COURTESY PHOTO BY DONNELL TATE
George "Keoki" Freeland stands in front of the family's Pioneer Inn next to his wife, Betty Hay Freeland, and son George Warren Hay Freeland. The inn, still owned by the Freeland family but operated under a lease to a corporation, is one of the oldest hotels in Hawaii still in operation.
Inn owners preserve Maui history
The Pioneer Inn in Lahaina is one of the oldest operating hotels in the state
LAHAINA » George "Keoki" Freeland is preserving the memories of plantation days in west Maui when his father operated three movie theaters in the 1940s, serving the thousands of people who lived in sugar plantation camps.
"The workers didn't have automobiles. It was about 5 cents to 10 cents for admission, and you'd get the main feature, plus cartoons, special serial features and the news of the day," recalled Freeland.
The theaters as well as the camps where they were located no longer exist, and the sugar plantation has closed, but Freeland, head of the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, is working to make sure they are not forgotten.
The Freeland family has lived in Lahaina long enough to be a part of historic changes themselves.
Keoki's grandfather George Freeland, born in Cobham, England, was 38 when he built the Pioneer Inn in 1901.
The inn, still owned by the Freeland family but operated under a lease to a corporation, is one of the oldest hotels in Hawaii still in operation.
Before moving to Hawaii, grandfather Freeland was a miner, a provincial police officer and in the livery and grocery business in Canada.
He married Amabel Kahuhu of Lanai and settled in Lahaina to raise three sons and four daughters, Keoki Freeland said.
Keoki said besides a string of movie theaters in various plantation camps, the family had the main theater situated on the back side of the hotel along Front Street.
Near the theater were stores, including one that sold crack seed to movie customers.
The family house was on the present site of the Wharf Cinema Center, across from the Lahaina Banyan Tree.
Keoki said that before Lahaina Harbor was built in the 1950s, the ocean channel fronting Pioneer Inn was barely navigable during high surf.
Passengers who rode on dinghies to board ships faced the possibility of being swamped. "You took your chances through the surf," he recalled.
The Pioneer Inn has been the background for a number of films.
Keoki recalled that while going to college, he returned home one summer and worked on the set of the film "The Devil at 4 O'Clock." He helped to build some canoes and made fiberglass rocks.
The film, released in 1961, starred Spencer Tracy and Frank Sinatra, and the Pioneer Inn was cast as a hotel on a South Pacific island.
Other productions using Pioneer Inn as a setting include the TV series "Hawaii 5-0," "Hawaiian Eye," "Adventures in Paradise" and "Baywatch."
The hotel went through a period of expansion in the mid-1960s with the development of 34 rooms on the second floor and more ground-floor stores facing Front Street.
Freeland said most Lahaina people including himself didn't look at the town as being historic until the 1960s, when landowner Amfac developed the Kaanapali Resort and was looking for visitor attractions.
He said the corporation sought to preserve old buildings in Lahaina. "They played a major role in the preservation of stuff," Freeland said.
Other residents joined the movement to preserve sites and establish the Lahaina Restoration Foundation.
The foundation took on an additional role in preserving history when Amfac shut its Pioneer Mill sugar operations in the 1999.
Keoki Freeland, a former general manager of Amfac's Pioneer Mill sugar plantation, has been trying to preserve the mill's smokestack as a landmark.
He's also been working with the nonprofit group Friends of Moku'ula to restore a pond that once surrounded an islet occupied by members of the royal King Kamehameha family, who made Lahaina their capital in the early 1800s.
Freeland said the foundation has been providing historic walking tours to west Maui educators. "We're trying to educate the people by way of teachers," he said.
The foundation is looking for a successor to Freeland, who has enjoyed his work in historic preservation.
"It's been wonderful," he said. "I think I've got more than what I've given."