Editor’s note: Stories of Kauai is a column submitted by the Kauai Historical Society that will be published every other Saturday in The Garden Island.
Columbus discovered pineapple in the Caribbean in 1493 and introduced it to Europe where it was called the “Princess of Fruit.” When brought to New England it became a symbol of hospitality.
Pineapple growing in Hawaii began in 1813. It was not until James B. Dole, who started Hawaiian Pineapple Company, Limited, in 1901 that it became a major crop. At that time sugar production was the heart of the Hawaiian economy with rice being the second largest export.
Kapaa was little more than a rest stop between Lihue and Hanalei when Hawaii became a territory of the United States. King Kalakaua had started a sugar mill there in 1878, but it failed. Wong Aloiau, a Chinese entrepreneur came and planted rice in the swamplands. But this effort could not create a thriving community on the coconut coast of east Kauai.
As rice sales declined, pineapple canning and export increased. The rapidly growing enterprise of Dole was soon joined on Kauai, by the Lawai Cannery in 1906 followed by Hawaiian Canneries Company, Limited, in 1913. This cannery, called Pono, was built next to the Waikea Canal in Kapaa. Today the Pono Kai Resort occupies the site.
Ken Kubota, a local merchant, says, “Prosperity came to Kapaa with the Pono brand pineapple cannery.” Because of it, the rice community grew from a few hundred people to 3,000 according to a 1930 census. In its heyday it employed more than 2,000 and its pineapple fields stretched from Kapahi to Moloaa.
My mother Agnes began work at the cannery when it opened. Her pay was four cents an hour. At age 14 this was more money than she could have made anywhere else. With her cannery savings she was able to help educate her brothers and eventually build our family home.
Pono cannery stimulated the Kapaa economy. Service industries sprung up, fish mongers, tailor shops, mercantile stores, and a variety of other local businesses. In the hinterland near the town dairy farming, pig raising, and cattle ranching began.
Of critical importance, Kapaa was a “free town.” It was not a place regulated like other plantation communities, where you must be up at 4:30, at work by six, labor until sundown, and be in bed by 8:30.
Initially the railroad provided the transport for the produce. Carloads of fruit were hauled from the northern fields to the cannery. Once canned, the train transported the product to Ahukini for export. Eventually trucks would replace the railroad.
The Horner family supervised the cannery. Albert Horner Junior, born in Hawaii in 1891, managed it. He was a fair minded and much liked owner. His mansion on the point at Wailua Bay was a showpiece. Theater companies used it as a location for sumptuous parties in films produced on Kauai.
Eighty percent of world pineapple production once occurred in Hawaii. Advertising described Hawaii: “As the pineapple paradise for it attains a sweetness and luscious flavor not present in pineapple grown in other lands.” This may be true, but working in the fields picking a thorn-covered leather tough fruit from a spear sharp leaf filled shrub was not a pleasure. Especially when the fruit juice dripped onto your clothes and the sun burned it to a sickly sweet smell.
Pono cannery closed in 1962, no longer able to compete with pineapple grown in South America and Asia. Despite this loss, we who live in Kapaa owe much to its once magnificent presence for it made the town what it is today.
Bill Fernandez is a Kauai native, retired judge and today lives in Kapaa.