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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 30, 2001

Pa'auilo strives to infuse new life

By Hugh Clark
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

PA'AUILO, Hawai'i — The longest-running business in Pa'auilo has quietly shut down, leading some in this one-time sugar community on the Hamakua Coast to ask if the town itself is dying.

Thomas Nakahara almost became a doctor until his father intervened.
M. Nakahara Store, in business for 93 years, bowed to the same fate that has claimed many mom-and-pop operations in the Islands: a lack of interest by younger generations to keep it going.

Founder Minezo Nakahara was a contract laborer from Oshima, Japan, who arrived on the Big Island in 1898. Not content to stay on as a dairy worker at Hakalau Plantation, he sold Japanese medicine and eyeglasses from a horse buggy before launching an assortment of enterprises.

The Pa'auilo store would be the first of four general stores he opened. The others were in Hawi, Union Mill and O'okala. Only the Hawi store will remain open, run by Nakahara's grandson, Richard Nakahara.

When he opened the Pa'auilo store, Minezo Nakahara created a small village with it, including living quarters, gasoline and garage services, a movie house and a hotel. Extending credit to fellow Japanese immigrants, he earned the loyalty of generations of customers.

During World War II, both Minezo and his first son Shoichi were held in internment camps in Hawai'i while another son, Thomas, was serving as a medic for the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. He would return home with two Purple Hearts. A third son, Jiro, who lives in Washington state, was conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Minezo Nakahara died in 1968 at age 88.

A daughter, Sumiko, in her 90s, operates the well-known K. Hayashi Store in Waimea and tells her siblings she expects to die on the job.

The M. Nakahara Store quietly closed after 93 years in business. Its founder earned the loyalty of generations of Pa'auilo residents.

Hugh Clark • The Honolulu Advertiser

Thomas Nakahara said he came home from the war with a desire to become a doctor before his father prevailed on him to run the Pa'auilo store. Shoichi Nakahara, now deceased, took over the two stores in North Kohala.

Thomas Nakahara, also a retired Realtor, appraiser and insurance broker, said his own children have built lives for themselves apart from the family's retailing past. His son Scott is a dentist, and daughter Doreen holds a doctorate in English and teaches in the Pacific Northwest.

Nakahara said the family debated what to do with the stores, some so old and decayed they were torn down before the businesses were closed.

"It was mostly wood rot and termites and a public hazard," he said.

The hotel, movie house and other structures were removed long ago. The store building in Pa'auilo was razed earlier this year. Before it closed this month, the store had been operating from another space that will be rented by a convenience store called Yummy Tummy.

Since Hamakua Sugar Co. went bankrupt in 1992, the town has struggled and the number of residents has dwindled to 571, according to the 2000 Census.

Many of the remaining townsfolk are on the road by 4 a.m. to commute to jobs at South Kohala resorts. They purchase their groceries in Waimea or Honoka'a on their way home, said longtime Pa'auilo resident Clarence Souza.

But he dismisses the idea his hometown of 65 years is fading. Changing for sure, but it will never die, he said.

His daughter, Valerie Poindexter, points to signs of life, including a fledgling three-woman venture she is involved in called Sweeter Than Sugar. The business sews aloha wear for shops and resorts in Waikoloa and Honolulu.

A 1920s photo shows a thriving Pa'auilo with gasoline and garage services, a movie house and a hotel.
It is one of five budding enterprises the Hamakua Diversified Agricultural Association is nurturing to create jobs and a diversified economy following the death of sugar on the Hamakua Coast, which was the area's only industry other than cattle ranching.

Other new businesses include a dairy and a group of woodworkers.

"The Nakahara stores will never be forgotten," Poindexter said. "We hope to rejuvenate these communities and become economically viable."

Retired firefighter Larry Ignacio, a deacon at Pa'auilo's St. Joseph Church, said his hometown "is in transition, maybe at a standstill, maybe shaky" but not ready for last rites.

Much like Poindexter and Souza, he sees the seeds of business promise. All three said that after three generations of plantation society, the town needs time to become self-reliant.

Souza points to a 10-unit subdivision by the Hamakua Housing Foundation on land that former sugar workers acquired following the bankruptcy and remodeled plantation homes as signs of commitment by area residents.

There is an effort to form a volunteer firefighting squad, and a dream of a community museum.

"You bet there will be life after sugar," Poindexter said. "We're just learning we have to rely more on ourselves."