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A Brief History of Waimea on Hawaii's Big Island

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A Brief History of Waimea on Hawaii's Big Island
Photo by John Fischer

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 was 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.

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