Preserving Kona's Stories

Maile's Meanderings

Branding Day at New Field on W.H. Greenwell Ranch

Photo by Megan Mitchell. From the Collections of Kona Historical Society.

Photo by Megan Mitchell. From the Collections of Kona Historical Society.

This wonderful line up of sturdy horses and riders, caught mid-day against a backdrop of twisted koa and silvery `ohi`a trees, says HAWAII all over it. It would be a safe bet to wager every ranch in Kona, from Pu`uwa`awa`a in the north to McCandless in the south, could rustle up a posse of equally picturesque cowboys, but there are few good photographs in our KHS archives to prove it. The photographer who got these men to line up so nicely and smile for the camera was 26 year old, henna-haired Megan Mitchell, working at the time in the basement of Greenwell Store as head of Collections, photographer, archivist and tour guide. She not only snapped the shutter, she developed the film and printed the image in her unique dark room housed underground in her father's fallout shelter in Onouli. Her artistic eye, her love of Kona's ranching tradition, and her passion for capturing the fleeting moment produced this image which is a KHS favorite.

Cowboys, cattle and horses have added a bold, bright chapter to the last two centuries of our district's history. Although cowboy skills were needed at Kealakekua Bay in 1793 when Captain George Vancouver landed King Kamehameha's first seasick California longhorns on Napo`opo`o's black sand beach - no cowboys were to be had! To make matters worse, it was not love at first sight. Frightened children and their parents dashed up coconut trees to escape curious and careening quadrupeds, who, feeling firm ground beneath their hooves once more, cavorted and snorted like wild animals, the biggest creatures Hawaiians had ever seen on dry land. After a few years of mayhem caused by runaway cattle, horses arrived in the kingdom to add to the general confusion. King Kamehameha III is credited with turning the tide on this stampede of unruly mammals by importing a triple dose of Mexican know-how to teach his fisherman and farmers "the ropes" of ranch work. Those ropes were essential - braided rawhide lassos and lariats, bridles and reins, neck ropes for hitching up horses and long swinging ropes to capture wild bullocks - valuable tools in a country with few stone walls, wire fences or enclosed paddocks.

No generation of men since Kamehameha the Great's bird catchers knew the koa forests of Hawaii and the lava flows of Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well as those early cowboys. Theirs was not always a pretty job: hunting and trapping clever bulls, skinning and salting bullock hides, rendering beef tallow in boiling cauldrons, and clubbing wild goats over their heads for goat hides was sweaty, bloody work. Life in rough mountain camps surrounded by flea bitten dogs, buzzing flies, and the smell of rotting carcasses may have been awful. Yikes! So, not only did it take time to master the art of being a savvy cow puncher or, as we say in Hawaiian, paniolo, it took skill, strength, bravery, and lots of bandanas to tie over your nose! And, for every back breaking task, be it pounding fence posts, shipping cattle, or branding, there was an unexpected reward; the beauty of a mountain sunrise, the thrill of hunting wild boar, and the bond of friendship forged over long hours in the saddle.

By the 20th century, as this photo clearly shows, Kona's cowboys were a multi-ethnic mix of men of Hawaiian, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, European, Filipino and "you name it" ancestry. Norman Greenwell's men did not face pawing wild bulls this day in the mamane thickets of upper Hokukano. (Although they certainly could have!) No. Horseshoe One Ranch prided itself on its line of purebred polled Herefords, as handsome a herd of red and white bovine beauty as ever roamed Kona. That doesn't mean a rambunctious steer might not knock a man down, or a horse couldn't break her leg (or the rider's!) in a lava crack, but running cattle through a metal squeeze chute was not the same as wrestling half-ton bulls to their knees in an open pen.

Time just zips along. It's been thirty-six years since that branding day in New Field pen. Curly headed calves born and raised on this glorious mauka pasture are long gone. Sandalwood is the moneymaker now on this part of the mountain. Much of the forest has been decimated by fire and drought, but efforts to replant koa and fence out marauding sheep are in the works.

Sadly, not all our smiling cowboys are with us today. Norman Greenwell, Bobby Gouveia and Joe Cho have ridden off to greener pastures, but none as pretty as New Field was in spring time, carpeted white and gold with blooming marguerites. [Maud Greenwell kept her beautifully manicured Fire and Ice fingernails on the pulse of her late husband's ranch for almost fifty years, and she had the cowboys pick New Field daisies each Memorial Day to decorate the graves at Christ Church. In that era, cowboys did a lot of "gardening" tasks - picking maile for Christmas parties and weddings, gathering daisies, and yanking out kikuyu grass from mountain house vegetable plots.] On a happier note, Frank Silva is still kicking here in Kealakekua. In fact, his 90th birthday is coming up on April 6th! Chico drives cement trucks for West Hawaii Concrete. Clem Jumalon is an expert yardman. Tom Greenwell traded in his cowboy hat for a coffee mug, recognized nowadays as the face of Greenwell Farms. Arnold Kanai found a career at Central Pacific Bank, having inherited his mother's skill with numbers. No one is a cowboy anymore, but the memory of that sunlit day on the mountain has not dimmed, thanks to this wonderful photograph.

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*King, Norman Greenwell’s dog in the picture, lived to a ripe old age, terrifying everyone with his hideous toothy snarl and unquestioned ownership of Norman's Jeep. If you were unfortunate enough to ride in the back seat during a sheep hunting expedition, snaggle toothed King would drool down your back. What a memory - King snuffling and snoring into your ear as Norman careened off the beaten track and carved new "roads" over pahoehoe and scrubby pukiawe in search of fat rams, spinning the steering wheel with one strong hand and popping Rolaids with other. If an unexpected bump caused a passenger or unlucky dog to lurch into King's territory, watch out! In the resulting bloody scuffle, King always emmerged the winner! As son Willy Greenwell said, "King thought Dad was God."

And why was that? Because Norman unchained King as a lonely pup from the back door of a Maui ranch house and brought him to Kona, giving him what we all need and want - freedom and love. As Frank Silva said, "I've never seen a man with a heart for dogs like Norman."

Aloha no, e Kona.

P.S. On March 15 and 16, 2014, dust flew once more at Honaunau Arena Grounds as riders astride their sleek roping horses shot from the gates, pony-tailed barrel racers sped around sharp curves, and spunky calves bolted for freedom before being pulled up short by well swung lassos. For the fiftieth year, the annual Kona Stampede Rodeo wowed the crowds with action, drama, good competition and cowboy charm. Winners walked away with gleaming buckles they will be proud to wear for decades. Losers licked their wounds and promised to try again next year. But will there be a next time? Organizers of this big event are retiring, claiming its time for a younger generation to swing into the saddle and take the reins. This rodeo may never happen again. Auwe!

For half a century, young ropers and aspiring calf muggers have looked forward to competing at Kona's homegrown rodeo held off City of Refuge Road. In 1964, a group of South Kona residents with cowboy connections approached ranch manager Freddy Rice and his wife Sally for help in starting up a rodeo in Kona. The Rices had just returned from world famous Calgary Stampede in Canada, so "Kona Stampede" was a natural choice for this upstart venture's name. With Freddy's help, August and Sonny Loando, Clarence and Alfred Medeiros, and Frank Henriques asked the County for permission to acquire the old Honaunau School grounds for a roping arena. The devastating earthquake of August 21, 1951, had destroyed the original wooden school buildings and water tanks, leaving only grassy playing fields and a paved basketball court behind. (And, if ever an abandoned school was graced with a view, this one was it.)

With permission to move ahead, newly formed Kona Roping and Polo Club scoped out the layout of other arenas around the island and dug holes for posts. McCandless Ranch donated wooden poles and, once the arena was complete, produced wild cattle for roping practice! Wives and mothers jumped in to help, including Loke Medeiros, Mabel Medeiros and Sally Rice as pioneer secretaries. They did a great job and the kids of Kona had fun competing. Congratulations to everyone who participated in making this rodeo, then and now, such a success.

If you happened to wander around the rodeo grounds during this recent event, you may have seen a nice photo exhibit organized by KHS celebrating our island's ranching roots. If you have a great ranching photo to share with Kona Historical, do not hesitate to phone up Ku`ulani Auld at 323-3222. We would sure enjoy saving it for the next generation.