That seems to be the question of some, because in the district of Puna on the Island of Hawaiʻi what once was called Olaʻa is now called Keaʻau. So why did it change?
Let’s look back a bit.
Part of the confusion may be that Olaʻa was formerly called Laʻa, a legendary area for collecting bird feathers. (Ulukau) To further confuse things, some scholars believe that ʻOlaʻa is misspelled, and should be spelled as ʻO-Laʻa.
Some believe that the okina is a substitute for the letter ‘k,’ as it is in some other Polynesian languages, which would, in turn, change the meaning to the name of the hula deity Laka, or a place dedicated (Iaʻa) to the god. (Cultural Surveys)
Laka is the goddess of the upland forests worshiped in the hula dance. (Beckwith) Since Laka is guardian of the forest, her name is invoked by hula dancers and others when entering the forest.
Forests once covered much of ʻOlaʻa; they were later (1905-1928) made part of the forest reserve system within the Islands. The forest lands of ʻOlaʻa were noted for their growth of ʻohiʻa and koa trees, and hapuʻu tree fern.
At the Mahele (1848,) ʻOlaʻa was retained by the Crown. It was described as “A very large land, but cut off from the sea by Keaʻau.” (Cultural Surveys)
Keaʻau (about 60,000-acres of land) is the northern most of some 50 ahupuaʻa (ancient land divisions) found in the district of Puna. Keaʻau extends from the ocean fishery some 26 miles inland, and reaches an elevation of about 3,900-feet – portions of it wrap around the makai point of ʻOlaʻa. In the uplands, Keaʻau is cut off by Keauhou, eastern-most of the ahupuaʻa of the district of Kaʻu. (Maly)
While historically people typically settled along the shoreline, because much of the Puna’s district’s coastal areas have thin soils and there are no good deep water harbors, settlement patterns in Puna tend to be dispersed and without major population centers. Villages in Puna tended inland, and away from the coast, where the soil is better for agriculture. (Escott)
This was confirmed on William Ellis’ travel around the island in the early 1800s, “Hitherto we had travelled close to the seashore, in order to visit the most populous villages in the districts through which we had passed. But here receiving information that we should find more inhabitants a few miles inland, than nearer the sea, we thought it best to direct our course towards the mountains.” (Ellis, 1826)
“Nearly all the food consumed by the residents of this District is raised in the interior belt to which access is had by the ancient paths or trails leading from the sea coast. The finest sweet potatoes are raised in places that look more like banks of cobble stones or piles of macadam freshly dumped varying from the size of a walnut to those as large as ones fist. In these holes there is not a particle of soil to be seen”. (Alexander; Rechtman)
What is consistent and clear from testimony before the Land Commission, there definitely was an Olaʻa in upper Puna on the Island of Hawaiʻi. The testimony is equally consistent and clear that there also was a Keaʻau.
Thrum, in his 1894 Hawaiian Almanac and Annual, noted, “The year 1894 witnessed the completion of the volcano road which was begun in 1889. This is a boon to visitors and the settlers in the new coffee district of ʻOlaʻa, as it affords a fine carriage drive the entire distance of thirty miles. Regular stages now run between Hilo and the Volcano House every other day.”
A common reference relates to the old road to Volcano, “ʻOlaʻa (is) on the Hilo side of the road and Keaʻau on the Puna side.” Others phrased it “ʻOlaʻa being on the North side of the road and Keaʻau on the South east side.”
“ʻOlaʻa has come into prominence in the past few years as a most promising coffee center. The opening of the road from Hilo to the volcano, which traverses this neighborhood, was the means of bringing the possibilities of the ʻOlaʻa lands to public notice as well as within reach.” (Thrum, 1898)
So, what happened with the ʻOlaʻa – Keaʻau name changes?
Before 1900, coffee was the chief agricultural crop in the area. Over 6,000-acres of coffee trees were owned by approximately 200-independent coffee planters and 6 incorporated companies.
Soon, sugarcane was in large-scale production. Initially founded in 1899, ʻOlaʻa Sugar Company leased about 4,000-acres of land, expanded and eventually became the dominant operation in the region. Plantation fields extended for 10-miles along both sides of Highway 11 between Keaʻau and Mountain View, as well as in the Pāhoa and Kapoho areas.
Construction of centrally-located ʻOlaʻa Sugar Mill was completed in 1902, requiring 51 men working a three-shift operation. This industrial expansion marked the beginning of massive landscape alterations and clearing operations.
A community grew around the plantation. Attention to employee welfare was demonstrated by ʻOlaʻa Sugar Company in the housing program, free medical attention and recreational facilities. ʻOlaʻa modernized the housing by building new family units and relocating outlying houses scattered about the plantation into nine main villages.
They became miniature towns with running water, electric lights, schools, churches, stores, clubhouses, theaters, parks and ball fields. The plantation roads radiated from these nine camps to cover the cane areas where the men worked. The 1930 plantation census noted a total of 5,999-men, women and children residing in 1,098-houses at ʻOlaʻa. (HSPA)
The plantation made land available for community uses. As examples, the ʻOlaʻa Hongwanji was built in 1902. Likewise, ʻOlaʻa Christian Church was nearby. ʻOlaʻa School, an elementary school, began in 1939. Other groups and places were formed using the ʻOlaʻa namesake.
That changed … and, it’s not clear how or when the mistake was learned.
But a 1951 article in The Friend paper reported part of the reasoning for subsequent name changes. “At an impressive ceremony, more than 250 members and friends of the church gathered to witness the old ʻOlaʻa Christian Church become the new Keaʻau Congregational Church.”
“The name-changing and rededication ceremony took place on the night of April 10, 1951, at the ʻOlaʻa Christian Church …. The Christian assertion, ‘God is Truth,’ is no mere, pious assertion designed to conceal their inner fear of truth nor their secret attachment to falsehood.”
“Christians are incurably truthseekers. Thus when the members of our church learned that the original and correct name of the village in which the church is situated is Keaʻau and not ʻOlaʻa, they felt that the time had come when they should change the name of the church.” (The Friend, June 1, 1951)
In 1960, ʻOlaʻa Sugar Company became Puna Sugar Company. ʻOlaʻa Elementary School became Keaʻau Elementary and Intermediate School (later Keaʻau Middle School.) In the early-1970s, ʻOlaʻa Hongwanji became Puna Hongwanji.
Not all early labels and references were incorrect; a 1914 USGS map appears to correctly label the place once known as ʻOlaʻa as Keaau.
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Always remember a place call Ola’a as a youth in the early 60s. These clears up what happened. Mahalo
Wasn’t there the famous Ola’a Steak House?
Cecelia Burns Smith says
my Dad was manager of Olaa Plantattion and we lived there from 1951-1957. Yes Olaa School and Olaa Hongwanji. (One cool aspect of school then– was on Wednesdays- Olaa School let out early so kids could go to Catechism “school” or to Japanese school at the Hongwanji. Our mother sent us to Hongwanji and I have always been grateful and it has served me well.) The story I heard about the name change was Mr. Shipman said that Olaa was a sacred name- a heiau nearer to Kurtistown- so he changed the name to Keaau. He could do things like that.
Thanks as always for the information Peter and feel free to clear up my accuracy from more than 50 years ago!
Great article! I wonder if you found in your research where the name Kurtistown came from, as it appears in your maps that the ʻOlaʻa ahupuaʻa encompasses most of the Kurtistown area. I’d like to see the traditional name for the area revived.
Deborah Ward says
In Honolulu a few years ago, I met the grandson of Mr Curtis, who was the postmaster in Olaa.
Barbara FANUCCHI says
I am researching my family. Many of them were born in Hilo or Ola’a and this would go back to 1900. The family names I’m looking for are: Clarence Wilson age 9, Lloyd age 7, Juanita age 5,(my grandmother), Neva just over a year and Edith Violet Jo an infant. These ages were taken from the 1950 Census. The parents of these children are Caroline “Carrie” and Albert E. (for Elmer or Edgar) Wilson. He used Elmer much of the time as his first name. Elmer E. Wilson was Asst Mgr of the Volcano Stables & Transportation Co. Ltd. and his brother J R Wilson “James” was the manager. Caroline and Elmer are my great -grandparents. She too was born in the area (maybe Hilo), about 1885. Elmer was born in Oregon. There was another brother, John Wilson who worked at the Ookala Plantation. Any information or confirmation would be greatly appreciated. Thank you! Barbara Fanucchi
Michael Diamant says
Michael Diamant says
I’m researching my wife’s family, Matsuoka, who lived in Olaa and Hilo about 1935. Specifically, I am interested in Iwataro Matsuoka, who died in an accident at the Olaa Sugar Company. I have a photo of the funeral and would like some additional information about the photo and Iwataro’s death.
Diana Whipple says
I am researching my mother who was born in Olaa according to some information I found. But there is no birth certificate for her but her sister who is younger has a birth certificate indicating this information. Their parents names was Anacleto and Antonina Villiacorte, my mother was Beatrice and her sister was Rosaline. If you know of where I can get more information while they lived in Olaa.
Kealoha Ward says
here’s the real story behind the name change… Ola’a is the old name of the inland area of the Keaau ahupuaa 64,275 acres…. it usually was the mauka side of hwy11, and the makai side and shore was more often called Kea’au….. The 64,275 acre ahupuaa was all bought by Willie Shipman, S.Damon and J.Eldarts in 1881 (sold by the Lunalilo Estate to help finance ‘Iolani Palace).. Shipman then bought the other 2 out right away, so owned the entire ahupuaa … 50 yrs later Willie’s hapa wife Mele Johnson Shipman and her son Herbert Shipman protested that Ola’a had a sacred meaning to Hawaiians and it should never be used with commercial or ‘earthly’ enterprises. She felt so strong on the matter, that her son Herbert who was mgr of WH Shipman Ltd. and director of Ola’a Sugar Co. was effective in getting the company name changed to Puna Sugar Co.. Then Herbert took it one step further by getting the postoffice to drop the name Ola’a in favor of the earlier name Kea’au. Herbert Shipman took it to Washington DC in 1952 and was successful in see his mothers earlier concerns resolved… aloha
Kealoha Ward says
ps. in Wm Ellis 1823 journal Ola’a is spelled Ora and is noted as an ‘inland part of Puna’…. and Wailuku was spelled Wairuku, Hilo was Hiro etc. back when they were more using the 17 letter alphabet.. w/ bdrtv.
Many maps I see of that Era shows Keaau spelled Kaau and usually located where Shipman Beach is today at shore… on a 1841 map (Wilkes’ 1841 U.S. Exploring Expedition) Olaa is shown at 1,136 ft and the place shows 4 building drawn and the name is Olaa/Pea, its 1/2 up Old Volcano Trail…… in a 1886 map Ola’a is shown as a ‘half way house’ on the old volcano road to Kilauea, about where Kurtistown is today…. an 1924 map shows Keaau at Shipman Beach (Haena)…. an 1834 Dumont d’Urville map I have spells Keaau as Kaau and located at shore, and Puna spelled Pouna.
btw, I have been running into your informative “Images of Old Hawaii’ stories on Hawaii History for a while now, very useful in researching stuff.. mahalo
Aloha e Kealoha, I would love to walaʻau and learn more about Olaa.