A Brief History of Waimea – by Mollie Sperry
* note: edited
Waimea – or is it Kamuela? And what is South Kohala? Unraveling the multiple and overlapping names is a good beginning for any history of Waimea.
When Hawaii became a United States territory at the turn of the century, “Waimea” referred to both the upland community and the slice of our island, an ahupua’a, stretching from today’s Lakeland to the sea, 10-20 miles long and four to nine miles wide.
Confusing matters more, there were sister communities with the same name on other islands. The postal service demanded a definitive referent. “Kamuela”, Hawaiian for Samuel, was selected, honoring a prominent resident. Later the descriptive “South Kohala” was adopted for the larger jurisdictional region.
It is the original name, “Waimea”, however that has remained the heart bound and designate for the town and surrounding area. Its meaning, reddish water, refers to the tint of the streams after filtering through the hapu’ forests in the Kohala mountains.
Throughout recorded times, huge swings of population have characterized Waimea’s development. Sources indicate that before European intrusion and King Kamehameha the Great’s battle to unite the island, the water shed area at the base of the Kohalas supported as many as 10,000 Hawaiians. The natives farmed, collected feathers, pounded kapa and thatched hale along the streams.
By the time the Europeans traveled through in the 1820’s the mountain population had dwindled to slightly more than 2,000. Fields were left fallow while the Hawaiians harvested and transported fragrant Sandlewood destined for China. Filling the denuded mountains and plains were aggressive black longhorns, desendents of a gift from Captain George Vancouver.
Cattle would dominate the Waimea scene for more than 100 years. For three decades their products were to replace sandalwood as important trade items for the island chain. To supply the growing number of whalers porting in Honolulu and Lahaina, meat was salted and barreled, but most of the longhorns were slaughtered for their hides and tallow alone. In 1830, aware of the cattle’s economic possibilities, Big Island’s Governor Kuakiki ordered the construction of corrals and the widening and surfacing of the footpath to the port of Kawaihae.
Colorful and skilled Latin American vaqueros arrived, teaching the natives and foreign cattle hunters techniques of handling the dangerous longhorns. Hawaii’s unique breed of cowboy, the paniolo, derived his name from these Spaniards, or Espanoles.
Others came to town. Blacksmiths, craftsmen, tanners, sawyers, missionaries, and adventurers. Waimea exuded a rough, exciting atmosphere not unlike a southwestern cowtown.
The era was short, lasting only as long as the wild longhorn were plentiful. By 1841 Governor Kuakiki had placed a kapu on killing wild cattle. The casual “beef establishment” as it was called, gave way to more controlled business of ranching. Parker Ranch, so visible today, was one of the first ranches to be formed. John Palmer Parker built the original headquarters seven miles out on the plains at Mana, along the main route to Hilo. Tame longhorns roamed unfenced, devastating crops. Both the wild bullock hunters and the farmers departed. Waimea town was quiet and empty.
Not until this century, when Parker Ranch radically expanded and emerged as a powerful business under Alfred Wellington Cater, did Waimea revive. Then it grew, responsive to the needs of the ranch and its employees.
World War II brought diversity and added prosperity to the community. Beef and vegetable prices increased. Farmers returned to cultivate the corn, beets, cabbage and a variety of other green vegetables. Farmland acreage increased from 75 in 1939 to 518 in 1946. The area teemed with soldiers who occupied homes, business facilities and a huge tent city. When they left, Waimea had an entertainment center, renamed Kahilu Hall, and an airstrip put to commercial use.
Out of its cocoon, Waimea was slated for rapid growth. Its beauty and business potential would attract residents and commercial enterprises. People did come, but slowly. The 1940 population of 1,352 doubled in the following year. In the last two decades the census has quadrupled. By 1990 the population tallied 9,140 in South Kohala with 5,972 residents in Waimea town.
Waimea’s burgeoning population is diverse and strong. Farmers and ranchers are joined by educators from seven schools, employees of a string of seven world class hotels and nine golf courses, astronomers and technicians from two major telescope facilities, clergy from 14 or more religious groups and health professionals for the North Hawaii Community hospital, Lucy Henriques Medical Center and various dental and doctors’ offices. The town hosts Realtors, contractors, architects, bankers and entrepreneurs. Kahilu Theater anchors a cultural center of artisans and craftsmen.
The expansive Hawaiian Homes Land attracts a substantial number of native Hawaiians.
Today Waimea’s three shopping centers, two traffic lights (*now three), two fast food restaurants and twenty-plus other dining establishments are almost too commercial for some, but the era of rapid growth is here. Parker Ranch and its late owner Richard Smart, continue to shape the face and the future of Waimea through bequests to health, education and cultural facilities, its own large business holdings and a community trust.
Assessing and asserting a community view, Waimea Main Street is working to preserve the area’s rich history and unique character. An enchanting beacon of what a town can do collectively, Anuenue Playground, a community built project, will be joined on the other side of the Waikoloa Stream by a 10 acre nature park thanks to the initiative of the Waimea Outdoor Circle.
It seems that the next sequel of Waimea’s story is in its own hands and will be determined by the strength of community will and individual initiative.