Pulehunui is an ahupuaʻa in central Maui; it extends from the peak of Kilohana on the rim of the crater of Haleakala, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, in a nearly west direction for about fifteen miles. The eastern or mountain portion is comparatively narrow, often less than half a mile wide.
The western portion reaches to the low land of the Island and grows broader up to the western boundary joining the lands of Waikapu, being at this end from three to four miles wide. It includes about 2,000 feet along the sea coast from a sand spit known as Kihei to a point of rocks called Kalaepohaku. (Supreme Court Records)
During pre-contact times, agricultural uses were basically wetland or dryland. River valleys typically provided the right conditions for wetland kalo (taro) cultivation in loʻi (pond fields,) with water supplied through ʻauwai (irrigation ditches.)
Where sufficient water was not available for irrigation (from rivers or springs,) then dryland farming took place; ʻuala (sweet potato) was the primary crop in those regions.
Due the height and size of Haleakala, Pulehunui does not have regular streams or springs. It is in the area known as Kula. Kula was always an arid region, throughout its long, low seashore, vast stony kula lands, and broad uplands. Kula was widely famous for its sweet-potato plantations. ‘Uala was the staple of life here. (Handy; Maly)
The ahupuaʻa of Pulehunui extended across the Kula plain; its name, literally “large pulehu,” might refer to the degree of broiling one could receive from the sun in this area. Kula was always an arid region, throughout its long, low seashore, vast stony kula lands and broad uplands. (Maui Planning)
Kula makes up most of the central plain of Maui, created by the joining of Haleakala and West Maui volcanoes. Kula means open country, or plain – as distinct from valley or stream bottom, and has long been used as a term to distinguish between dry, or “kula land,” and wet-taro land. This is an essential characteristic of Kula, the central plain of Maui which is practically devoid of streams. (Maly)
“On the coast, where fishing was good, and on the lower westward slopes of Haleakala, a considerable population existed, fishing and raising occasional crops of potatoes along the coast, and cultivating large crops of potatoes inland”. (Handy; Maly)
In 1793, Vancouver noted, “The appearance of this side of Mowee (Maui) was scarcely less forbidding than that of its southern parts, which we had passed the preceding day. The shores, however, were not to steep and rocky, and were mostly composed of a sandy beach…”
“… the land did not rise to very abruptly from the sea towards the mountains, nor was its surface so much broken with hills and deep chasms; yet the soil had little appearance of fertility, and no cultivation was to be seen. A few habitations were promiscuously scattered near the water side…”
A couple decades later (1817,) Peter Corney sailed this area and noted, “We now made sail towards Mowee … we passed Morokenee (Molokini,) and made sail up Mackery bay (Maʻalaea;) here we lay until the 6th, and took on board a great quantity of hogs, salt, and vegetables.”
“This bay is very deep and wide, and nearly divides the island, there being but a narrow neck of land and very low, keeping the two parts of the island together. There is good anchorage; and the only danger arises from the trade winds, which blow so strong at times as to drive ships out of the bay with two anchors down…”
“The neck of land is so low, and the land so high on each side, that the N.E. wind comes through like a hurricane. On this neck of land are their principal salt-pans, where they make most excellent salt.”
The early Polynesians brought sugar cane with them and demonstrated that it could be grown successfully in the islands. The first commercially-viable sugar plantation, Ladd and Co., was started at Kōloa on Kaua‘i in 1835. Others followed, including on Maui.
Sugar is a thirsty crop; in order to irrigate, in 1876 the initial Hamakua Ditch was built, bringing water from streams from the windward and wet East Maui. A total of ten ditches were constructed between 1879 and 1923; this system makes up what is known today as East Maui Irrigation (EMI.)
Sugar became part of the Maui landscape – including at Pulehunui. More than 30-plantations of various sizes popped up on Maui. Over time, consolidations and closures gradually reduced the number to fewer, but larger, plantations. Today, only one sugar producing mill remains in the Islands – Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Company – on the island of Maui. (Sugar Museum)
On June 15, 1938, a few hundred acres of land at Pulehunui was set aside for a Maui Airport; it was opened on June 30, 1939 (the new Maui Airport replaced a smaller airfield at Māʻalaea.) Inter-Island Airways, Ltd (to be later known as Hawaiian Air) constructed airport station improvements.
Immediately after December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, the military took control of all air fields in the Territory and began the expansion of Maui Airport at Pulehunui. An expansion lengthened and widened the runways.
Under Navy control, the facility was renamed Naval Air Station Puʻunene, the airport served as a principal carrier plane training base. By the end of the war, Puʻunene had a total complement of over 3,300-personnel and 271-aircraft. A total of 106-squadrons and carrier air groups passed through during WW II.
Following the war, the Territory took back various airfields and converted them back into full-scale commercial operation of airports. In December 1948, the Navy declared the Puʻunene Airport land surplus to their needs and the airport reverted to the Territory under Quitclaim Deed from the US Government.
It was later abandoned and the old runway was used for drag races and time trials in May 1956; it remains in use as Maui Raceway Park as an automobile “drag strip” and park for such activities as go-kart racing and model airplane flying.
Other uses of the former site include the Maui Regional Public Safety Complex and prison facility to alleviate overcrowding at the existing 7-acre Maui Community Correctional Center facility in Wailuku.