Once Upon a Time on Molokai

A look back at the village of Pelekunu.

If you look down while flying over Molokai’s North Shore, keep an eye out for a village that once flourished in Pelekunu.

By Marie Yamashita

PELEKUNU! It was high adventure for my husband, Henry, when he went on a camping trip with some Lions to Pelekunu in mid 1940’s. An avid outdoorsman, he had hunted and fished in many places on Molokai, but never in Pelekunu and probably for the others too, this was their first time to the remote and isolated valley on the windward coast of Molokai. He was excited about the trip and some of his excitement passed on to me. With great expectations he started out with the others early one summer morning.

Meanwhile, I waited for him to come home and tell me about his trip. Not one to give a long narrative, he gave me what I refer to as a “nuts and bolts” description of his experiences when he returned.

The adventure began, he said, when the boat that took them anchored off shore and they all swam to the beach with their camping gear. His friend, Ray, was having difficulty so he had helped him swim ashore. They set up camp, went exploring, caught enough fishes and picked even more hihiwai. Incidentally, I had my first taste of hihiwai from the pile he brought home.

He described a lush, green valley, with flowing streams and everything growing wild. No one lived there, he said, but there was talk that at one time there was a thriving village in Pelekunu. That sparked my curiosity. People lived in the remote valley? Of course I had heard stories like that, but….a village?

All speculations ended in August 1952 when the Honolulu Star Bulletin carried a most interesting article about Pelekunu and Wailau. In it, the Mayor of the City and County of Honolulu John Wilson recalled living in Pelekunu. He and his wife, Jenny, had lived there for 14 years and were authorities on the region. Mrs. Wilson was born in Pelekunu and was the postmistress there. Mr. Wilson, an engineer and contractor, made Pelekunu his headquarters while he had jobs elsewhere. He frequently hiked over the mountains to Kamalo or else came in the easier way, over the Wailau Trail to the beach and then by canoe to Pelekunu.

According to the mayor, Wailau and Pelekunu valleys grew “the best taro in the world.” He explained that taro requires lots of cold running water all the time and both valleys had it. Apparently taro was grown extensively even before his time. Mr. Wilson raised oranges, limes, peaches, coffee, and alfalfa but taro was the cash crop for which the valley was best suited. He and others in Wailau organized to bid for a contract to supply paiai for poi eaten at Kalaupapa Settlement. When growers in Oahu underbid them, Pelekunu suffered an economic blow from which they never recovered, he said.

In 1900 there were about 70 people in each of the valleys and there was a school in Pelekunu with 40 children enrolled.

In the meantime, his wife was not enjoying the continual rains in Pelekunu. So, in 1914, while he was away on a job in Nahiku, Maui, she took bold action. She commandeered the captain of the boat that came to load all of their belongings – pigs, chicken, household furnishings, and the “first and only piano in Pelekunu” and moved to Kamalo.

Shortly after that the steamer stopped coming to Pelekunu. With no doctor, no postmistress, and no one to buy their poi, the other families left. By 1939 when the mayor revisited the valley it was a deserted town. Apparently, such was the condition that Henry and his fellow Lions found when they went there in the 1940’s.

Finally, whatever that may have been left of the village was wiped out in the tidal wave that hit Molokai in 1946.

Now, should you ever happen to fly along the windward coast of Molokai, look for Pelekunu and perhaps in your mind’s eye you may see the village that existed there once upon a time.

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