In 1878, three commercial sugar plantations (Honokaʻa Sugar Company, Paʻauhau Sugar Company and Pacific Sugar Mill) existed in Hāmākua in the vicinity of a village that later became Honokaʻa.
A labor shortage beginning in the mid-19th century prompted the importation of foreign workers. The Chinese were the first to arrive, followed by Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Puerto Rican and Filipinos over the next 40 years.
The workers, many married with families, were housed in 13-camps along the Hāmākua coast near Honokaʻa. As these workers completed their contracts with the plantations, many moved to Honokaʻa and began businesses, providing the impetus for the development of the town.
As Honokaʻa grew and evolved, a variety of businesses, offering wide-ranging choices of goods and services, eventually made Honokaʻa the largest town on the Hāmākua coast and the second largest on the island (behind Hilo.)
In 1910, the population of Honokaʻa stood at 9,037, a population sufficient to support a hotel along with lodging for travelers, salesmen and laborers in transit to the plantations to support the growing village.
Hotel Honokaʻa Club did not have a name when it first opened, and was allegedly labeled as the result of a vote by club “members,” who were likely boarders and community members who frequented the hotel.
The “Club” in the name reflects the use of the establishment from its inception as a nexus for entertainment and drinking, while the hotel portion served as a residence and lodging for immigrants, unmarried sugar cane workers, paniolo (cowboys), and travelling salesmen. (Star Bulletin; March 25, 1948; NPS)
“At that time the majority of the key plantation men were unmarried, and it was their custom to convene on Saturday nights for merry and lengthy sessions at the hotel. They came on horseback and departed the same way although not always with the same horse.”
“As years went by the hotel became the ‘club’ with all its members and eventually in a duly called ‘committee’ hearing the name was voted to become the Honokaa Club Hotel.” (Star Bulletin; March 25, 1948; NPS)
The original site of the hotel complex lay along the Government Road (Māmane Street) on the Hilo-side of the present Bank of Hawaiʻi.
The hotel/club functioned as a local gathering place that provided accommodations, temporary sales space for the display of commercial samples and wares by traveling salesmen, and a dining room and bar facility (that was the site of numerous local social occasions and get-togethers from the 1920s through the 1960s and beyond.) (SHPD)
Salesmen who stayed at the hotel were known as “drummers” commercial travelers, runners or “gripmen” (“grip” referring to the trunk or suitcase carried by salesmen.) These sales personnel travelled through Hāmākua and Kohala approximately every two weeks in a circuit from Honolulu to Kawaihae to Laupāhoehoe to Hilo “drumming up” business. (Star Bulletin, March 25, 1948; NPS)
The Hotel Honokaʻa Club is an example of the small hotels built at the turn of the 19th century by Japanese immigrants to mainly serve their countrymen in towns such as Captain Cook, Waiʻōhinu, Kohala and Honokaa.
Opened in 1912 by Kumakichi Morita, the original Honokaʻa Hotel Club was styled like a modern motor court, with rooms strung together in a row.
By 1915 it is listed in the local business directory as the “Honokaʻa Hotel Club – A First Class Hotel and Boarding House, Rates $3.00 per Day and Up.” By 1920 rates had increased to $4.00 per day. The Hotel Honokaa Club was at the present location by about 1927.
Kumakichi Morita, the hotel’s first manager/owner, trained as a chef in American cuisine and became chef to Prince Jonah Kūhīo Kalanianaʻole. Unfortunately, the Prince did not appreciate the American cuisine and Kumakichi looked elsewhere for employment, arriving in Honokaʻa to cook for the manager of the Honokaʻa Sugar Company.
From 1943-1945, over 50,000 US Marines lived and trained in and around Waimea and the Kohala Coast. Camp Tarawa was originally built by the 2nd Marine Division, but upon the 2nd’s deployment to Saipan, the 5th Marine Division moved in to train for the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Alfred Carter (manager of Parker Ranch) had historically limited the availability of liquor in Waimea, so when the Marines came they found that town dry.
The soldiers simply followed the Waimea ranch cowboys down the hill to “wet” Honokaʻa. Hotel Honokaʻa Club was one of many “watering holes” in Honokaʻa that benefited from the servicemen’s patronage. Camp Tarawa closed in November 1945.
After the war, the hotel expanded its activities focusing on locals, hosting weddings, high school group gatherings and lūʻau events. In 1948, the hotel expanded, adding a second story containing six bedroom suites. Five new bedrooms were added downstairs and new bathrooms were attached to the original bedrooms.
In 1960, the Moritas added a cocktail lounge dubbed the “Waipiʻo Room,” and in the 1970s they inaugurated a bar named the “Dan McGuire Left-Handed Martini Room,” after the well-known sports writer.
Further pranks related to the Martini Room included Jim Nabors’ (Gomer Pyle) dedication of the “Jim Nabors Right-handed Pay Toilet.” (Honokaa Historical Project)
Hotel Honokaa Club is a two story-wood frame “plantation style” commercial building. Defining features include a totan (corrugated metal) roof, single wall construction with vertical wood planks, and numerous double-hung windows.’
The building has three floor levels that include the main floor, a rear second story addition and a basement area. (Lots of information here is from Historic Honokaʻa Project and NPS.)