Star-Bulletin Features

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
On the road to Honokaa.


Star-Bulletin reporter Tim Ryan,
on assignment in Honokaa for a music festival
that ended during the weekend, takes a look
at a town that's holding on to its pride
despite hard economic times

By Tim Ryan

HONOKAA -- Teruo Toma began cutting hair when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president, Elvis Presley was banned from wiggling his hips on the Ed Sullivan Show and sugar was still king in this Big Island town.

On this day, Toma, 79, dozes in an uncushioned wood-frame chair, his back nearly touching the front window of his Uptown Barber Shop. A tiny black-and-white television set broadcasting a flickering rerun of "The Andy Griffith Show" sits on a counter next to a sink. A magazine, "Mutual Funds," is draped across Toma's lap.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Erin Kinoshita, left, Michael Lo and Anela Subiono
greet friends on the way to class at Honokaa High School.

These are not the busiest of economic times for Honokaa, 38 miles northwest of Hilo and 1.2 miles off Mamalahoa Highway, which bypasses the town of about 1,550. Tourists usually drive through on their way to Waipio Valley. Several store fronts along Mamane Street, Honokaa's main drag, are vacant. Macadamia nut farming has never really taken hold; sugar is dead.

Toma awakens when a visitor enters the shop. Retirees get haircuts for $4; those with jobs pay $5. On a busy day he cuts about 20 heads, today he does eight.

"I'm coasting along," says the smiling grandfather of two. "My three kids have moved away. I don't know how long I'll keep working."

But don't cry for Honokaa, the governmental, educational, service, commercial and residential center of the Hamakua district. What the community lacks in dollars and industry, it makes up in spirit.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Teruo Toma, 79, a town barber for over 40 years,
works on Roger Carvalho's hair.

A move is afoot to have the downtown area placed on the National Registry of Historic Places, starting with the 67-year-old Honokaa People's Theatre that has been recently renovated. The Hamakua Music Festival, which played through last weekend, is in its fourth successful year. A town visitor center soon will sit at the north end of the village on the route to Waipio Valley, and a private recycling is being built that will provide needed employment.

Annelle Lee and husband Jory Watland, of Oahu, three years ago bought the 89-year-old, 24-room Hotel Honokaa Club.

"Why did we buy this," the friendly Annelle asks herself, then laughs. "I really don't know. Why would anyone come to Honokaa?"

Business has been slow since the sugar plantation shut down three years ago. There are fewer family reunions being held at the hotel and a drop in Big Island construction has meant fewer workers staying here, she said. One resident, a man named "Sugar," has lived in the hotel for 17 years.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Farmers' market bustles with activity.

There's no mistaking Hotel Honokaa Club for a five-star resort. The parking lot is worn, the building's exterior paint a bit faded, door windows on the first floor are covered with a colorful paper mosaic instead of glass, television reception is from "rabbit ear" antenna and there are no telephones in the rooms.

"If people are looking for something luxurious I give them suggestions for other accommodations," Lee says. "We are what we are."

The hotel's restaurant-bar, run by former Oahu restaurateur Michael Barlett, is being renovated and includes what has become the town's major Saturday night activity: line dancing.

Waipio Valley is the second most visited tourist site on the Big Island, although few visitors seem to spend much time in Honokaa itself. Visitor Jan Clark is having lunch at a Mamane Street restaurant and asks the waitress, "Exactly what is there to do here after seeing the valley?"

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Melvin Cafirma, 9, jams on the drums as Bob Turth,
91, plays the organ at the farmer's market.

"Uh, not much," the waitress replies to the retired San Franciscan. "There's line dancing."

Well, the theater does show films three nights a week and a few cozy bed and breakfasts are spread through the district. Most shops and the few places to eat close in the late afternoon. There are not the white sandy beaches tourist brochures of Hawaii usually show, but you can pay to ride into Waipio Valley to get to a rugged black sand beach.

One way the town has worked to increase tourism has been to erect a sign at the intersection of Mamane Street and the highway to show the way into Honokaa.

"There's been a slight increase in customers, but the sign isn't big or distinct enough," said a businesswoman who asked to remain anonymous.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Hotel Honokaa Club is a draw for patrons who enjoy
country-western music and line dancing.

The commercial district grew up as the service area for the surrounding communities in the Hamakua district when the underlying economic base was sugar. The Parker Ranch, headquartered in nearby Kamuela-Waimea, bought goods and services in Honokaa. To the cowboys, Honokaa was "town."

Then in the late 1940s, ship landings along the Hamakua coast were abandoned. The main highway between Hilo and Kamuela later was improved but bypasses Honokaa. Shopping centers were developed in Hilo and Kamuela where most Hamakua District residents now shop.

In fact, airline magazines and tourist brochures for the most part advise driving the southern route around the island from Hilo to Kona, saying it's more scenic and that beaches more accessible. In a sense, Honokaa's lack of tourist attractions has allowed the community to retain much of its fabric and architectural character.

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
John Cardoza, right, poses as Greg Osowiecki, a
carpenter, enjoys a friendly moment with his pets.

What the tourist guides don't say is that Honokaa is one of the few remaining towns with its main street "plantation western" architecture intact, much like Haleiwa on Oahu.

Like many of new arrivals, realtor Auguztus Elliott moved here to get away from an urban area and because "I felt like I could have an effect here."

"Now I want to help preserve the character of the town," said Elliott who left Massachusetts six years ago.

Right now it's a buyer's market. There are 24-single family homes for sale in Honokaa, priced from $109,500 to $289,000.

"People come here looking for quiet and space," he said. "It's easy to find."

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Yasha Pulin, left, and Tommy Lynn serve customers
Gaylien Mendes, far left, and Beverly Perreira.
The drive-in is one of few open Sundays.

What first strikes the visitor who ventures down Mamane Street is Honokaa's western buildings facades of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The buildings are mainly wood frame, with post-and-beam construction and stone piers. Many store fronts have recessed entries flanked by glass showcases. The posts framing the doors are often rounded. Ground-level interior spaces open visually onto the sidewalk.

Several false-front buildings make those stores look taller than they really are. The plantation-style buildings, mostly one story with hip roofs, have large eaves, porches with shed roofs, tongue-and-groove siding, and a central hall.

Grace Walker's Honokaa Trading Co. specializing in Hawaii antiques and memorabilia, is in a former auto garage. Wenches and cranes hang from the ceiling.

"Life is fun in Honokaa," said Walker who moved from Oahu about eight years ago. "It's a place where people have time for one another, know one another, feel responsible for one another. If for no other reason people should come here to get remember what that's like."

Do It Electric!

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