In 1840, John Joseph Halstead sailed to Hawai‘i on a whaling ship bringing with him from New York carpentry and cabinet-makings skills. He set up a shop in Lāhainā. (Martin) He was said to be the first man to put up a frame house in Lāhainā.
With the news of the discovery of gold in California in 1848, came orders from San Francisco merchants for Irish potatoes and other food supplies for those heading to the gold fields.
Halstead did not join the pioneers of 1849; He moved over to Kalepolepo, along the Kihei shoreline, with his family and shortly thereafter built a new house for himself. (Wilcox)
It was a large Pennsylvania Dutch style house made entirely of koa, built next to the south wall of Koʻieʻie Loko I‘a (fishpond) (also called Kalepolepo Fishpond.)
Halstead’s three story house/store was nicknamed the ‘Koa House.’ With the mullet-filled fishpond, the Koa House became a popular retreat for Hawaiian royalty such as Kamehameha III, IV, V and Lunalilo. (Starr)
No one remembers the actual date of construction of Koa House, but the fact that King Liholiho (Kamehameha IV), visited Kalepolepo on a royal tour immediately after accession to the throne in the fall of 1854, and stayed overnight as the guest of Halstead, its owner, is proof it was built before that time. (Wilcox)
Its timbers were from saw mills in East Makawao and from Kula, partly hewn and whip-sawed by hand Into shape, for labor was cheap In the good old days. Also pine and other material brought around Cape Horn by early traders.
When finished the first floor was fitted up with koa wood counters and shelves, and used for a store. The upper floors were used for living quarters. Many of the larger pieces of furniture were made of koa wood by Halstead himself. (Wilcox)
He opened a trading station on the lower floor. Whalers came ashore to buy fresh produce that was brought in by the farmers via the Kalepolepo Road.
He promoted the Irish potato industry in Kula, which even then was a thriving industry for provisioning whale ships in their seasonal voyages after whales.
At Halstead’s Kalepolepo Store a cartload of potatoes – thirty to forty bags – could readily be exchanged for a bolt of silk or other provisions.
During the Irish potato boom of those days any native farmer with an acre or two of potatoes would sell his crop, and as soon as he received payment in fifty-dollar gold pieces he would hurry off to the nearest store to buy a silk dress for his wife or a broadcloth suit for himself.
Halstead held his share of the Irish potato trade against more promising cash offers made by his business rivals. So lively was the competition that LL Torbert of ʻUlupalakua conceived the idea of an Irish potato corner.
He sent out his men and bought up all the Irish potatoes in sight, paying as high as five dollars for a bag of potatoes, a fabulous price for those days when native labor was plentiful at twenty-five cents a day.
Having cornered all the potatoes to be had, he shipped about $20,000 worth by the bark Josephine for San Francisco. The bark proved leaky, water got into the potato-filled holds and rotted them so that on arrival at San Francisco not enough good potatoes were left in the cargo to pay the freight bill.
At that time Kalepolepo was a thriving village, with two churches, a Mormon church where George Cannon or Walter Murray Gibson expounded the Christian doctrines of Joseph Smith against Christian Calvinism as preached by the Reverend Green and David Malo.
Reportedly, Halstead’s old house at Kalepolepo was Rev Green’s granary during the wheat boom of the 1850s and early-1860s, when the upper Makawao country from Maliko to Waiohuli was cropped to wheat.
Possibly some wheat may have been shipped from Kalepolepo in those days, for from early times to the late-1860s it was a shipping port for Wailuku and Kula. Halstead had one or two big warehouses standing makai of his residence.
In the late sixties the Irish potato trade had become unimportant and later ceased altogether. In 1876, Halstead closed his store and moved to ʻUlupalakua, where he died eleven years later, May 3, 1887. (Wilcox)
The koa house remained standing until it was burned down in 1946 by the Kihei Yacht Club. (NPS) (Lots of information here is from NPS and Wilcox.)
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