Honokaa has the largest collection of early 20th century “plantation” style commercial stores in good repair that remain in the Hawaiian Islands. Such structures have nearly disappeared from Oahu and are increasingly rare on Kauai, Maui, and through the State. The town is an outstanding Big Island example of successive waves of ethnic immigrants, their climb to economic success and the “American Dream,” and the part they played in enriching the diverse cultural tapestry that is contemporary Hawaiʻi.
The town was the focal point of the Honokaa Plantation, the most successful of the initial plantation operations in the Hamakua District. The plantation had its own ocean landing and private railroad, and was so significant that it was planned as the terminus of the Hilo Railway, an ambitious project launched by entrepreneur Benjamin Dillingham in the 1890s. Mile-for-mile, at the time it was to be the most expensive railroad in world. In architecture, Hawaii Sugar Plantation Association designs for single wall residential and institutional wood construction were followed in Honokaa by plantation-trained carpenters. Walk down Mamane Street and you will find yourself stepping back into the late 19th and early 20th century as you stroll among these remnants of an earlier day. The town’s “plantation-era” buildings and commercial structures, with their emblematic false fronts and corrugated metal (“totan’) roofs are as much a symbol of Hawaii to local people as Diamond Head is to tourists.
The Historic Honokaa Project is following successful national programs to celebrate Honokaa’s history, secure federal and state assistance in the upkeep of the town’s buildings, educate both locals and visitors in the richness of its past, and create employment opportunities for residents by fostering sustainable cultural tourism.
One of the measures being taken to protect Honokaa is to place its significant buildings on the State and National Register of Historic Places.