Fabulous Up-Country Kona, Hawaii (Part 1)

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Historical Kona Heritage Corridor
When the Kona Coast becomes too hot and humid upon torrid afternoons, or post-littoral torpor sets in from sunbathing overindulgence at the beach, visitors of the Big Island Kona side should take a cue from locals and head up-country for the fresh, cool afternoon air. The Old Road, a 12-mile long remnant of the Mamalahoa Highway, runs through a beautiful slice of Old Hawaii; coffee farms, fruit orchards, historical buildings, small towns, and an old sugar mill grace the sunny slopes of Hualalai Volcano here.

Mauka, or Up-Country, Kona as this area is called, was once the beating financial heart of Hawaii Island—along this road were built the first newspaper press, bottling company, and telephone exchange on Hawaii. Today, the road runs through the artist enclave of Holualoa, famed for its art galleries and coffeehouses. Sweeping views of the Kona coastline, the upper slopes of Hualalai Volcano, and even Maui on fog-free days make this road a trip a not to be missed treat. Let’s take a quick tour of the section of the Kona Heritage Corridor that runs along Highway 180 from its intersection with Highway 190 north through Holualoa, past the intersection with Highway 19, and into the town of Kainaliu. Part 1 of this article discusses Upcountry Kona in the Holualoa area; Part 2 covers the Kainaliu Area.

Part 1: Kainaliu Area

M. Onizuka Store
Starting at the intersection of the Mamalahoa Highway (Hwy 180) and Highway 190 (Palani Road) and heading approximately South on the Mamalahoa Highway, one passes through tropical to temperate rainforest and comes to the verge of the cloud forest that soften the upper slopes of Hualalai Volcano. At about the 7-mile maker one passes the old M. Onizuka Store, the boyhood home of Astronaut Elisson Onizuka, who died in the Challenger space shuttle disaster.

The M. Onizuka Store was founded in 1933 by Masamitsu Onizuka in 1933, who provided the residents of his community with general merchandise and means of transporting their purchases through the store’s one-man taxi service. Following her husband’s death, Mitsue Nagata Onizuka continued to run the store until the day she died in 1990.

“May Peace On Earth Prevail” proclaims the post outside the residence where Elisson Onizuka, who had the honor of being the first astronaut of Japanese-American descent, grew up. History buffs are invited to explore Hawaii’s rich involvement in man’s exploration of space at the Onizuka Space Museum at Kona International Airport.

K. Komo Store
Boasting but a few necessary concessions to the march of time, the charming comfort of the family store of yesteryear lives on in the form of the K. Komo Store. Gasoline, sundries, and good conversation are always available at this for real slice of “Old Hawaii.” Serving the people of Keopu since the early 1900s, and operated by the third generation of Komo family, K. Komo Store still grows, roasts, brews, and sells their own brand of coffee. The store is registered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Holualoa Town
With a name that means “the long sled track,” its position at the apex of Kona coffee country, and its modern day eclectic profusion of art galleries, schools, and studios, it’s easy to see that Holualoa, once the bustling center of North Kona commerce, has been through some changes in the past 200 years.

Initially, Hawaiians grew taro and sweet potato in small family farm plots called kuleana around Holualoa. It is interesting to note that today the word kuleana in Hawaiian pidgin has taken on the meaning of “personal responsibility.” In any case, early in the nineteenth century, Japanese, Portuguese, and Chinese immigrants settled here and began planting large fields of oranges, breadfruit, coffee, and cotton, among other crops. A large sisal plantation for making ropes for sailing vessels was located just northwest of Holualoa. Today, now-wild sisal plants, looking a bit alien with their tall, single stalk of blossoms, can be seen in profusion along Palani Road between Kailua and Kealekehe.

Early in the 20th century, the fields were turned over almost entirely to sugar production and Holualoa became financial center of the Kona District. Luther Aungst established the Kona Telephone Co here in the 1890s. The first regional newspaper, The Kona Echo, was established at Holualoa by Dr. Harvey Hayashi, one of Kona’s first full time resident doctors. Many other schools, churches, and industries, including the Kona Bottling Works, located here in the first half of the 20th century, but the collapse of the sugar industry brought financial doom that coffee growing only partially staved off. The community shrank drastically in population and commercial importance and by 1958, only about 1,000 people lived in the Holualoa area.

In a dreamy, upcountry Kona backwater, a community of artists, recluses, writers, and seekers of the “Old Hawaii Lifestyle” thrived here. Recently, an infusion of money from the newly invigorated “boutique coffee” industry has sparked a revival of commercial life in Holualoa, anchored in coffeehouses and art galleries.

Kona Sugar Company and West Hawaii Railway Company
Such was the seductive lure of easy riches to be gained by growing sugar in Hawaii at the beginning of the 20th century, that investment capital for a large sugar plantation, sugar mill, and railroad in Kona could be raised not once, but three times.

The Kona Sugar Company plantation was established in 1899 and every available scrap of land was stripped of whatever crops had grown there previously and planted in cane. Although the sugar grew well enough about 500 feet elevation, a notable lack of fresh water in Kona’s semi-arid landscape made Wai’aha Stream the only logical choice for the mill site. Unfortunately, the stream flow is vastly insufficient for year-round cane milling and the mill, built in 1901, went broke in 1903. Kona Sugar was bought by investors; renamed Kona Development Company, the plantation again went broke in 1916 and was in turn bought by investors in Tokyo. This group managed to eek out a profit until the industry imploded in 1926. Originally planned to run 30 miles, the railroad was only built to total length of 11 miles in the twenty-seven years of sugar plantation operation. Work camps, communal baths, stables, workshops, and all the requisite infrastructure of a giant agricultural plantation lay abandoned in the Mauka Kona countryside.

During World War II, the U.S. Army used the mill site as a training camp to acclimate troops to warfare on their way to the tropical Pacific Theater. Fearing the tall smokestack of the mill would act as an artillery landmark for any invading forces, the Army pulled it down and Kona lost one of its first post-contact, industrial landmarks.

Traces of the rail bed can still be seen from the top of Nani Kailua and Aloha Kona residential neighborhoods. Located just west of the town of Holualoa along Hualalai Road (the major intersection just south of town), near the intersection with Hienaloli Road, are impressive stone breastworks and trestles for the railroad. Built by hand but still strong today, the rail bed can be explored and hiked from here. Further up Hienaloli Road from the intersection with Hualalai Road, the old mill site remnants are still visible.

Keauhou Store
Originally Sasaki Store, Keauhou Store was founded by noted carpenter, coffee farmer, and prominent local business man Yoshisuki Sasaki in 1919, and remains one of the great neighborhood stores of Kona. Run today by Yoshiuki’s son, Rikiyo, they offer gas, sundries, fresh coffee, and local produce. Even as traffic that used to pass by the front door now travels the makai highway, the front porch of Keauhou Store still serves as a gathering place for local coffee farmers and neighborhood children. A true remnant of Old Kona, Keauhou Store is a must visit.

Tong Wo Tong Cemetery
Although Chinese lived in the Islands since the turn of the 19th century, the first large scale immigration of Chinese came when they were brought over to work the cane fields in 1852. There was soon a burgeoning population of Chinese field workers and shopkeepers; by 1860, Chinese outnumbered Caucasians in Hawaii. This community established the Tong Wo Tong Cemetery to honor their ancestors and commissioned Yoshisuki Sasaki, a noted local carpenter and prominent business man, to build the ornate gate in 1902. In English and Chinese the inscription on the gate reads “Tong Wo Tong Cemetery.” 

Part 1 | Part 2


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