Part 1: A Jewel on the Island
by Bob Olson
Downtown Hilo is a unique shopping district in a unique city. The area bordering along the Wailuku River has long been recorded as a center for commercial activity. William Ellis reports in his 1827 article, A Narrative of a Tour Through Hawaii, or Owyhee that natives from Puna, Kau and the south point of the island, brought tapa cloth and quantities of dried salt fish to trade. The people of Hilo, Hamakua and points north brought hogs, tobacco, tapa, pandanus mats and taro. From one side of the river bank to the other, traders shouted at each other, arranging the preliminaries of their bargains. When a price was decided the articles were brought down to the big rock in the middle of the stream where the trade was completed.
With the arrival of the missionaries to Hilo in 1824 came the gradual influence of western trade practices of the time. When the first frame buildings were erected the center of activity was fixed by the location of the church and minister's home, just a short distance from the river bank. The arrival of the Lyman (1932) and Coan missionary families brought attempts to model Hilo with a Puritan New England influence. The great revival from 1837 to c. 1840 quickly converted the population, extending so far as to convert the Captains and seamen of visiting whaling ships. There was no turning back to the days of old Hawaii.
The mission was the biggest event in the lives of the people. In his later years Coan remarked how impossible it was to understand how civilization coming to native people can change their whole way of life, make them lose their spirit, and change their resistance to disease. Measles was introduced by the Independence in 1848, venereal disease had been introduced by Cook's time. In 1835 smallpox struck followed by leprosy and plague. The culture of old Hawaii was destroyed, replaced with a culture in which others would live.
Sugar took over between 1850 and 1900, bringing foreigners of many nationalities. The whaling ships brought new sources of commerce to Hilo. Between 1853 and 1854 produce was supplied to eighty ships. Agriculture activity centered around the needs of the ships. Around 1868-69 the whaling fleet left town and Hilo moved into a great commercial depression, following the years of great commercial enterprise. Hilo had depended on trade with the sea, there were no back roads or routes to trade elsewhere on land. The economy fell flat. If this was not bad enough tidal waves hit Hilo in August of 1868 and then again in May of 1877.
Sugar had a poor start in Hilo, but once big business took over using heavy fertilization, irrigation, improved cane and agricultural techniques introduced by the Scotch and English managers the industry took off. Hilo became a sugar boom town. Hilo was the center of government activity and the retail and service center for the lives of the workers and families of the surrounding plantations.
The town grew up and depended upon the sugar trade. During the past decade the sugar industry diminished and has at last disappeared. Like the end of the sea trade in the last century Hilo is feeling the effects of an economy in trouble.
The buildings of downtown Hilo Town carry the legacy as the commerce center that sugar built. Despite tsunami, threats of lava flow, the end of the sugar industry and the resulting economic consequences these buildings remain. They are a lot like the people of Hilo, they are survivors who refuse to give in to forces of both natural and commercial.
In their visit to East Hawaii, many people pass by the downtown shopping district, by chance or by choice. This is a shame, for they are missing a true jewel of Hawaii. Inside the buildings one can find treasures of art, collectibles, fashion and food. They will find people who have time to talk story, share their wisdom and offer the aloha spirit. Downtown Hilo Town is alive with personality. If you look closely you can see it in the architecture of memories past. If you venture indoors you will find it in the people you meet. Join me on a walking tour of my home town.
Resources for this article from:
The Hilo March - A Guided Tour Through Historic Hilo
Hawaii Tribune - Herald, 1979
Walking Tour of Historic Downtown
Hilo Main Street Program
The Development of Hilo, Hawaii
Milton C. George
The Edward Letter Shop, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1948
|Bob Olson was the Guide for the Island of Hawaii from May 1997 to May 1999. While in Hawaii, Bob and his wife, Gayle, resided in Hilo on the Big Island|
|Bob and Gayle currently reside in Vancouver, British Columbia.|