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Ada Koene – Talk Story

A fifth-generation rancher’s daughter, a spunky 4-year- old, and the mass of shoppers at the Kauai Culinary Market. How do you talk story with the author of a book designed to portray the life of a 10-day celebration that pays tribute to the people and places that made Koloa what it is today?

And, to do it in a format that, according to Melissa McFerrin-Warrack, the Koloa Plantation Days coordinator, is not a high-priced, big, bulky, coffee-table book. That is the task facing the project’s author, Ada Koene, a regular at the Kauai Community Market at Kauai Community College and the Kauai Culinary Market at The Shops at Kukuiula.

The book is in its final days before printing, and copies should be available soon.

How did you get involved in doing this book on the Koloa Plantation Days? When did this happen?

During my long career, I had edited and helped produce more books, reports and articles that I can count.

I had even written a book called “The Food Shopper’s Guide to Holland,” which sold 20,000 copies. When “Soup Lady” Helen Lacono and the “Haku Lady” Elvrine Chow, who were vendors at the Kukuiula Culinary Market, each wanted to write a book featuring their products, I helped them out and even took the photos.

Word got out that they were successful,

I didn’t know it at the time, but (the late) Phyllis Kunimura (often referred to as “the Mother of Koloa Plantation Days”) and Melissa McFerrin Warrack, the Plantation Days Event Committee chair, had a vision to produce a book on the celebration, focusing on why we celebrate.

I was approached by Melissa to see if I would be interested in writing the book. I had been attending all of the Plantation Days festivities and events since my arrival on Kauai, and when I said “yes,” they were thrilled about my passion for the project because I knew it would take lots of time and effort. This was in the spring of 2017.

How did you find the subjects for the project?

The main contribution of Phyllis and Melissa was setting the topics and the tone of the book, which was to be a “talk story” and not a history book. Many books on this history of Koloa and Kauai, the history had already been written. They wanted something fun and informal with Koloa residents contributing, and would love it as a memento to pass on to their grandkids and something that visitors to the celebration would enjoy as well.

Several interviews had already been done on camera at the 25th anniversary. Some of the people, including (the late) Stella Burgess, whose idea it was to do the video, are no longer around, so these interviews were valuable to transcribe. That was my first activity on the project. It wasn’t the small undertaking I innocently expected.

Some of the topics they discussed were:

How Koloa became the site of the first viable sugar plantation in the islands (and) what was Koloa like before sugar?

What was camp life like (and what was) the impact of immigration?

How did the festival start and grow, (and) why do we continue to celebrate after sugar has passed into history?

I had some suggestions of my own like:

What can we learn about our host culture (and) what role did the missionaries play in the community?

What was here when Captain Cook arrived?

A lot of new subjects arose during the interviews.

Are there any interesting people or instances you’ve run into in putting this project together?

The first list of interesting people also came from Phyllis and Melissa. They were based on people who had been involved with the festival over the years and were fixtures in the Koloa community. They were looking for people who remembered the first Koloa Plantation Days back in 1985 and those who had worked in sugar.

Keith Smith was an invaluable source, as he was at the first festival and he was the vice president of the festival for many years and saw It grow. He also went through the ranks as a young teenager working in the fields as a laborer until he earned a management position on the sugar plantation. Valuable interviews were those of Phyllis Kunimura herself and (the late) Bob Schleck, who was the curator of the Grove Farm Museum. They are gone but their stories linger.

Once the word got out that we were working on this book, members of the Plantation Days Committee made recommendations of interesting people, as did friends who were born and or raised in Koloa. I wanted people of all walks of life represented so I did some detective work and went to the Koloa Neighborhood Center on Kupuna (grandparent) Day. There I met sweet Rosita Semana, who worked on the plantation as a teenager, then worked for many years in the Plantation Store. You will see many of her vignettes in the book. Rose was 94 at the time we talked and her memory was perfect. We just helped her celebrate her 95th birthday. Her folks came from the Philippines.

I went to the Kalaheo Missionary Church on a Kupuna Friday, and when I asked around, they all pointed to Mamo Kaneshiro, whose parents came from Okinawa. His mother was a picture bride. In the meantime, Mamo has become a friend and a valuable source of information.

One day he took me to the house where he was born. It was in Banana Camp in Koloa and his family worked on the plantation. It was a touching moment when he showed me the kitchen where all 11 siblings were born. He was number eight of the children. The house won’t be standing for long. Mamo is 93 years old. His family owns a lot of property in Omao and he and his sweet wife Haruko ran the M&H Kaneshiro Farm for many years. You will see a photo of Mamo and one of his piglets in the book. When they first started the Koloa Plantation Days, he was a board member with Phyllis Kunimura.

Sometimes I met the subjects in the most interesting circumstances.

One day Mamo called and said his family was busy with the farm and if could I take him to Belltone in Lihue, as his hearing aid was not working. Then he added: “Can you take me to the Ikeda Barber Shop, too?” How can you say “no” to Mamo?

As we were getting into the car to leave Belltone, the lady in the car parked next to us leaned over and asked, “Is that Mamo Kaneshiro in your car? Mamo looked over and said, “Oh, hi Lucille.”

Lucille continued, “Mamo and I went to kindergarten together at Koloa School.” That would have been over 85 years ago. What the teacher did to us was we all had to bring a mat that we could put on the grass and lay down and take a nap. Mamo and I would always lay down next to each other and talk story.

He was such an interesting person. The teacher would come by and say, “Stop it. No talking. Sleeping.” We would say “OK,” then as soon as she left to go to the other classmates who were talking, Mamo and I would still be talking.

I asked Mamo how long it had been since they had seen each other? Mamo thought awhile and said he thought it was at the class reunion, but he didn’t know when. Lucille went on to talk story about her father being the manager of the Kukui‘ula Camp store and her growing up in the camp. It was another interview in the waiting.

I found all of the people I talked to had good stories to tell. Vignettes from all of them are included in this book. Some of the stories I recorded were simple, but in their simplicity, they will bring back fond memories of those who grew up in Koloa and are thus worth sharing. I feel I have reached my objective, which was to put people at ease so they would share their innermost feelings and their sweet memories, which really has brought this book together. Like my father, I have never met a stranger and I think I was successful in the interviews.

One simple-but-cute story was from Bertram Almeida.

He told this story of sitting in front of Yamamoto Store as a youngster before it became Crazy Shirts.

“I remember sitting there in the front with my friends and counting how long before we would see another car. So we would see a car go by and it was usually one of my friend’s mom going home from work or something, and there was a period where you wouldn’t see another car drive by for another 10 or 15 minutes. Then you see another car going the other way. That is how slow life was back then.”

I spent two or three lovely days with Barbara “Bobbie” Waterhouse McCord. Her great-grandfather was Dr. A.H. Waterhouse, who many people I talked to remember him as their kind doctor. But Lucille Nishimura Mikasa remembers crawling under her bed when he came around dressed as Santa Claus.

Bobbie’s great-great- grandfather was Dr. James W. Smith, who was the only doctor on Kauai from 1842 to 1882. He had the Hawaiians to contend with, who had no immunities to the diseases brought here by visitors from far-off lands. A vaccination for smallpox turned out to be effective, and when an epidemic hit Hawaii, Dr. Smith was determined to vaccinate everyone on Kauai and Niihau. This was no small matter, for there were no roads and no bridges over the 40 some rivers and streams. In some areas, there were dense jungles and deep ravines. He could either visit the villages by canoe, walk or go by horseback. Stories are told of hearing Dr. Smith on his favorite black gelding galloping through the night. Still, only a few people contracted the smallpox.

Sharleen Andrade Balmores, a fifth-generation rancher’s daughter, became a friend, as she spent hours telling stories of her elders coming to Kauai from Portugal and Spain and becoming ranchers. There are vignettes of these men riding up the ridges and into the valleys of Kokee searching for wild cattle and horses. Sharleen even invited me to a round-up at her father’s ranch in Wailua.

How long have you been living on Kauai and how did you end up coming to Kauai. Where were you born and raised?

The story of my life reads pretty much like many of the stories I heard from the plantation workers. My paternal ancestors were originally from the Black Forest region of Germany, but had lived in a German village in the Ukraine. Because of unrest in the Ukraine, which was under Russian rule, the village leaders sought other alternatives. When they heard that they were giving away 160 acres of land to farmers in the Dakotas, most of the villagers packed up and moved to America. What they were not told was that the land was so barren that you could only raise about eight cows on the 160 acres. That was in the 1880s.

I was born in Roscoe, South Dakota, with nine siblings. When I was 1 year old my parents, having gotten weary of the snowstorms and hail as big as golf balls, decided to move to Washington state, where they were growing apples “as big as your head.” I grew up in Washington and was living in Seattle when a friend living in Honolulu encouraged me and my roommate to move to Oahu. There were lots of jobs and young people and there was sunshine. It was fun, fun, fun.

I had a wonderful job with E.E Black, Ltd. a family-owned construction company with about 400 employees who they considered as family. That is where I learned to understand Pidgin English. After about six years I was offered a job in Bangkok that was just too exciting to pass up.

I started working for an American engineering company during the Vietnam War and Hawaiian Dredging was awarded a large contract in Sattahip, and they brought in a large contingent of Hawaiians. I met them through a friend from Maui who was working for the U.S. Navy in Bangkok. Most were living in the resort area of Pattaya and, of course, there were several who could play music and sing. There was one big problem. There were no volcanoes in Thailand where could we get the imu stones for our luaus. The stones eventually came in ammunition cartons via my APO mail. The poi arrived in the same way, but in paper boxes. One box broke with several bags of poi missing which put an end to poi shipment in the APO mail.

One of my dearest friends was Cecelia Kuliaikanu‘uwai‘ale‘ale Parker-Waipa, wife of Prince David Kawanakoa, last prince of Hawaii. He had passed and she had married an old friend of mine who worked for the U.S. Navy in Thailand. She taught me what it was like being Hawaiian. One day when she was feeling low, I got out a tape of Hawaiian music. When she heard it, she started to cry because the group performing was the Ka‘ahumanu Lake Trio, who two of its members were her sons.

At last it was time for them to go home and I was transferred to Seoul, Korea, where I lived for nine wonderful years. I married a Dutchman. His was a consultant on Container Terminals. His work would eventually take us all over the world. Most of his work was in developing countries and we were privileged to spend months if not years in 72 countries. He retired in Holland, and one day he had had enough of the lousy weather. He said, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” And we did. Having lived and traveled in several major cities of the world, we sought peace and quiet in Kauai. I have been here 18 years.

Any thoughts you might have on the Koloa Plantation Days project?

Sadly, the passing of Phyllis Kunimura left a big void in the project, but in her memory Melissa and I have continued with the “Talk Story” book. The Koloa Plantation Days project has been a wonderful and noteworthy undertaking. I have met so many kind and generous people who were happy to share their time and their stories. After each interview, to a person, they have thanked me for doing this noteworthy project so that their experiences will be passed on to the future generations.

The celebration has grown into a 10-day event with not only a ho‘olaule‘a, a parade, food booths and trucks and entertainment at the park and rodeo events, but it now includes archaeological sites such as Kaneiolouma, which is a wahi pana, a storied place. I have gotten to know and am trusted by Rupert Rowe and Billy Kaohelauli‘i, who are po‘o, or heads of the restoration project. I am honored when Rupert greets me with the Hawaiian greeting.

Rev. Dr. Alan Akana is kahu (pastor) of Koloa Union Church since February, (and) probably summed it up the best:

“So what do I think about Koloa Plantation Days? It is wonderful because it keeps the history of Koloa alive. There are so many stories that I think are worth holding on to. I think it is also a wonderful thing for people to come together and remember how this town was actually made, not only what it was like before sugar. Because before that it was basically Hawaiians living here. How the town actually grew up along with the sugar industry because it has been here since the beginning and it is kind of a microcosm of what happened throughout Hawaii because on all the islands there were plantations. People from all over the world came to work on the plantations, and all of the different people who came from different parts of the world brought culture with them as well as religious beliefs, food and many other things that make Hawaii what it is today. But I think Koloa is really special in a sense as it is known as a plantation town and it has been here and continues to have that plantation feel to it.”

As Dickie Chang, the emcee for the event, added:

“I think the celebration is a wonderful event. It was just that Phyllis was eager to perpetuate the whole thing. She was the driving force. I remember when we were with me, her and Governor Ariyoshi, when he was going, looked at her and said: “You have got to keep this going. You have got to keep this going. This is special. This does not and cannot afford to fold. You have to keep it going.”

Melissa has been a wonderful coordinator and consultant on this project.

We often spend Sunday afternoons together going over the text and pages, inserting vignettes. Selecting and weaving the many vignettes in this story is a huge undertaking.

For those who have that interesting story that has not yet been told, contact Koene at


Dennis Fujimoto, staff writer and photographer, can be reached at 245-0453 or
Source: The Garden Island

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