Kona was, at one time, the largest single area outside the sugar plantation system that so dominated the history of modern Hawaii.
In the late 19th century, Kona gained a reputation as a ‘haven’ for immigrants who broke their labor contracts with the islands’ sugar plantations.
“There were lots of people who’d run away from sugarcane plantations before their contracts had expired. They came to Kona because it was a big place. There were some people who changed their last names. I knew this because some of them told me that their real name was such-and-such.”
“There were lots of them who ran away from the plantations, breaking their contracts. And most of them started in coffee farming.” (Torahichi Tsukahara, retired ranch hand and coffee farmer)
By the 1890s, however, the industry experienced financial difficulties. So the lands were divided into small three- to five-acre lots and sold or leased to individuals. Small-scale coffee farming appealed to these new farmers. By 1915, tenant farmers, largely of Japanese descent, were cultivating most of the coffee.
“The value accorded to independence is clearly indicated in discussions of reasons for migrating to Kona and in comparisons of the meaning of work on coffee farms and plantations.”
“‘Coffee meant freedom’ compared with work on the plantations. Compulsion and demeaning treatment were frequently mentioned as aspects of plantation work.”
“Over here in Kona you have the freedom of going wherever you want to, and work for whoever you want to. In the plantation you have to work only for the plantation there, you see.”
“And here in Kona … you had a chance to build up something. Maybe you like build a piggery, raise pigs, or maybe if you get money you can lease a piece of land and raise your own cattle like that. In the plantation you couldn’t do that. In Kona you had all that privilege, all that freedom to do that.” (Johnny Santana)
“On April 16, 1916 I bought the coffee lands for myself. If other people could do it, then I figured I would give it a try … Back then kopi [coffee] was cheap. It was a time when it was only nine cents a pound. So I thought if you bought something when it was cheap, then you could make money later on.” (Kazo Tanima, coffee farmer)
Many hours were spent cleaning and weeding the land, pruning the trees, harvesting the crop, pulping the berries, and drying them for the mills.
“If you wanted to get a good crop of coffee out, there was no end to the work. There was always something – some place with a withered tree that needed to be replanted – some work to be done.” (Kazo Tanima)
Most farmers depended on their families and neighbors for labor. “When we apply fertilizer then all the neighbors get together
and apply fertilizer. After the job was done then we had that dinner or luncheon, most of the time was chicken hekka.” (Yoshitaka Takashiba, coffee and macadamia nut farmer)
“At that time, we used to work until dark. You see, no matter how young you were, you have to work. Before going to school, we pick one basket of coffee, then go to school. We come home from school and we pick another basket.” (Tsuruyo Kimura, lau hala store owner)
Single men and families were hired during the harvest season – September through December – and were paid according to the number of bags picked.
Eventually, some bought or leased their own lands and became farmers. They disliked the low-paying regimented jobs on sugar plantations, where they worked in gangs under the watchful eyes of the luna, or foreman. They, like others before them, sought a more independent life.
“I am on my own on the coffee work. Whatever I earned nobody shares with me. The plantation work, the boss shares with my earning. In my coffee work, all the income is mine. I have no boss. I can do what I liked to do. Nobody to supervise me. I rested when I wanted to because there was no boss.” (Raymundo Agustin, former sugar worker and ranchman, coffee picker and farmer)
Kona, in the 1920s, enjoyed unprecedented prosperity. Large sums were invested in equipment and machinery, acreage was expanded, and new homes were built. Farmers obtained credit for these improvements and they borrowed heavily.
Those outside coffee farming – those who provided goods and services – prospered. The Y.K. Aiona Store, owned by Sam Liau’s family, was one of many stores that enjoyed a brisk business. The Manago Hotel, now a Kona landmark, expanded its facilities and services.
“I told my husband that this [hotel] is a good business, and that we should add a second floor to have more rooms. And we divided one room into two, with six tatami mats in the front room. And we advertised that we had a Japanese room.”
“It became popular and everybody came . … Business was very good, and we started selling sake, beer, and other things. And after work, coffee picking, people started coming to have a drink, … And our business was growing little by little.” (Osame Manago, co-founder of Manago Hotel)
Hopes continued to soar. But, when coffee prices fell, Kona’s people, too, fell deeper and deeper into debt. The hopes and dreams of many were shattered.
Between 1929 and 1938, the number of farmers decreased by an alarming 50 percent. Relief was obtained only in the late 1930s. Farmers, storekeepers, and others united in an effort to save their community.
Usaku Morihara was one of many who participated in this effort. “People started running away because of the depression. So we started negotiating with American Factors. I told Factors to reduce all of the debts.”
“I told them the people would remember this and be loyal to them until death. I told them the coffee business would be doomed otherwise, and there would be no farmers in Kona, so it would be their loss as well as ours. I told them let us be free of our debts.”
“I told them the farmers would start working hard when everything started fresh. And those who’d run away would come back since they liked Kona better than the sugar plantations and any other place.”
“Factors said they would forgive all but two percent of the debts. So the negotiations succeeded. If it hadn’t been for this, the coffee business would have been finished. But we kept it going.” (Usaku Morihara, storekeeper) (All here is from A Social History of Kona)