Last week I went to Waimea Community Theatre’s live performance of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew . . . set in the Wild West of the 1890’s. It was an innovative approach, and perfect for the cowboy heritage of the Big Island. Cowboy? Yup. The Big Island had cowboys decades before the west did.
If you don’t believe it, check out the bulletin board at the Alfalfa Hay & Cubes Feed Store in Pa’auilo: horse training clinics, rodeos, and bulls for sale. There’s even an article posted about the real Al-Hattal from the movie Hidalgo; turns out he lives here on the Hāmākua Coast.
The cowboy culture goes far beyond the cowboy boot, paniolo, and roping sculptures at the local shopping centers. (The Parker Center even used to sport Whoa signs, but people weren’t stopping, so they’ve been replaced). It’s a real life-choice here.
Cattle are ever- present on the slopes of Mauna Kea. I see them every time I drive to Waimea: cattle graze, pregnant cows waddle, cows nurse calves, cattle egrets fly around, and drivers curse at reduced speed limits for cattle crossings. Small farms seem to have more interesting breeds of cattle and mixed herds, while larger ranches appear to focus on one or two cattle morphologies.
Cattle first made their appearance on the Big Island when Captain George Vancouver presented King Kamehameha with a gift of cattle in 1793 and 1794. The kapu against killing them allowed the cattle numbers to grow.
John Parker arrived in 1809, and became an advisor to King Kamehameha I. He married a Hawaiian chiefess in 1816, and bought two acres of land on the slopes of Mauna Kea from the King. He was allowed to hunt the wild cattle, and started a business selling salted beef to whaling ships. During the Great Māhele which allowed private land ownership, he bought another 640 acres and leased additional acres from King Kamehameha III. In time he domesticated the cattle, and developed orchards and a dairy. It was the start of the Parker Ranch dynasty near modern-day Waimea.
By 1830, the number of cattle grew to 25,000 and King Kamehameha III lifted the kapu. They were a nuisance eating and trampling the Native Hawaiians’ crops and a danger. King Kamehameha III brought Mexican-Spanish vaqueros to the island to teach Hawaiians the skills required to capture the wild cattle. These Españols taught them horsemanship, roping, leather-working, and saddle-making. Their name turned into the word for cowboys in Hawaiian: paniolo.
One of the most dangerous paniolo tasks was driving cattle to boats in the harbors at Kailua and Kawaihae. The cattle, some with a horn spread of six feet, did not want to be pushed into the sea and hoisted onto the ships. The ships then took the cattle to the stock yards in Honolulu.
Today, most calves are flown to the mainland for “corn finishing.” We import most beef from the mainland because people prefer corn-fed beef to grass-fed and because we don’t have the facilities to slaughter large numbers of cattle here. This whole treating cows as a commodity give me the willies; the article in the link refers to calf “shrink” during shipping. I very rarely eat beef anymore – a handful of times a year.
Meanwhile, John Parker’s heirs continued to grow the ranch, until it was the largest privately-owned cattle ranch in the United States, with more than 225K acres (today 130K) and 50K head of cattle, now 9000.
John’s grandson, Samuel, who was three-quarters Hawaiian, eventually also invested in the sugar plantation industry and later entered political life, first as advisor to King David Kalākaua, then appointed to the Hawaiian House of Nobles, and then Minister of Foreign Affairs to Queen Lili‘uokalani. When Samuel died in 1930, the ranch went to his grandson, Richard Smart, who in turn, put the holdings into Parker Ranch Foundation Trust when he died in 1992. Ranch income now supports and improves local education (Parker School and Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy), healthcare (North Hawai‘i Community Hospital), and charitable giving.
The legacy of Parker Ranch is everywhere in Waimea. You can see it on the names of shopping centers (Parker Square, Parker Ranch Center), a school (Parker School), library, rec center (Thelma Parker Library, Thelma Parker Recreation Center) and theater (Kahilu; all three named after Richard’s mother Annie Thelma Kahiluonapuaapiilani Parker), ranch locations and the rodeo arena. For a visual history of the paniolos visit the Parker Ranch Center and view the 32 murals.
While the cowboy life might seem the purview of men, women also rode and ranched. Hawaiian men and women began to ride horses when they were introduced. The Ali‘i women rode astride in long colorful skirts. This tradition continues to this day with pa‘u riders in parades, both the women and their horses bedecked in lei.
Women also ranched. Perhaps the most famous on the Big Island was Anna Leialoha Perry-Fiske. She was born an only child in 1900 on a ranch in Waimea (now Anna Ranch). Her ancestors five generations back started the 110 acre ranch in 1848. As a child she rode, roped cattle, mended fences, everything that was needed. When she inherited the ranch in 1939, she discovered less than $200 in the lock box and a few scrub cattle. With a loan from Parker Ranch, she built a new herd with new breeds, implemented new grazing techniques, and became the first certified female butcher, doing everything on the ranch herself to save money. She is quoted as saying “I never called myself a cowgirl. I’m a cowboy… riding and lassoing and doing all the things a man does.” Today the preserved ranch is in a trust, and operates tours to preserve the memory of the ranching lifestyle.
Paniolos have adapted to the times. While you can still find a tack shop in Waimea, modern paniolos use an ATV more often than a horse to herd cattle; I have seen both. Trucks are used for real ranching in cow country, though there are plenty of “show” trucks too.
The only bad thing about this cowboy culture is that I can’t possibly think about running for public office. Officials have to be able to ride a horse in the Western Week Parade, and I have already checked “riding a horse” off my bucket list. Didn’t like it at all.
Other essays on my blog that related to this topic include:
Western Week: Wicked Boots for Western Week
Show trucks: BA Trucks
Ranching Alpaca: Careful – they spit!
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“Hawaiian grass fed beef is available at…large supermarket(s) on the island and it is definitely worth searching out. Leaner and redder than the Midwestern cornfed beef, Hawaii’s tender grass fed flavor is every bit as good, albeit very different.”
“…despite the massive size of the Big Island’s cattle ranches there are only two commercial beef processors on the island, one in Hilo and the other in Paauilo on the Hamakua Coast.” “…the Mattos family (owner of JJ’s Country Market, Honoka’a) has been handling whole hormone free animals for over 100 years.”
Yes, there are some exceptions to the norm of sending calves to the mainland for finishing. Big Island sustainability efforts need to include more cattle staying here, eating grass. Thank you for the link. Aloha, Diane