Passengers and cargo landed at Hilo in the surf along the beach until about 1863, when a wharf was constructed at the base of present day Waianuenue Street; the wooden wharf was replaced by an iron pile wharf in 1865.
The northern side of the bay became a focal point for the community’s trade and commerce. During this time, Hilo was ranked as the third most frequented port for whaling vessels in need of repair and re-provisioning.
By 1874, Hilo ranked as the second largest population center in the islands, and within a few years shortly thereafter Hilo with its fertile uplands, plentiful water supply, and good port became a major center for sugarcane production and export.
In 1910, H Hackfeld built a warehouse and related building, a reinforced concrete building, spanning the entire block along Kamehameha Avenue, the two-story Hackfeld Building was the most substantial building in downtown Hilo when completed.
William Hardy ‘Doc’ Hill opened the Hill Optical Co in 1917 and added his jewelry business in 1919, and both his optical and jewelry businesses were among the largest in the Territory.
When he was elected to the Territorial House of Representatives in 1928, Doc sold his optical and jewelry businesses to his bookkeeper, Friederich Koehnen. (Narimatsu)
Friederich Wilheim “Fritz” Koehnen came to Hilo from Germany in 1909 to work for H Hackfeld Company (which later went on to become Amfac, one of the “Big-Five” corporations in Hawaii.)
In 1929, Koehnen and his wife, German-born Katherine Bocker, bought Hill Optical. They shut down the optical operation and started selling silverware, fine china, crystal and giftware as F Koehnen Ltd. (Laitinen)
Their daughter, Helie, who worked at the store from a young age, starting in high school, and joined full time during World War II when she met and married Carl Rohner, a U.S. military officer stationed on the island who came back to join the business after the war.
Rohner opened the furniture business in 1946 as Fritz took ill with pneumonia. He handed over the reins to his son, Fred J. Koehnen, who left college after the war to take over the business.
Koehnen oversaw the jewelry and giftware division; Rohner oversaw furniture sales. After moving to the current location in 1955, which was purchased from Amfac, Fred left the day-to-day operations to Carl and Helie but remained on the firm’s board of directors. (Bishop)
“Normal business day for me was to open up, take a coffee break shortly thereafter at the old Hilo Drug Co. lunch counter. Great place to swap info and tall tales with your business contemporaries. … I was on “the floor” as a salesperson most of the day.”
“In a family business with a small work force, being a manager just meant doing double duty in both sales and administration. You did the office work whenever you could. If that involved taking work home, so be it.”
“My father had a bookkeeping/accounting background, so he made sure his family learned that aspect of business first. Our bookkeeping, including the tax returns, was all done in-house.”
“In the retail business back then you knew just about all of your customers by name. Good service and personal relationships were the things that kept you in business!”
“Business in those days was based on trust. A man’s word was his bond and a handshake every bit as binding as a written contract. Most retail stores, ours included, carried charge accounts for customers. While some banks offered “charge cards,” today’s credit and debit cards were unheard of and most people carried little cash.” (Koehnen)
In 1957, the company bought the Hackfield building at the corner of Kamehameha and Waianuenue avenues in downtown Hilo and the store has called the building home ever since.
In the late 1960s F. Koehnen Ltd spun off its retail operation, which was renamed Koehnen’s Inc., leaving F Koehnen Ltd in charge of real estate holdings. (Laitinen)
After 83-years and three generations in business, Koehnen’s closed at the end of 2012; “We’re closing now not because we have to, but because it’s an appropriate time. We ran out of family to take over.” (Koehnen; Bishop, HTH)
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