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A Social History of Kona

A girl and a boy holding woven baskets
Children with child-sized versions of baskets used for picking coffee, ca. 1960s. (Photo courtesy Isabelo Sebastian.)

Kona, on the west side of the Big Island, has fertile, volcanic soil, a mild climate, and abundant fishing waters, conducive to a centuries-old lifestyle of living off the land.

“The Hawaiians never think, those days, what to do to make money. . . . They no like work out (for others) because if they going work out, they no can take care their family, plant taro, do their own work, or go fishing, like that.” —Katherine “Nina” Kalaiwa‘a

The lives of other Kona residents revolved around the area’s coffee industry which began in the 1850s. In the early years, Hawaiians and Chinese were hired to work on large coffee plantations. Later, Portuguese, Japanese, and others, who had either fulfilled or broken their contracts with Hawai‘i’s sugar plantations, came to work the lands.

“There were lots of people who’d run away from sugarcane plantations before their contracts had expired. . . . There were some people who changed their last names. I knew this because some of them told me that their real name was such-and-such. . . . And most of them started in coffee farming.” —Torahichi Tsukahara

By the 1890s, however, the industry experienced financial difficulties. So the lands were divided into small three- to five-acre lots and sold or leased to individuals. By 1915, tenant farmers, largely of Japanese descent, were cultivating most of the coffee. Many hours were spent cleaning and weeding the land, pruning the trees, harvesting the crop, pulping the berries, and drying them for the mills.

“If you wanted to get a good crop of coffee out, there was no end to the work. There was always something—some place with a withered tree that needed to be replanted—some work to be done.” —Kazo Tanima

Most farmers depended on their families and neighbors for labor.

“At that time, we used to work until dark. You see, no matter how young you were, you have to work. Before going to school, we pick one basket of coffee, then go to school. We come home from school and we pick another basket.” —Tsuruyo Kimura

Later, after 1920, Filipinos and others who had been working on the Big Island’s sugar plantations and elsewhere came to Kona to pick coffee as hired hands. Single men and families were hired during the harvest season—September through December—and were paid according to the number of bags picked. Eventually, some bought or leased their own lands and became farmers.

“I am on my own on the coffee work. Whatever I earned nobody shares with me. The plantation work, the boss shares with my earning. In my coffee work, all the income is mine.” —Raymundo Agustin

In the 1920s, large sums were invested in equipment, acreage was expanded, and new homes were built. Farmers borrowed heavily for these improvements.

As a wholesaler, American Factors supplied goods to retail stores. Farmers bought their daily goods on credit. At year’s end farmers were obligated to repay their debts to the store with bags of coffee.

“You know, the American Factors used to hire a man to patrol the highway at night to see that none of the farmers would sell their coffee to some other people than the American Factors for cash.” —Minoru Inaba

Captain Cook Coffee Company, owned by the Hind family, controlled its share of coffee by subleasing land to tenants.

“When they (tenant farmers) lease, they have to sign a contract that ‘I promise to give all the crop to Captain Cook.’ So, in other words, you are tied down with the company.” —Yosoto Egami

Others, such as the newly opened mills, scrambled for the remaining share of Kona’s coffee by offering cash and, sometimes, higher prices to money-poor farmers. But, when coffee prices fell, Kona’s people, too, fell deeper and deeper into debt.

Some farmers took on part-time jobs; others gave up their coffee lands and sought other livelihoods. Many—farmers and coffee pickers—left Kona altogether for the sugar plantations or Honolulu. Between 1929 and 1938, the number of farmers decreased by 50 percent. Relief was obtained only in the late 1930s.

“People started running away because of the depression. So we started negotiating with American Factors. I told Factors to reduce all of the debts. . . . I told them the coffee business would be doomed otherwise, and there would be no farmers in Kona, so it would be their loss as well as ours. . . . Factors said they would forgive all but 2 percent of the debts. . . . If it hadn’t been for this, the coffee business would have been finished.” —Usaku Morihara

After World War II, jeeps replaced coffee-laden “Kona nightingales,” or donkeys. Farmers experienced good prices due to favorable world market trends. Farmers on leased lands gained more opportunities to buy land. American Factors and the Captain Cook Coffee Company closed their mills and gave way to farmers’ cooperatives that now mill and market the coffee.

Yet, even with these improvements, the coffee industry is declining. The growth of the macadamia nut and tourist industries has reduced the importance of coffee in Kona’s economy. Young people are leaving Kona for less strenuous, better-paying jobs. Kona, at the time of this project in 1981, faced an uncertain future.


Link to audioMinoru Inaba describes hauling coffee (.au sound file, 182K).






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