A Brief History of Waimea on Hawaii's Big Island

Hawaii, Big Island, Waimea, Horses in pasture at Pu'uopelu, Parker Ranch Headquarters
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It is believed that in ancient times many thousands of Hawaiians lived in the area now known as Waimea. This was a watershed area surrounded by large forests of sandalwood trees.

By the time the first Europeans arrived in Hawaii, the population had decreased to fewer than 2,000. Within a few years, as the sandalwood forests were cut down for shipment abroad, the human population was replaced by the offspring of black longhorn cattle given to Hawaiian King Kamehameha I by British Captain George Vancouver.

John Palmer Parker and the Parker Ranch

The area's future was determined in 1809 when nineteen-year-old John Palmer Parker jumped ship and found himself on the Big Island of Hawaii. Over time he became a loyal friend and subject of King Kamehameha I who hired him to cull this herd of wild cattle which had grown large and out of control.

In 1815, Parker married Kipikane, the daughter of a high-ranking Hawaiian chief. The couple had a daughter and two sons and the Parker dynasty began as did the history of Parker Ranch which quickly became the largest ranch in the area.

The Paniolo

The first horses had arrived in Hawaii about 1804. Colorful and skilled Latin American vaqueros (cowboys) arrived in 1832 on invitation from Hawaii's king to teach Hawaiians and foreign cattle hunters how to ride and rope the wild cattle. By 1836, Hawaii had working cowboys. What we consider "American" cowboys date back only to the 1870s. Hawaii's unique breed of cowboy, the paniolo, derived his name from these Spaniards, or Espanoles.

As the Parker Ranch grew, so did the area of Waimea, as blacksmiths, craftsmen, missionaries, paniolo, tanners and people just seeking a more adventurous lifestyle arrived in the area. Other ranchers and ranches came and most failed. As Parker Ranch grew and the Longhorns became domesticated, Waimea entered a quiet period of its existence inhabited primarily by families associated with the ranch.

World War II and Camp Tarawa

World War II changed everything. The war brought the military to the pastures outside of Waimea. Military facilities and homes were built. A huge tent city, called Camp Tarawa, was constructed on Parker Ranch land.

Farmers settled in the area and began growing diversified crops to sell to the military or ship to Hilo for the War effort. Many families started their own "Victory Gardens." In 1939 only 75 acres in the Waimea area were devoted to agriculture. By the war's end that had increased to 518 acres.

During the war an airstrip was constructed which later was to become Waimea Kohala Airport, The town's first entertainment hall and sports center were built. As detailed by Gordon Bryson in his Waimea Gazette article Waimea Remembers Camp Tarawa:

"Waimea leapt into the twentieth century because of the technology and plenty that seemed to have followed the Marines into town. An electric generator allowed settlement houses to be lit by bulb rather than kerosene. The Waimea Elementary School and the Waimea Hotel became a 400-bed hospital with modern medical facilities.

The engineers dammed the Waikoloa stream, constructed reservoirs to supply water to the division and the town, and erected temporary Canek structures behind the St. James Church. An ice house helped marine cooks to turn out seeming tons of ice cream for delighted town children and adults.

Entrepreneurs from all over the island began to show up to sell the thousands of papers that the marines read and the hills of hot dogs that everyone consumed while watching the ball games at the park."

Prior to the war in 1940 Waimea's population was a mere 1,352. That doubled within a year and has continued to grow since.

Post War Years

Parker Ranch, however, had fallen upon hard times in the middle years of the 20th Century. By 1920 the ranch had grown tremendously, at one point encompassing more than half-million-acres with a purebred herd of 30,000 Herefords. Alfred Wellington Carter managed the ranch but technologically the ranch was suffering and profitability declined.

This was to change once owner Richard Smart (a Parker descendant) returned to Hawaii in 1949 following a successful Broadway career. As outlined in his biography on the Parker Ranch website:

"Smart began improvements to Parker Ranch. He restructured and expanded much of the cattle breeding and feeding procedures. He improved the ranch headquarters and built the Parker Ranch Visitor Center with its museum, restaurant and saddle shop.

He leased land to Laurance Rockefeller, who was the catalyst to resort development along the Kona-Kohala Coast. He instituted programs to benefit ranch employees in education, health care and culture. And he left his sophisticated, artistic mark on Parker Ranch, adorning his home, called Puuopelu, with the exquisite art and furniture pieces he had collected during his worldly travels."

Parker Ranch 2020 Plan

During Smart's life, the Waimea area continued to grow. In order to ensure the future of the ranch and the Waimea Community, Smart devised a long-range plan called the Parker Ranch 2020 Plan. Again as outlined on the Parker Ranch website:

"The Plan's intent was to set aside sufficient lands to allow for uncongested growth and development. Controlling the growth would allow the community to maintain its rural "village" character yet provide future business, employment, and housing for residents. To fund ranching operations, Smart authorized the sale of low-yield pasture lands that are now the site of world-class luxury resorts along the Kohala Coast.

The thriving community of Waikoloa Village is on former Parker Ranch land. In 1992, Hawaii County approved the rezoning of more than 580 acres of land for commercial, industrial and residential activities in conjunction with the 2020 Plan. Today, Parker Ranch Foundation Trust trustees are charged with continued implementation of Smart's vision, the Parker Ranch 2020 Plan."

Smart died in 1992 and with his death, the Parker Ranch passed to the control of the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust whose beneficiaries include Parker School Trust Corporation, Hawaii Preparatory Academy, The Richard Smart Fund of the Hawaii Community Foundation and North Hawaii Community Hospital.

Waimea Today

As time has passed, lands no longer needed for raising cattle have been sold and housing development has increased in the Waimea area.

Mollie Sperry comments on the current state of Waimea in her Brief History of Waimea:

"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, 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 it's late owner Richard Smart, continue to shape the face and the future of Waimea through bequests to health, education and cultural facilities, it's own large business holdings and a community trust."