Honokaa is a Territorial Era town where the foundations of modern Hawai’i culture developed. Prehistoric Native Hawaiians had lived in Waipio Valley, in the Hamakua District, for 750 years, supporting themselves through sophisticated political and agricultural systems. Discovered by Captain Cook in 1778, Hawai’i was immediately introduced to the world economy. On the slopes of Hamakua several industries sprung up utilizing technological innovations in transportation, agriculture and construction, and these prompted waves of immigrants to come from all over the world. A center of this rapid change and melding of cultures was the town that would become Honokaa.
The paniolo came first. Native Hawaiians, they were trained by Mexican cowboys that King Kamehameha III brought to the islands to manage new herds of non-native cattle. Next came small, independent sugar growers. These entrepreneurs used technology developed by A.S. Hallidie (who would later design the San Francisco cable car system) to construct “landings” along the rough coast, to load and offload cargo and supplies directly from the decks of ships anchored offshore. Later, the plantations hired hydraulic engineer Michael M. O’Shaughnessy (the engineer behind San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy water system) to oversee construction of large scale irrigation canals across the Hamakua Coast. The Republic and Territory of Hawai’i encouraged development of independent homesteads at Ahualoa, Ka’ao and Pa’auilo. Besides sugar, Honokaa Sugar Company would undertake commercial growing of macadamia nuts and ranching in the early 1920s.
The Honokaa Plantation, the most successful of the initial plantation operations, spread across much of the coast but was concentrated in Honokaa itself. It had its own landing and railroad, and before the arrival of trucks was planned as the terminus of the Hilo Railway. The Hawaiʻi Sugar Plantation Association inspired the designs for the single wall, wood construction that established the standard for both residences and institutional buildings among all the plantations in Hawaiʻi, and these spread in Honokaa by plantation-trained carpenters. Corrugated roofs, wooden awnings and standardized painting colors can still be seen on the town's historic structures, many of which are located in the commercial center of the town. As differing waves of immigrants ended their plantation labor contracts, many moved into farming, ranching and retail businesses in and around Honokaa. Americans, British, Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Native Hawaiians and Portuguese operated side-by-side in the general stores, pool halls, hotels, barbershops, dealerships and garages, and antique stores in the town. What makes the town unique is that the buildings they lived and worked in have often been repurposed, but most are still standing and can be visited today.
Walk down Honokaa’s main street, Mamane, and you may find yourself stepping back into the late 19th and early 20th century!