Remembering Ahukini: Former stevedore community planning big reunion

Remembering the past and the joys and struggles of plantation life will be the order of the day for several hundred former Ahukini camp residents during a reunion planned at Hanamaulu Beach Park on August 2.

The residents of the former Lihue Plantation camp, located at the south side of the entrance to Hanamaulu Bay, will talk story about memories that are likely to trigger smiles and tears.

Among them:

  • Families shared with less fortunate families.
  • Families and friends gathered in Hanamaulu Bay for a day-long parties and picnics on Sundays.
  • Children rushed to Hanamaulu Bay to either swim or fish after school.
  • Aniana D. Pananganan’s home became the talk of the community in 1955, when her family bought the first television set.
  • Money was not always available for toys, but children made due. They played marbles, used home-made slingshots and connected cans with string to create make-believe telephones.
  • During the holidays, families looked forward to seeing a lighted Christmas tree in the yard outside the home of Jack Bertrand, a one-time manager of the Kauai

Consolidated Terminal, a steamship agent for Matson Navigation Co.

Bertrand oversaw the work of stevedores, many of whom came from Ahukini camp. His wife, Marie Bertrand, recently passed away, and will be honored by former camp residents at the gathering.

The camp existed for a little more than 70 years before it shut down in the early 1960s, the result of the planned expansion of the Lihue Airport main runway and the arrival of containerized shipping to Kauai, reducing the need for manual labor provided by stevedores who lived at Ahukini.

Residents remembered the camp with a reunion at the Hanamaulu Beach park pavilion in 1984. A second one was held a year later.

The Ahukini Ohana Reunion committee is staging the upcoming reunion, set to start at 9 a.m. and will run until “pau,” according to Rena Alao, a former resident and a one-time staffer for former Mayor Eduardo Malapit.

“It was a wonderful life, and we are going to reminisce,” said Aniana Pananganan Punrsell, a former resident and now a personal trainer and fitness instructor and a resident of Kapaa.

One of the highpoints of this upcoming union will be a collage of Ahukini families that will be displayed at the beach park. Members of Ahukini Ohana have asked families to provide pictures for the exhibit.

One-time residents of Ahukini camp remembered their camp not only because it played a major role in shaping their lives.

The plantation camp and the scores that once dotted Kauai spoke of a way of life that once pervaded the island but is now gone – true sharing and giving, said former residents of the Ahukini settlement.

Ahukini camp opened in 1890 and was located near the western end the main runway at the Lihue Airport.

The camp boasted more than 200 people representing 60 families who lived on 60 acres along the Ahukini coastline.

They lived in four-and-three bedroom homes with tar roofs that were located in “up camp, down camp and side camp,” pockets of housing located at different sections of the settlement.

The former residents recalled the homes had underground shelters that were intended for use in case of attack during World War II.

The camp also boasted “Ahukini Hall,” where parties were held, a church, a slaughter house, a pig pen and small commercial stores, including one where tarps and bags for storing sugar were made.

Juanita Relacion, who lived in the camp from 1935 to 1965, recalled the work at the tarp shop fascinated children. “The supervisor used to tell us to go away, and we left, but we always came back,” said Relacion, now a resident of Hanamaulu.

Punrsell remembered sharing was a constant life theme in the camp.

Her family lived next door to a Japanese man by the name of “Mori-San.” He raised ducks and pigs and grew vegetables that he exchanged with Punrsell’s father, she recalled.

Over time, their friendship grew. Because Mori-san drank saki frequently, her father, worried about his health, checked it on the man.

Punrsell said their neighbor was among the first immigrants from Japan to Hawaii, and cleared tunnels of irrigation systems maintained by Lihue Plantation.

Cathy Simao, another former camp resident, recalled a truck driver who used to provide food for children in the camp because he was concerned about their health. “We would be playing in the hale koa tree, and he would feed us,” Simao said.

Self-sufficiency was a way of life in all plantation camps, and Ahukini camp was no different.

Peggy Basuel recalled a Japanese man sold tomatoes he grew in his yard. Lydia Alao Ross said her father and mother routinely grew vegetables and fruits “to save money” and traded their goods.

Residents raised pigs, feeding them with slop they picked up from designated neighbors. The slop was cooked before it was fed to the pigs, which were later cooked for meals or eaten at parties.

“We had chickens and ducks, and pigs, and it was hard to eat them because they had become friends,” Rena Alao recalled.

Life for children in Ahukini camp was blissful, former residents recalled.

For some children, the first place they went to after school was done for the day was Hanamaulu Bay, to go swimming or fishing.

Many children, supervised by their parents, learned to swim close to shore, as was the case for Rena Alao.

But her sister, Lydia Ross, recalled learning to swim in Hanamaulu Bay wasn’t an easy task. Her father rolled her out to the middle of the bay in a boat and told her to swim to shore, a lesson that helped build character in her as she grew up and for which she is thankful, Ross said.

Because money was not available to buy toys, children in Ahukini camp relied on their wits and imagination when they played, Punrsell said, adding “We made due and had fun.”

Camp children also played marbles, made kites or went fishing and swimming.

Children in the camp had fun, but they also were respectful of authority and of their parents, Punrsell recalled.

When her father wanted her home, he would go outside their house and blow an ear-piecing, attention-grabbing whistle, she said. “The whole community could hear him whistle,” she said, and within a short time, she was home.

Camp children looked forward to the Christmas season because that was when Bertrand’s family erected a Christmas tree in the front yard their home, which overlooked Hanamaulu Bay, apparently for the benefit of camp residents.

“He knew every family, and every child got money from Kauai Consolidated Terminal each year,” said former camp resident Albert Alao. Along with the money, the children were given bags of fruits and nuts.

A resident of the camp, Tetsu Omoto, also did his best to make the yearly Christmas party a success.

Omoto was held in high esteem as a community leader; he was a Matson agent and later a Matson agent manager before he retired in the 1990s.

The continued existence of Ahukini camp was predicated on the financial health of the commercial port in Hanamaulu Bay, former camp residents said. In its heyday, the bay served as the commercial port for all of East Kauai.

Ahukini camp provided generations of stevedores who worked at the port in the bay.

With booms and nets, the men loaded Kauai-grown sugar into steamships that were bound for the C & H sugar refinery located in the northeast corner of San Francisco Bay. Pineapple shipments from the cannery in Kapaa and Hawaiian Fruitpackers in Kapahi also were loaded onto the ships.

“We were the lifeline of the community; we brought in goods that benefited the entire island,” said Albert Alao, a stevedore and timekeeper for Kauai Commercial Terminal before retiring.

The stevedores worked six days a week, taking off only on Sunday, said Alao, who came from a family of stevedores. His father, Crispin, worked as a stevedore in Hanamaulu Bay in 1939, and Alao and his brother, Lawrence, also worked as stevedores in the bay in following years.

The stevedores worked particularly long hours during World War II, when cargo ships and Pacific-bound combat ships stopped in the bay, Alao said.

“The port was opened 24 hours a day, right thorough day and night, but we all worked hard for our families,” Albert Alao said. Stevedores made 25 cents a hour in the 1940s, considered a good wage in those days, he said.

The lives of the stevedores changed dramatically in mid-1960s, when use of containers caught on and cargo operations move from Hanamaulu Bay to Nawiliwili Harbor, first opened in 1930.

Some stevedores and their families from Ahukini camp were relocated to commercial ports in the West Coast with the help of the ILWU, Albert Alao said.

“Yes, definitely, it was a sad time for everyone because friends were leaving their homes, a way of life,” Alao said. “But at least they had jobs.”

At about the same time, residents at the camp became aware of plans by the state to expand one of the runways of the Lihue Airport.

Those two events sounded the death knell for Ahukini camp.

Outgoing camp residents were given “first crack” by Lihue Plantation to buy home and lots in the Molokoa subdivision in Lihue for $18,000, Alao recalled.

Residents also could buy a house and lot package in mauka areas of Hanamaulu for $12,000.

“It was a close-knit community we all loved and cherished. It is sad that its gone. It really is,” said Cathy Simao, another former camp resident. “But at least we can come together again at the reunion. It will be special.”

For the reunion, committees have been formed to ensure there are enough activities and food to last through the day.

A food committee asked that each family decide what dishes they would like to donate.

So far, Clifford Lee and his family have pledged to donate Kalua pig, poi and chicken luau, the Morikawa family has pledged to donate macaroni and vegetable salads, and the children of the late-Lawrence and Rosella Alao families have pledged to donate pork, peas, pimentos and pancit dishes.

Families and friends coming from off-island are asked to bring desserts.

Paper goods, some beverages and prizes will be purchased with monetary donations. Monetary donations also can be made to Rena L. Alao, P.O. Box 1242, Lihue, Hi, 96766.

For those who want more information on the reunion, contact Lydia Ross (Alao) at 822-4299 or Rena Alao at 245-8450.

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