Local History

On the Big Island of Hawaii is the district of Kona, the only place in the United States where coffee has been grown commercially for more than a hundred years. Along the upland slopes of Mauna Loa and Mount Hualalai on the southwest side of the island runs the famed Kona coffee belt. The rich volcanic soil combined with moderate temperatures and gentle afternoon showers, create some of the best coffee–growing conditions in the world.

Coffee plants were first brought to Kona in 1828 by an American missionary, Reverend Samuel Ruggles. The first planters were the Haole (Caucasians) who lived in the district. Family units of Hawaiians also planted and harvested coffee from the late 1860s.

People of many different ethnic groups have contributed to the history of the Kona coffee industry: Hawaiians, Haole, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, and Puerto Ricans. Among these groups, the Japanese have been the vast majority of coffee growers for nearly a century.

In 1825, Chief Boki, the Governor of Oahu, brought coffee plants from Brazil to Hawaii. Eleven years later, two Haole (Caucasian) farmers started commercially growing coffee in Koloa, Kauai. However, a variety of infestations, drought, and a shortage of labor hindered it's commercial success. By 1860, coffee farms were replaced by sugar cane plantations and disappeared except in the Kona and Hamakua Districts on the Big Island of Hawaii.

In the 1890s, a sharp rise in world market prices inspired Haole businessmen to invest in coffee plantations, starting a coffee boom in Kona. Many Portuguese farmers moved from Maui and settled in North Kona.

At the turn of the century, the coffee industry experienced a major change. The old plantation system disappeared from Kona. After the annexation of Hawaii by the United States in 1898, Haole businessmen shifted their investments from coffee production to sugar production as sugar prices soared. In Kona, the land was too steep and the water not plentiful enough for large sugar plantations to thrive. The coffee industry was near collapse due to an over supply on the world market. Chinese, and Portuguese farmers left for more promising ventures.

In response to the decline W.W. Brunner, a Haole planter, subdivided his plantation into five acre parcels and leased it to tenant farmers. Brunner furnished housing and other necessities and received one-third the crop as rent. Others soon followed his example. The change from large plantation system to small family-run farms revolutionized the Kona coffee industry and kept it alive.

Two mills dominated the industry: Captain Cook Coffee Company and H. Hackfeld and Co. Ltd.., later renamed American Factors. The Captain Cook Coffee Company subleased the land to Japanese farmers who delivered their crop exclusively to the company. American Factors advanced food and necessary items to farmers through affiliated stores with the condition that they were to pay back in coffee.

In 1899 the first Japanese mill known as the "Kona Japanese Coffee Mill" was established in Kailua. Securing crops from the Japanese farmers was difficult since farmers were obligated to deliver their crops to Captain Cook Coffee Company or American Factors. As an incentive, Japanese mills offered coffee growers cash payment and slightly higher prices than the white–owned mills. To avoid the watchful eye of creditors, they set out at midnight to pick up the coffee crop.

By 1910, Japanese coffee growers were 80% of the total coffee farming population in Kona. Captain Cook Coffee Company and American Factors continued to control approximately 70% of the total acreage of coffee farms. With the United States' entry into World War I, Japanese farmers experienced great prosperity. Until 1928, market prices stayed high and times were good. By 1934 there were nine mills in Kona operated by Japanese.

In the mid–1930s there were 40 or more small country stores scattered along the main belt road. These stores served as social centers for the exchange of provisions, gossip and news. Most grocery stores were affiliated with American Factors and the Captain Cook Coffee Company from which they received goods. The store owners played the role of middlemen: distributing daily necessities to the farmers on credit and collecting coffee crops as payment for the mills. This credit system contributed to a sense of obligation and loyalty, and at times resentment, between the mills, the merchants and brokers, and the coffee farmers.

Along the Hawaii Belt Road the community thrived with businesses and farms, churches and temples, Japanese language schools, a hospital, a local newspaper, The Kona Echo, and more.

Almost all Kona children remember picking coffee when they were growing up. Starting at about age four or five, children began picking coffee and helping during the harvest season. The public schools of Kona had their "summer vacation" from August to November, instead of June to September like the rest of Hawaii. Coffee vacation started in 1932 and was discontinued in 1969, reflecting the social and economic changes in the Kona community.

The path first created by the footsteps of native Hawaiians became the main artery traveled by the Kona coffee farmers.

Immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, martial law was declared. There was a winter blackout from 7:45 PM until 6:15 AM. Beaches were off-limits. Kona was divided into Northern and Southern districts with strict travel restrictions were imposed. Deep sea fishing was prohibited. Japanese American homes were searched and properties confiscated. Community and business leaders, school teachers,and priests were arrested and incarcerated; group gatherings were restricted; Japanese language schools ceased, and Japanese churches were closed for the duration of the war.

Hawaii was used as a staging area for the war in the Pacific and soon the Islands were overrun by millions of servicemen and war workers. Marines were stationed at training camps at Waimea. The presence of thousands of servicemen changed the Kona community. Businesses thrived catering to the needs of the servicemen. Kona coffee farmers experienced a labor shortage with increased demand for coffee and many men off to war.

After the war, the world market price of coffee continued to rise. The coffee farmers were able to unite and gain control over the processing, marketing and distribution of their own crops. They established their own mills and gained independence from Captain Cook Coffee Company and American Factors. By 1959 there were a total of 12 mills in Kona. Many farmers became independent land owners.

World market prices plummeted and many mills went under and farmers once again faced a serious financial crisis it became clear that Kona coffee farmers could not survive on coffee production alone. Many farmers diversified their crops to include macadamia nuts, avocados, tomatoes, oranges, cucumbers, Bluefield bananas, and sugar.

By the 1960s, the Pacific Coffee Cooperative and the Sunset Coffee Cooperative were established in Kona. In 1993 they merged and formed the Kona Pacific Farmers Cooperative. The rise of the gourmet coffee market in the late 1970s and 1980s brought renewed promise to the Kona coffee industry.

Although coffee production is no longer a central way of life for the people of Kona, the younger generations are turning to the past to help define their unique place in Hawaii's history.

Hard work family unity, cooperation and independence mark the coffee growing culture of Kona and it's people. Perhaps these values, passed on by the coffee pioneers of the past, will continue to provide strength and character to the Kona coffee farmers of tomorrow.

After all, they are known to grow the finest coffee in the world!

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