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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 5, 2002

Historic post office gets Maui's stamp of approval

By Christie Wilson
Neighbor Island Editor

PU'UNENE, Maui — Postmaster Tom Patton runs his finger down the column of names on the 100-year-old Pu'unene post office ledger, stopping every so often to point out money order amounts ranging from $1.50 to $100, a princely sum in 1902.

The 100-year-old Pu'unene post office remains busy because it's at the crossroads of Upcountry Maui, Kahului and South Maui.

Christie Wilson • The Honolulu Advertiser

The stylishly handwritten names — Murakami, Gomez, Chong Sing, Amado — represent the cultural mix of the once-thriving plantation community. Also listed are more prominent Maui names such as Rice, von Tempsky, and Baldwin, the founding family of the Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co. mill that survives just steps away from the post office.

In the late 1930s, Pu'unene was home to 8,000 plantation workers who lived in 30 camps stretching across much of Central Maui. At various times during its history, there were stores, a hospital, a school, churches, clubhouses and even a bowling alley and swimming pool.

And, of course, there was the post office, which opened in 1902 when the one in Spreckelsville was moved there.

The original Pu'unene post office building is gone, and no one is sure when the existing building went up, although Patton said he thinks it was sometime in the 1930s.

The camps are long gone, too, bulldozed into cane fields as workers sought more modern housing in nearby Kahului and elsewhere. Although only four homes remain in the immediate vicinity, the Pu'unene post office is as busy as ever, thanks largely to its location at the crossroads of Upcountry Maui, Kahului and South Maui.

Patton, who took over as postmaster about four years ago, said there's always a waiting list for the 1,253 post office boxes. Customers are a mix of old-timers, business owners and residents who pass by on their way to work. They prefer the Pu'unene post office because it's less crowded and there's always a familiar face, he said.

Postal clerk Vanderlynn Strahan has spent all of her 20 years with the Postal Service at the Pu'unene station.

The former Miss Maui, who started working at age 19, said customers like the old two-window post office "because they don't have to wait in line and we'll help them tape up their boxes or whatever they need."

Paul Cook of Hali'imaile has had a post office box at Pu'unene since he moved to Maui from Boston 23 years ago. "They're friendly and fast, and it's the kind of place where they know everybody's name. It's the old Maui," he said.

Patton said customers also like the post office's "antiquated look and the old monkeypod tree. It's a throwback to another time."

The postmaster started his career at a California station with several thousand workers, and has progressed to smaller post offices. Before his Pu'unene assignment, he worked at the busy Kahului post office, which has 35 employees.

At Pu'unene, there are two full-time workers, including Patton, and a part timer.

"It's a quality-of-work-life issue. We have a real rapport and relationship with the customers that would be hard to get in a bigger office," he said.

Patton is planning activities to mark the 100th anniversary of the Pu'unene post office. He's thinking of posting copies of the old ledgers so customers can try to find the names of any relatives.

The post office also will be part of a July 27 celebration marking the 15th anniversary of the Alexander & Baldwin Sugar Museum, a short walk from the post office on Hansen Road.

The event also will honor the 100th anniversary of the old plantation home that houses the museum, and the centennial of the first cane grinding at the Pu'unene mill.

For details on the celebration, call the museum at (808) 871-8058.