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Lana‘i Ranch: The People of Ko‘ele and Keomuku

Ranch workers herding sheep
Herding sheep on Charles Gay’s ranch, Ko‘ele, early 1900s. Gay also kept cattle, horses, mules, and goats. (Photo courtesy Violet Gay.)

In 1861 the approximately 600 native Hawaiians living on Lana‘i were joined by Walter Murray Gibson and other followers of the Mormon Church who arrived to start a settlement on land they had purchased. Three years later, Gibson was excommunicated for allegedly misusing church funds and he consolidated 26,000 acres of land to form Lana‘i Sheep Ranch.

After Gibson’s death in 1888, the ranch was turned over to his daughter and son-in-law, Talula and Frederick Hayselden. Charles Gay purchased the properties in 1902. He subsequently sold all but 600 acres of his lands in 1910 to a hui (association) of businessmen who formed Lana‘i Ranch Company.

These interviews contain detailed descriptions of the day-to-day work and lifestyles of cowboys, their spouses and children, and other Lana‘i Ranch residents.

“I came over here, I learn cowboy. I work with the cowboys. The cowboys, most, they talk Hawaiian. Then I learn from them.” —Ernest Richardson

Documented are agricultural activities, ranging from Charles Gay’s pioneering attempts to grow pineapples commercially prior to the purchase of Lana‘i by Hawaiian Pineapple Company in 1922, to the cultivation of watermelons by Keomuku families for shipment and sale to Maui, to the planting of pumpkins and sweet potatoes for home use.

Interviewees talk about fishing and hunting which enabled Lana‘i’s native Hawaiians to maintain a near-subsistence lifestyle.

“The reef, coming more shallow. Way back, those days, we used to go down there, the water was kind of deep, way up, you know. . . . So get big kind fish, small kind. Way up on shore, eh. . . . You just go and they throw (net). Almost everyone take home for eat, you know, just for the house only, and for down there.” —William Kwon, Sr.

The lives and accomplishments of former ranch managers Charles Gay, George Munro, and Ernest Vredenberg, and the changes each brought about in the lives of ranch workers and residents are also recalled. Interviewees remember when Munro, who took over in 1911, sent cowboys to plant hundreds of Norfolk Island pine trees to improve the ground-water supply. The trees are now Lana‘i landmarks.

“I was always a bit in awe of Mr. Munro even though I liked him and I would say he was a kind man, but he could be strict. One day I was naughty and broke off the top of a Norfolk pine so I had to go and apologize to him and that was very difficult. Because it seems that if you break off the top of Norfolk pine, it stunts the tree, the growth of the tree.” —Jean Adams

Interviewees look back on Hawaiian Pineapple Company’s purchase of Lana‘i and the subsequent establishment of its pineapple plantation. Ranch residents, particularly women and students, found jobs in the pineapple fields and worked alongside newly hired Japanese and Filipinos from other islands.

“But about 1950, when they closed, there’s only two more families up there. . . . The only two was working was (Ernest Keliikuli) and my dad (Ernest Richardson). The rest of them already all started to work for the company—truck driver—into the pineapple. They phased into the pineapple company.” —Charlotte Holsomback

In 1961 Castle & Cooke, Inc. acquired 100 percent direct ownership of Hawaiian Pineapple Company. Castle & Cooke’s recent construction of a luxury hotel on the former site of Lana‘i Ranch generates bittersweet reactions from interviewees. Some see this as a positive step toward diversifying the island’s one-dimensional pineapple economy. Others view it as a threat to the island’s environment and its close-knit society characterized by unlocked doors and friendly greetings.

“That’s all we can hope for is the best. I hope our island is not exploited, too, you know. . . . I think of her as a person, I don’t think of her as an island. If you take care of them, they take care of you. And that’s how Lana‘i has been to me. She’s always been there for us when we really needed her.” —Elaine Kaopuiki

audiotape iconSally Sakamoto Matsuoka recalls her first impressions of Lana‘i Ranch (.au sound file, 165K).





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