story by Pamela Frierson
color photos by Peter French
At Kahua Ranch on the northern end of the Big Island, owner and manager Monte Richards stands in front of a rambling house that has been in his family for nearly eight decades, watching the morning mist burn away over pasture and hills to reveal a distant sea. Monty is in his seventies, but he is still a robust figure. His ruddy face is shaded by a baseball cap, his signature red suspenders hold up sturdy work pants and his feet are planted firmly in mud boots. Monty gazes at the lush green grass mantling a landscape of old cinder cones and seems to contemplate the ghosts of the past: the ranchers, many the progeny of Hawaiian royalty and early Westerners, who worked cattle on Kahua’s fertile pastures for over 150 years. This is a landscape of the first Old West, for Hawai‘i’s ranches were born long before barbed wire was invented and Texas ranches and Western cowboys appeared.
Monte Richards and a
trio of grass fed cows
at Kahua Ranch.
At Kapapala Ranch, on the slopes of Mauna Loa volcano at the southern end of the island, Gordon Cran looks out from the porch of a century-old ranch house at aged rock walls built to fence out wild cattle. Gordon, son of a Scottish engineer who arrived in Honolulu in 1916, is also in his seventies. Under an old brown felt Stetson, he has the bushy eyebrows of his Scotch ancestors; his lean, somewhat stooped build is true to someone who has spent his life in the saddle.
Like Monty, Gordon inhabits a storied landscape, though his tenure on the land has taken a more hardscrabble route and his place here is secured by a lease from the state. Kapapala is rough country—grasslands interspersed with a relatively recent lava flow. It has been ranched since the 1860s, when King Kamehameha III leased its thousands of acres to two Hilo businessmen. After Queen Lili‘uokalani’s overthrow in 1893, these crown lands passed to the provincial government and eventually became state lands. Gordon, who as a young man worked at Kapapala as the ranch foreman, has held the lease on 32,000 acres since 1978.
Two decades ago, the importation of foreign beef started driving down domestic prices and profits, and since then, even the oldest and largest Hawaiian ranches have had to diversify. Kahua Ranch has added sheep, hydroponic vegetables and wind and solar power to its operation, says Monty. The Cran family has fostered the growth of a cattle-marketing cooperative and added sheep and goats to Kapapala. Both ranches have also opened to visitors. At Kahua, travelers can explore on horseback or on ATVs, spend an evening with the paniolo (cowboys), even rent the ranch guesthouse; at Kapapala, they can take a guided overnight tour into the wild uplands, ride the range with Gordon or stay in historic cottages. What both ranches now offer is a chance to ramble deep into Hawaiian history—in some very good company.
Gordon Cran and
his daugther Lani Petrie.
Cattle have been a part of Island life for over 200 years. In 1793, British sea captain George Vancouver arrived on the Big Island, bringing high chief Kamehameha a gift of a few longhorn cattle. The Hawaiians dubbed them pua‘a pepeiaohao, literally "pigs with iron ears," for they had never seen horns before. Kamehameha placed a kapu (ban) against harming the animals and turned them loose to multiply. Within two decades, great herds of wild cattle were trampling crops and destroying Hawaiian forests.
A flurry of rock wall building took place to fence the cattle, but it was apparent that the animals needed to be controlled—and that there was money in selling salt beef, hides and tallow to whalers and merchant ships. Soon after, horses were introduced to Hawaii along with Mexican vaqueros (cowboys). The vaqueros were a flashy lot, with striped ponchos, long silver spurs on their boots and beautiful braided rawhide lariats. Hawaiians soon became cowboys themselves and to the style of the paniolo (Hawaiian for "espańol"), they brought flower lei, bright shirts and a natural ease in the saddle.
Photo: Hawaii State Archives
A sailor named John Palmer Parker began the first and still the largest Hawaiian ranch, Parker Ranch, by marrying the great-granddaughter of King Kamehameha and, in the 1840s, fencing in herds of wild cattle on his wife’s inherited lands at Waimea. His offspring established a huge clan that still owns or works on Big Island ranch land. Ranches sprang up on all the islands (even Kaho‘olawe was briefly ranched), and became the centers of social life. By 1900, there were 198 cattle ranches of at least 2,000 acres in size, ranching a total of nearly 1.5 million acres.
Parker descendants established Kahua Ranch around 1895, built the original (though much-remodeled) house in which Monty and his wife Phyllis now live and entertained in the old style. Monty’s uncle, Atherton Richards, bought the ranch in 1928. "He became part of something that was much more than real estate," Monty says. "There are families living and working at Kahua that are now into their fifth generation."
As we stand under the ironwood and eucalyptus trees that shade the house, Monty shows me the notes of Dorothy Nichols, who grew up at nearby Parker Ranch and recorded her memories of her visits to Kahua between 1910 and 1918. Lei making, she noted, was a major activity: "Down from the house... were two large terraces... all planted to a picking garden. We could pick anything we wanted to make our leis." Bedecked with garlands, their long mu‘umu‘u pulled up between their legs, Dorothy and the girls of Kahua rode the ranch "like queens" and came home to dine on "steak, poi, and watercress pulled from the stream."
The scent of that past still lingers at Kahua, but the beef prices that supported the grand ranch life are long gone, lost when New Zealand beef entered the U.S. market in the 1980s. "Here’s our new round-up," says Monty as, promptly at sundown, a chartered bus full of visitors arrives. The newcomers walk into the recently erected Paniolo Pavilion adjacent to the Quonset hut that has served as tackroom and barn for fifty years. Ranch help pinch hit as barbecue chefs, and the food is hearty and homegrown: there’s teriyaki beef from the ranch, Waimea corn, and Kahua greens and tomatoes.
Monty climbs up on an old telephone cable spool to address the crowd. "Right now we’re running 2,000 head of cows," he says, "mainly Angus, with some Herefords and Charolais and Wagyu. Mostly we export the cattle to Canada. It’s hard to do a lot of business here, because we don’t have feedlots or much in the way of slaughterhouses. The move back to grass-fed beef by people who want to eat healthy may help us out eventually, but meanwhile, we have to find other ways to survive. So we raise some sheep and grow hydroponic tomatoes and greens."
Monty doesn’t add "and we herd tourists," but he asks me a little later, anxiously, if I think every one is having a good time. Clearly they are. It’s a spectacular star-filled night, and after eating, people amble in and out of the barn, learning roping techniques and clambering onto a very patient horse for photos.
At seven the next morning, with the mist still encircling the lozenge-shaped hills, I join Monty on his rounds. Accompanied by a hyperactive border collie, we walk uphill, toward a line of wind turbines. "The ranch is completely off the grid," Monty says. "We’re 85 to 90 percent wind- and solar-supplied; the generator kicks in when needed."
We pass a village scene out of an earlier century: A row of old frame houses (occupied by ranch hands and Monty’s four children) sits across from a tiny church, a clapboard-sided structure with a bell that once belonged to one of Kohala’s first missionaries. Beyond the village, the long steel blades of the wind turbines slice steadily through the air. We peer into a greenhouse where tiny lettuce plants are growing. "You could say the old ranching days died when New Zealand beef flooded the market," says Monty, "but ranchers have always faced challenges." He opens the door to a steel shed, inviting me to step into "command central." In the dark room, a computer screen displays the pulse of power generated by the turbines, and numbers at the bottom of the screen record the energy input from the solar panels. "That’s what I like to share with visitors," declares Monty, "that ranching can take a lot of shapes, but it’s all about partnering up with the natural world."
At Kapapala Ranch, I kept thinking of the famous Scottish travel writer Isabella Bird, who visited the ranch in 1873 on her way to view an eruption at Mauna Loa. Bird was on a mule when she traveled up the ranch trail that winds through rocky lowlands to upland forests and the stony fastness of the mountain. In deference to my ailing back, I’m riding the trail in the ranch "limousine," a Ford Expedition, accompanied by Gordon Cran and his Hawaiian wife, Jon.
Kapapala Ranch is
flanked by two volcanoes—
Kilauea (foreground) and
Mauna Loa (background).
Gordon muscles the Expedition up the rough trail. At 4,000 feet, passing through koa and ‘ohi‘a forests, we come to a large clearing with an ancient cabin. A shanty roof slants over the rough boards of the old cabin’s tiny front porch, little-changed from the day Bird would have sat there, clad in tartan riding bloomers of her own invention. She and a Mr. Green and two Hawaiian guides would have just returned from a night at the edge of Moku‘aweoweo, the summit caldera, where they watched "fountains of fire" jetting up from the lava lake.
Bird was all praise for the mules, which "went up the most severe ascent I have ever seen ... and came down as actively as cats." I imagine her gazing with approval at the current scene at the cabin: Tethered in front are a mule and six donkeys. Swarming around them—grooming them, scratching their ears, fitting them out with blankets and saddles and packs—are a dozen girls and boys.
Overseeing them all is a woman with graying curly hair and a ready smile. She’s Keolani Epperson, who has worked with the Crans since 1999, running a "summer camp with donkeys" and other trips. This group of kids arrived at the old bunkhouse two days ago. On this, their third and last day of ‘ohelo berry-picking, lei-making, marshmallow roasting and exploring, they are a happy, mellow crew. "But most of all," Rachel says, "they are donkey lovers." Within five minutes, I have been personally introduced to big-eared Jezebel, Pua, Syd, Sylvester, Malu, Bogey and Samantha the mule.
Gordon rests his long wrangler legs astride a big tree stump and watches with a soft smile as the kids minister to the animals. This is the kind of activity the Crans feel is compatible with their sense of what the ranch is all about: a way of living with animals and the land that is shared with the community.
"No one ranched in isolation in the past, and you certainly don’t do that now," Gordon says. Some cooperation has now been formalized (for instance, in the statewide cattle producers’ co-op, in which Gordon’s daughter Lani Petrie has taken a lead role). But the informal generosity of the traditional Hawaiian community is the bedrock of Kapapala, and I suspect a good part of the open-hearted feel of the place comes from Jon, who has her own ties to the land—her great-grandfather was once the foreman of Kapapala Ranch.
On the way back to the main house, we visit the corrals, where three generations of Hilo’s Freitas family are tagging and castrating calves in a milling, noisy throng of cows, horses and dogs. Smiling at a young boy confidently working calves into the chute, Gordon shouts over the din: "This whole family loves the ranch life. They all live in Hilo, but I let them run their cattle with my cattle. They come up here every weekend to work them, and they help out with mine. That’s the way ranching should be."
While Gordon cherishes the old ways, he is not averse to new methods of ranching. We detour into a lower pasture to see his latest experiment: raising sheep. He uses an intensive grazing method that requires constantly moving the animals to new pastures with the help of a sheepherder, sheep dogs and portable electric fences. Echoing Monty Richards, Gordon says, "It’s all about working with the land."
At the paniolo barbecue at Kahua Ranch, one visitor stepped off the bus, gazed around at the cluster of old ranch buildings and the great sweep of land dotted with herds of cattle, and said, "I thought these places didn’t exist any more. And I never imagined they existed in Hawaii." But Hawaii ranches are not fading into history. Nearly a million acres of Hawaiian land is still ranched, often, as in the case of Kahua and Kapapala, held together by a fierce sense of place. A visitor who wants fast immersion in Island tradition might want to start in the saddle—or in the passenger seat of the Expedition, next to Gordon Cran.
This doppler weather
station is a recent
addition to Kahua
Ranch—click here to
view its live images.
For more information, visit www.kahuaranch.com and www.kapapala.com.A