Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, May 6, 2001


John Morgan rides Flash at Kualoa Ranch, the Windward coast
property he is working to keep in his family's control. The
property remains a working cattle ranch, but at least half
its revenue comes from an adventure-tour operation.

Keeper of Kualoa

John Morgan shoulders the
burden of preserving
a legacy

Marcie Carroll
Special to the Star-Bulletin

IN OLD HAWAII the lands of Kualoa harbored chiefs in training and were considered so sacred that voyagers dropped their sails in respect or hiked steep ridges in order to pass without violating the kapu.

Times have changed. The public routinely commutes through Kualoa's magnificent 6-mile stretch of Windward coast. Picnickers head for Mokolii, Chinaman's Hat, to enjoy city-operated Kualoa Park, where Hokule'a and other voyaging canoes periodically lower their sails and land. Day visitors go to privately operated Kualoa Ranch for outdoor adventures -- to ride horses or ATV dune cycles, hike the steep ridge, go snorkel-cruising, techno-diving or jet-skiing in Kaneohe Bay, tour Kaaawa Valley's movie sets and World War II bunkers, or kick back at the beach.

Their fees help sustain the 4,000-acre ranch, and by its existence, the ranch helps preserve the area's scenic splendor.

Cover image


A panel discussion on rural preservation is part of the Historic Hawai'i Foundation's conference June 8 to 10:
When: 3:15 p.m. June 8
Place: Pioneer Inn, Maui
Fees: $150 for members for two days, or $70 for a single day; $160 for nonmembers for two days, $90 for one day
Call: 532-2900

"This is one of the most beautiful places anywhere," says John Morgan, the man in charge of keeping it that way. It is seldom an easy task, but for Morgan, representing the sixth generation of family owners of this land, "it is a legacy thing."

Preserving that legacy is a challenge shared by Hawaii's remaining ranchers as they seek ways to retain historic lands and businesses in the face of 21st-century pressures. "Saving the Ranch" will be the subject of a panel discussion as part of the Historic Hawai'i Foundation's Annual Preservation Conference. Morgan will join Maui ranchers Peter Baldwin (Haleakala Ranch) and Sumner Erdman ('Ulupalakua Ranch) on the panel.

Foundation Director David Scott says preservationists will explore land trust easements and other alternatives that can help. The dilemma of family ranchers in Hawaii is that in times when ranching is not enough, "they end up selling parts of the ranch to save it, until there is nothing left," Scott said.

"It's like selling parts of your body."

It's quite a change from ancient times when Kualoa was a puuhonua, a refuge where people in trouble could find absolution. Now it is the land that needs help from humans to retain its character.

If the monarchs who once owned this land were to return, they might still recognize this area, unlike most of the island. From 124-acre Mokolii Fishpond, said to be built by menehune in a night more than 800 years ago, to the steep heights of Puu Kanehoalani, Kualoa creates a sense of well-being.

It is the kind of place people -- locals as well as tourists -- expect yet rarely get to enjoy in Hawaii. The cattle and horses are such an exotic sight for city kids that busloads of schoolchildren visit each week to experience a day in the country.

All this real estate, tradition, livestock and economic creativity rests on the shoulders of Morgan, 44, president and general manager of Kualoa Ranch and its Activity Club. He and family boards of directors are responsible for one of America's oldest cattle ranches, dating back to 1850.

Morgan's great-great-great-grandfather, Dr. Gerritt P. Judd, who accompanied the third wave of missionaries, bought the first 622 acres from King Kamehameha III. The ranch grew to span three ahupuaa, mountain-to-sea Hawaiian land divisions: Hakipuu, Kualoa and Kaaawa.

Sugar was the ranch's first product, evidenced by the ruins of Oahu's first sugar mill. But cane soon gave way to cattle , and today roughly 600 head of Hereford, Angus and Brangus cattle and 75 horses graze Kualoa's pastures.

Morgan was reared on the ranch and grew up in the saddle, a tradition he and his wife, Carri, continued with each of their three children. "We started our first son when he was 2 weeks old: We put them on pillows on our saddles until they were about 8, too big for riding like that," says Morgan.

But he says he is not pressing any of the children to follow in his boot-steps. "We try not to put any expectations on them."

When Morgan rides the pinto Flash, he straps on a restored antique saddle that belonged to his father, the late Francis Morgan. A machete is sheathed on the side, for trimming trails. No cowboy hat.

Figuratively, at least, he has plenty of administrative hats to match the diverse skills he has gained -- rancher, farmer, aquaculturist, flower grower, businessman, historian, attraction operator, real estate assets manager, landlord and the one he most prefers: steward.

He learned a lot of it on the job. "I was halfway through college at Oregon State when I decided I wanted to make a career of working here," says Morgan, a Punahou graduate. He transferred to the University of Hawaii and took up horticulture, marketing, accounting and "things I thought would be useful."

He began working in the family business when his father was president and two-thirds of the owners were over the age of 90. The ranch was then just a "cow/calf" operation (producing calves and shipping them live to the mainland) with some diversified farming and public horseback rides on weekends.

But cattle ranching is subject to risk and whimsical swings of price and demand, he said, so he turned to tourism, especially lucrative Japanese tourism, to add another source of revenue. In 1985 the Activity Club was launched and marketed to high-spending young Asian visitors looking for full-day activity packages.

However, tourism, too, is subject to influences beyond individual or corporate control. When that market began to change, the ranch broadened its focus to include Western visitors and locals. "We started small, operating out of ranch garages" with no fancy trappings, Morgan said. With a new paint job, signs and landscaping, the ranch has begun to look like a recreation destination.

Now visitors may sign up for individual activities as well as package deals, and corporate groups and wedding parties are encouraged to stage events at the ranch. Morgan said his challenge is to stay ahead of the changing market so tourism will continue to provide at least half the ranch's income.

"As my father said long ago, talking about the genetic quality of our beef cattle herd, you are either improving or getting worse -- there's no staying the same," Morgan said. "The same rule applies to business."

The beef herd is still "the major focus for land use and the dominant theme of the ranch," adds Morgan. "It's what we're proudest of and most committed to." The ranch also raises shrimp, Asian catfish and prawns and has the potential to harvest moi, mullet and milkfish from the fishpond. The lands produce taro, banana and papaya, as well as ornamental plants and tropical flowers.

Even pastures serve double duty, such as the "concert pasture" setting for festivals and open-air concerts. Each year, the Statewide Paniolo Festival is held here. "I'm very partial to cowboys," says Morgan. "They are really a gracious sort."

About the only thing Morgan rules out in his quest to keep Kualoa viable is the step many others are forced to take: selling off property and turning the ranch into ranchettes. It is not for lack of blank-check offers. "We are not interested in selling what we consider the core property of the ranch," he declares, "and luckily, all of our family members feel the same way."

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