Hometown Pride

Kōloa Plantation Days leaders (from left) Arryl Kaneshiro, Landon Labrador, Candee Ka‘imina‘auao, Kalawai Bilyeu, and Keola Ka‘imina‘auao have fun with the wooden mechanic and gas pump in front of the former Yamamoto Store (now Crazy Shirts) in Kōloa. Photos courtesy Dennis Fujimoto

Kōloa Plantation Days is just around the corner, featuring events that are all about history and heart.

Anyone familiar with Kaua‘i’s history knows that sugarcane is deeply ingrained in its roots. Maybe that’s part of the reason life here is so sweet.

On the sunny south side, Kōloa is a little slice of historical heaven; it’s home to Hawai‘i’s first commercial sugar mill.

Established in 1835 by Ladd & Co., the Kōloa plantation played a significant role in the globalization of the Garden Island when it contracted laborers from Asia and Europe to work in its fields and mill.

Despite being thousands of miles from their hometowns, these families built new lives together, sharing food, music and traditions in tight quarters, which ultimately led to the rich cultural melting pot that exists today.

To commemorate this impactful history, the 38th annual Kōloa Plantation Days will be held July 19-28 and will feature more than 25 events that highlight plantation life and its diverse cultures. The celebration is essentially an ode to Kōloa, a place where neighbors are friends and friends are family.

Arryl Kaneshiro, the president of Kōloa Plantation Days, can attest to the heart and soul of this beloved community.

When he answered the phone for his Kaua‘i Midweek interview, a rooster crowed in the background, as if it were a paid actor. Yep, we’re definitely on Kaua‘i.

A former Kaua‘i councilmember, Kaneshiro hails from a long line of Kōloa residents, some of whom worked on the plantations themselves — in Banana Camp, to be exact.

He became involved with the festivities in 2009 when the late Phyllis Kunimura and late Stella Burgess asked him to engage the younger generation and uphold the town’s legacy. Kunimura, affectionately known as the mother of Kōloa Plantation Days, was Kaneshiro’s elementary school teacher.

“Being who they were, there was no telling them no,” says Kaneshiro with a heartfelt laugh.

“Growing up, I always had people watching over me,” he adds. “I had Auntie Phyllis or Auntie Stella keeping me accountable, asking me how things were going. You walk around Kōloa town and see a whole bunch of people that you’ll always know. It was a really small, close-knit community. It’s bigger now, but I always want to keep that close-knit feeling, like as if everyone’s welcome.

“Kōloa Plantation Days is a big part of that. It brings a whole bunch of the community together. There are so many hands that make it happen, and without that, it wouldn’t run. We probably have more than 100 individuals and organizations that all have a part in making Kōloa Plantation Days run successfully each year.”

Kaneshiro and his team have curated a diverse program with more than 25 events to ensure there’s something for everyone, with consideration for local families’ budgets (the majority of events are free).

Unofficially kicking off on July 13, Kōloa Plantation Days begins with an effort to clean up and beautify the renowned Tunnel of Trees, the scenic route to Kōloa town. This initiative is a collaborative effort with the County of Kaua‘i and is supported by Hawai‘i Tourism Authority, which is a big supporter of the event.

“The entire day, the road is closed, and we have a group of people who come in and use weed eaters and blowers to clean up the inside of the tunnel, then, the county comes in while the road is closed and takes the opportunity to cut large trees.”

Kōloa Plantation Days publicly begins on July 19 at the Kōloa Village Pā‘ina. Kumu Leinā‘ala Jar-din, Keao NeSmith, Mayor Derek Kawakami and Kaneshiro will be in attendance, and guests can expect live music from Kaua‘i’s own Bronson Aiwohi and Ko‘o Yaris. There will also be a beer garden, craft market, line-dancing lessons, store discounts and more.

Events in the weeks to follow include music festivals, talk stories with longtime residents, community hikes, keiki fishing, a mini golf tournament, a historic sugar exhibit, a used-books sale, summer reading programs, a craft fair, cooking classes, and a family fun run/walk. (See a full list at koloaplantationdays.com.)

The culmination of it all is the Historic Kōloa Plantation Days Parade and Park Celebration on July 27. The parade will feature horseback and walking units, floral floats, vintage and decorated cars, University of Hawai‘i band members and athletes, and more. There will also be a special appearance by a 100-year-old woman who, at 16 years old, worked on the plantation.

“The parade is actually a celebration of the whole island … and it’s open and available for anyone to be in the parade if they want to be in the parade,” says Kaneshiro.

This year’s theme is Our Hometown, which he says is meant to highlight sentimental memories as well as the town’s landmarks — think the Tunnel of Trees, Sueoka Market and nearby shops, the banyan tree that hangs over the road, Hā‘upu mountain, Prince Jonah Kūhiō Kalaniana‘ole’s birthplace and, of course, the old sugar mill, which became a National Historic Landmark in 1962.

The parade’s grand marshal is Dr. Joseph Murray, a decades-long community caregiver.

“He is the Kōloa hometown doctor,” says Kaneshiro. “He’s practiced in Kōloa for over 40 years.

“I think everybody wanted to recognize how important he is to the community,” Kaneshiro adds. “The more we talk about, the more stories we hear. Our food chair, Auntie Collette, who’s been in Kōloa forever, shared that he saved her son’s life one day. He’s just been a staple in Kōloa forever.”

Following the parade, attendees can head over to Anne Knudsen Ball Park where there will be a day of fun featuring food, live music, keiki fun (rides, bounce houses and more) and a craft fair. More than 70 vendors are expected to participate, making it one of Kaua‘i’s largest events of the year. Admission is $5

for adults and free for kids. “There’s going to be a generation that has no idea what a sugar plantation is,” Kaneshiro says, “but at the end of the day, it’s still an event that’s going to bring the community together every year, which I think is a legacy that we need to keep going.”