.

There are some significant differences between Mr. Patterson's family and that of "The Descendants" family. The fictional Hawaiian family got much of the land it owned when an ancestor married a Hawaiian princess with major landholdings on Kauai. In the real world, according to the book "Grove Farm Plantation," 10,500 acres of George Wilcox's property was purchased from a Hawaiian princess, Ruth Keelikolani, who wanted the money to build herself a mansion in Honolulu.

While the family no longer owns the Grove Farm Company, the Waioli Corporation, a nonprofit formed in 1975 by Mabel Wilcox, niece of George Wilcox and daughter of Sam Wilcox, retains ownership of the heart of the Grove Farm sugar plantation. The 100-acre historic site includes the Wilcox home and some of the locomotives that were used to transport sugar cane. Located in Lihue, on the east shore of Kauai, it can be visited by appointment.

The Waioli Corporation also owns the Wai'oli Mission House museum, home of Abner and Lucy Wilcox, near Hanalei. Many visitors to the North Shore of Kauai are also familiar with the distinctive green Hui'ia Church in Hanalei, built in 1915 with money donated by Abner and Lucy's sons Sam, George and Albert Wilcox.

The family also donated the land and funds for the Kauai Community College and the Wilcox Community Hospital, both in Lihue.

Both Grove Farm and the Wai'oli Mission House are in the National Register of Historic Places, and Wil Patterson says many of his relatives provide financial and volunteer support for the museums.

"There's a tremendous amount of family philanthropy there," he says.

The family also has ties to the Kilohana Plantation complex in Lihue, featuring the 1936 mansion of Gaylord Parke Wilcox, George Wilcox's nephew, son of his brother Sam. Tourists visit the complex to shop, ride the Kauai Plantation Railway into the rain forest, tour the historic home or eat at Gaylord's Restaurant.

Even without the family ties to author Kaui Hart Hemmings, Wil Patterson may have seen parallels between his life and that of the family in "The Descendants." On his father's side of the family, George Washington Patterson came to California in 1849 for the Gold Rush. He eventually took up farming in Fremont and Livermore, and amassed major landholdings, some of which are still in the family. Ardenwood Historic Farm in Fremont was GW Patterson's home, donated to the city of Fremont by the family in 1974.

Local residents may know Wil Patterson from his civic activities, including membership in the Menlo Park Rotary Club since 1970, and as a past president of the club's foundation.

In Portola Valley, he has been on the Traffic Committee for 16 years, serving many years as its chairperson, as well as serving on the Emergency Preparedness and Public Works committees.

Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener who lives and works in an 1889 farmhouse in Woodside.


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