“Images of America” Series Highlights the Old Plantation Town’s Living History and Heritage
Kevin Y. Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
You can learn a lot about the history of a place through books and oral histories, photographs and video documentaries. But one way to really experience that history, firsthand, is through its architecture and landscape and to actually walk through the town, where the residents and other community members have made an effort to preserve its historic look and ambience.
That’s what visitors to Honoka‘a Town on the northern end of the Big Island’s Hämäkua Coast will find when they visit this relatively small community of just over 2,200 people. Located about an hour’s drive north of Hilo, Honoka‘a is definitely not an outdoor museum. It’s a community where people live and have raised families for generations, where people operate businesses and go to work every day and play on their days off, where people grow old and pass on.
Thanks to historical preservation efforts, Honoka‘a Town has retained significant architectural elements of its past. This is not by accident. Many buildings constructed during the late 1800s and early 1900s remain standing, much as they were when they served the multiethnic plantation-era population, because of the collective efforts of individuals within and outside of the community. As a result, visitors and residents alike can see a piece of Hawai‘i that has disappeared in so many other parts of the state as modernization has given way to the demolition of historic structures.
In 2015, Laura Ruby and Ross W. Stephenson co-authored a book they titled, “Honokaa Town,” published by Arcadia Publishing for the “Images of America” series. The 128-page book, which is available in both hardcover and paperback, takes the reader on a photographic journey through this plantation-era community, showing readers what the landscape and buildings looked like over the past hundred years or so. In many cases, those same buildings remain standing today, renovated and refurbished in keeping with standards of historical preservation.
“Walk down Mamane Street, the heart of Honokaa Town, and step back into the late 19th and early 20th century,” reads the description on the book’s back cover. “Honokaa’s single wall, wooden plantation-era buildings are as much a symbol of Hawai‘i to local people as Diamond Head is to tourists. The commercial buildings have their emblematic false fronts and totan (corrugated iron) cladding. They contained, and still contain, mom-and-pop businesses that were founded upon personal relationships, required the labor of whole families, and provided for the education of the next generation.”
To learn about the history of Honoka‘a Town is to understand the development of modern Hawai‘i. In many ways, this community demonstrates how local values and sentiments were shaped and evolved. People from different cultures and ethnicities shared the town’s resources and breathed life into everyday activities such as food preparation, religious services, small-town entertainment, parades, education and health care — in addition to the wide variety of commercial endeavors taking place behind storefronts. The book captures many of these activities: Portuguese women baking bread in a traditional forno (stone oven), the 12-bed Okada Japanese Hospital, operators staffing an old-fashioned telephone exchange system, live performances for children at the Honoka‘a People’s Theatre on Saturday mornings before movies were shown and the area’s Japanese Hotel, to name a few. The authors collected more than 200 photos from different sources for the book.
Ruby and Stephenson formed the ideal partnership to carry out this immense task. They had earlier collaborated on a similar book titled, “Honolulu Town,” also published by Arcadia, for its “Images of America” series. Both are well known advocates of historic preservation in Hawai‘i. Ruby edited “Mö‘ili‘ili: Life of a Community” — which has been updated for re-release soon — and has won accolades as an artist, author and community volunteer. In 2015, the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii recognized her as a “Living Treasure of Hawai‘i.” Stephenson was a historian at the Hawai‘i State Historic Preservation Division and keeper of the Hawai‘i Register of Historic Places. He has a doctorate in urban planning, focusing on the developmental history of Honolulu. His wife Carol, who shares his enthusiasm for historic preservation, grew up along the Hämäkua Coast and attended high school in Honoka‘a.
An impressive list of Honoka‘a buildings are on the Hawai‘i State Register of Historic Places today. They include the Honokaa United Methodist Church; M.S. Botelho Building and Garage; First Bank of Hilo, Hämäkua Branch; Ferreira Building; S. Hasegawa Store; Masaaki Sakata Property; ILWU Jack Wayne Hall; Bank of Hawaii, Hämäkua Branch; Teiji Yamatsuka Store; Kamekichi and Mika Kotake Store Property and Honoka‘a Plantation Manager’s Residence. Some are also on the National Register of Historic Places.
Stephenson believes the historic preservation of towns like Honoka‘a provide opportunities for low-impact tourism and can bring in resources for repairing structures and beautifying communities. “Honoka‘a is a very walkable town,” he said. “It is an attractive place for tourists to visit.”
Japanese tourists will likely find the town particularly interesting given that many of its early residents were Japanese — immigrants and their family members trying to build a life for themselves within and beyond the plantation system. They might also learn about the hardships that greeted the immigrant laborers when they first arrived in Hawai‘i. A map is available in Japanese language for those who want to take a self-guided walking tour through the town. Among the sites of interest is the Katsu Goto Memorial, erected to honor a young Japanese immigrant storekeeper and community leader who was lynched in 1889 because of his advocacy for better working conditions for immigrant laborers in the sugarcane fields.
The effort to maintain Honoka‘a’s historic flavor and character also resulted in reinvigorating civic pride for many of the town’s residents and business owners. Many of the structures, though old, have been handsomely restored and their histories researched and documented. A plaque on the Honoka‘a People’s Theatre proudly announces its role as a center of community life from 1930.
“American, Japanese and Filipino films were shown. Programs often included two movies, cartoon and newsreel. Teenager Ed Castillo would ring a hand-held ‘Santa Claus’ bell throughout the town to announce the night’s movies, then return to the theater to start recorded music and pull the curtain.”
At the bottom of the plaque are the words: National Register of Historic Places.
Honoka‘a town celebrates its history, cultures and people through its wide-ranging preservation efforts. The community and those who support their efforts, such as Ruby and Stephenson, have also raised public awareness about the value of passing on to succeeding generations the riches of historical knowledge and community stories.
A number of stories were included in the lengthy application to have the S. Hasegawa Store listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These stories make for interesting reading in their own right. One of them was about the store’s horse. Seishiro Hasegawa came to Honolulu in 1907 with candy-making skills that he had learned in Japan. With those skills he was able to find a job at a small candy store when he went to Honoka‘a. Hasegawa eventually bought the store. He began his business by selling Japanese confections. Seishiro returned to Japan to learn more about the candy business. When he returned to Honoka‘a, he bought a horse so that he could peddle his candies throughout the town.
“One of the family’s favorite stories was how the horse [“Candy Girl”] instinctively knew how to pull the candy wagon, and [was] assertive in what it did or did not want to do,” stated the narrative in the application. “In his travels with Candy Girl, Seishiro sold the confections, cookies, and candies, from his wagon from Kukuihaele to Laupähoehoe. One time coming back very late from Laupähoehoe, Candy Girl suddenly stopped and would not budge — it had reached its sleep time. So Seishiro had to sleep in the wagon and return home to Honokaʻa the next day.”
Seishiro was later able to buy a truck to better sell his candies. The phone number listed on his truck had only two digits: 79. The candies were displayed in clear glass or in plastic containers so that customers could make their selections. Fortunately, the Hasegawa family kept many of its old photographs of the store, which were included in the application. Ruby and Stephenson also included some photos of the store in their book. In one interior shot from around 1929, the store’s goods are displayed on shelves and in cases. But there was also a table in the store so that customers could sit and enjoy hand-cranked ice cream. According to the photo caption, if the store did not have what the customer wanted, Seishiro would find a way to get it.
To learn more about Honoka‘a Town, buy or borrow the book (it is available in the public library system) or, better yet, visit this bustling and colorful town in person. The North Hawai‘i Education and Research Center is also housed in Honoka‘a and contains an archive, changing exhibits and other resources. In so many ways, Honoka‘a Town is keeping its history and heritage alive and well for current and future generations to enjoy. Rather than destroying the past, the community has chosen to celebrate and revitalize it, one historic building at a time.
Kevin Y. Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.