In the early years, after the arrival of the first missionaries, the Hawaiian language came to be the universal mode of education.
With the vigorous support of the Queen-Regent Kaʻahumanu, attendance in mission schools increased from about 200 in 1821 to 2,000 in 1824, 37,000 in 1828 and 41,238 in 1830, of which nearly half were pupils on the island of Hawaiʻi. (Canevali)
Common schools (where the 3 Rs were taught) sprang up in villages all over the islands. In these common schools, classes and attendance were quite irregular, but nevertheless basic reading and writing skills (in Hawaiian) and fundamental Christian doctrine were taught to large numbers of people. (Canevali)
Reverend David Belden Lyman (1803-1884) and his wife, Sarah Joiner Lyman (1806-1885,) arrived in Hawaii in 1832, members of the fifth company of missionaries sent to the Islands by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, and were assigned the mission in Hilo.
“When we arrived in Hilo there were no foreign residents, save the Missionaries who proceeded us. There was but one frame building in this region … which the Coans have occupied. There were no roads (only footpaths,) no fences, and the Wailuku River was crossed on a plank … the only bell was hung in a breadfruit tree.” (Sarah Lyman)
It soon was apparent to the missionaries that the future of the Congregational Mission in Hawaii would be largely dependent upon the success of its schools. The Mission then established “feeder schools” that would transmit to their students’ fundamental reading, writing, and arithmetic skills, and religious training, before admission to the Lahainaluna.
In 1835, they constructed the Hilo Boarding School as part of an overall system of schools (with a girls boarding school in Wailuku and boarding at Lahainaluna.)
On January 6, 1835 “our children’s school commenced, eighty children present, sixty knew their letters. A number of the more forward children are employed as monitors to assist the less forward. (ie. advanced)” (Sarah Lyman)
In October 1836, two thatch houses were constructed near Lyman’s house and on October 3 the school opened with eight boarders, but the number soon increased to twelve.
The school was operated to an extent on a manual labor program and the boys cultivated the land to produce their own food. (The boys’ ages ranged from seven to fourteen.)
“Mr. Lyman who was brought up on a farm had an abiding faith in the value of manual labor; and his work in Hilo had convinced him that such activity in both primitive and introduced vocation was as necessary as book learning during the period of transition from one culture to another.” (Lorthian)
Hilo Boarding School, under the leadership of the Lymans, was an immediate success. In 1837, six graduates were sent to Lahainaluna Seminary.
In 1839, the old thatch buildings were torn down and Lyman purchased the entire first shipment of lumber to arrive in Hilo to build a new school building, as well as a cookhouse and infirmary which would accommodate sixty to seventy boys.
The new school building lodged fifty-five pupils in its first year, most of them coming from outside Hilo. In 1840, sugar cultivation commenced on adjacent mission land, and was worked entirely by the boys of the school along with a “monthly concert” of labor by all members of the parish. The cane was probably ground in a Chinese-owned mill in Hilo.
The school occupied forty-acres of land (used mostly in farming activities,) and, in 1846, King Kamehameha III gave the mission the water rights of the Wailuku River in Hilo. In 1848, the school received a government charter and was incorporated.
More than one-third of the boys who had attended the school eventually became teachers in the common schools of the kingdom. In 1850 the Minister of Public Instruction, Richard Armstrong, reported that HBS “is one of our most important schools. It is the very life and soul of our common school on that large island.”
The school building burned down in 1853; in rebuilding, a new site for the school was selected about one-half mile above Haili Church. This was to be the third and final location of HBS. In 1856 the T-shaped, two-story wooden building was completed. It included a stone basement and an attic with a corrugated zinc roof.
1878 witnessed the first major building at HBS since repairs to the basement necessitated by an earthquake ten years earlier. A principal’s house was raised, as the former principal’s house continued to be the Lyman residence.
At the same time, a roadway was begun connecting HBS to School Street (now Kapiʻolani Street), and completed in 1880. The row of palms leading from the school to what is now Haili Street was also planted in that year.
Between 1886-1890 carpentry classes were organized when a supply of tools were donated. In addition, the gift of three sewing machines did much for the tailoring department. An industrial building was added in 1887.
In 1888, Mr. Alexander Young, manager of the Hilo Iron Works, donated a turbine wheel, complete with the necessary iron work, shafting, pully and the pully flanges.
In 1890 Mrs. Cassie B. Terry was appointed school principal; she took charge of the academic department and her husband devoted his time to the farm and shop classes. They expanded the blacksmithing class, and Mr. Terry invented a wooden poi-pounding machine.
In 1892 a fifteen-light dynamo was installed at the school; hydroelectric power, guaranteed by the school’s exclusive control over water rights, made it the first establishment in Hilo to be lighted by electricity.
In 1894 a one-half ton ice plant was situated on the campus, ice being produced for both school and community use. Later, in exchange for control of the water rights, the electric company (HELCO) provided free power to the school.
Vocational training really took off in the period from 1897-1923, under the guidance of Levi Lyman, grandson of the founder. New buildings replaced the old and vocational programs were housed in a blacksmiths shop, a four room utility building accommodating a steam plant, dairy, poi factory and wood room for craft supplies (as well as gym and mechanical arts building.)
At first, greater emphasis was placed upon producing teachers and preachers than upon molding farmers or craftsmen. However, with the loss of Lahainaluna to the government, the Hilo school became reoriented to stress vocational training.
Hilo Boarding School was never a purely vocational institution, however, its founder’s focus of educating the head, heart and hand carried throughout its history.
The Hilo Boarding School closed in 1925, although its facilities were used for several years thereafter. It first became a community center.
Then, in 1947, it was the first home of the Hilo Branch of the University of Hawaiʻi a center of the University Extension Division. UH programs expanded there with a permanent summer school in 1948 – then, in 1949, the institution changed its name to University of Hawaiʻi, Hilo center (which later moved to its present site on Lanikāula Street, in 1955.)
All of the Hilo Boarding School buildings are gone; in 1980 the Hilo Center affiliated with the Boy’s Clubs of America now occupies the site.