A Historical Perspective

MAY 1998

    Kahua Ranch Limited was founded in 1928 by two men who had a passion for ranching, for people, and for Hawai'i--Atherton Richards and Ronald Kamehameha o ka hae hawaii von Holt. Neither man had enough money to purchase Kahua outright when it came up for sale, but financial backing came from Atherton's parents, Theodore Richards and his wife Mary Atherton. While Atherton Richards remained in Honolulu to run the business end of the new venture, Ronald von Holt moved to Kahua to work as ranch manager. Today, seventy years later, descendants of these two pioneering spirits still call Kahua home.

    To start at the beginning, one must always start with the land. In the days of Kamehameha I, land acquisition in Hawai'i was simple. If a chief wanted land, he fought the owner, and the outcome was clear -- winner take all. One hundred years later after Kamehameha's island wide conquest in 1895, dollar bills and legal documents had taken the place of spears and daggers. However, even without all the blood, land dealing could still be a mean and ruthless business.

    Pioneer rancher John Palmer Parker started his ranching career in Kohala at Waiapuka. Later, he encouraged his granddaughter Mary Ann to marry Englishman James Woods, future owner of Pu'uhue Ranch in North Kohala. The 1868 marriage produced eight children, including a son named Frank, who was eager to get out on and start a ranch on his own. In 1895, he purchased half-interest in the fee simple lands at Kahua Ranch from John Maguire. The previous owners, three English brothers, Godfrey, Ernest and Fred Burchardt, had bought the land in 1886 from George Holmes. After five years of struggle, the brothers sold the land to Maguire, and headed back to England. Maguire later sold his full interest in Kahua to Woods and devoted his energy to Hu'ehu'e Ranch in North Kona. Woods also leased land surrounding Kahua homestead from Captain Austin. It was Austin's good fortune to marry one of Kamehameha's nieces and she owned the lands of Kawaihae. Eventually, the control of that land fell to the Austin Estate managed from Boston, Massachusetts. With Kahua safely in hand, Frank married his young and beautiful cousin, Eva Parker, and prepared to start his own family.

    Frank Woods was a shrewd, some might say hardheaded, businessman. He knew his cattle arrived in Honolulu a little seasick and sorry looking after their open-air, inter island voyage. In order to provide a little R & R before their final good-bye at the slaughterhouse, Woods leased Makua Valley on O'ahu as a fattening paddock. The valley's previous lessor, Lincoln McCandless, was not pleased when Woods acquired the lease from under his nose.

    Back at Kahua, Frank Woods invested heavily in a new scheme to turn Kahua into a sugar plantation. What he needed was water, and he knew just where to get it. About ten years earlier, Kohala sugar planters built Kehena Ditch to funnel water from the mountain forests above Pololu Valley to their thirsty plantations along the coast. Woods wondered, why that resource, flowing so freely along his mauka boundary, should water only the fortunes of other men. Kahua had the right to siphon off a little water, but Woods planned a major waterway, some eight feet wide and four feet deep, capable of diverting a virtual river of water his way. Woods was within one hundred feet of tapping into the Kehena Ditch when the Kohala sugar planters, alarmed and angry, stopped him.

    At this critical point, the Austin estate land surrounding Kahua Ranch came up for release. McCandless saw his chance and out-bid Woods. Frank suddenly found himself landlocked on his fee simple lands with no access to Kawaihae, no way to ship his cattle, and with no water from Kehena Ditch. Bitterly disappointed, facing financial ruin, Woods was forced to sell Kahua.

    Ronald von Holt had been ranching at Hono'uli'uli on the Ewa Plain for Oahu Land & Rail Company. His grandfather, Hermann von Holt from Hamburg, arrived in Hawai'i in 1851 and stayed to open a successful store. Ronald wanted to get into ranching on his own and was looking for a start. Atherton Richards, grandson of pioneer missionary William Richards, was also searching for a ranching opportunity, preferably on an outer island. When news of Frank Woods' dilemma reached O'ahu, Ronald approached Atherton Richards about the possibility of buying Kahua Ranch.

    Deciding to take the bull by the horns, the two men went to see Lincoln McCandless. As the story goes, McCandless said that sure, he would sell the Kahua property on one condition -- that the Makua property be returned to him in the exact state it was before Woods ever got his hands on it.

    When Richards and von Holt thought they had everything in order, they invited McCandless over to Makua for a final inspection. When McCandless walked through one of the houses, opening closet doors and peering into bathrooms, he saw that a toilet had been replaced. He gave them forty-eight hours to get the original toilet back or the whole deal was off. Apparently, Atherton and Ronald "scrambled like hell" to find the toilet, and they managed to do it just in time. Those who know say, "the purchase of Kahua hinged on a toilet!"

    Richards and von Holt coined the name Kahua Ranch Limited for their new business. Hawaiians had named the land divisions or ahupua 'a Kahuwa Nui and Kahuwa Li'ili'i long before. One meaning of the word kahua is place of encampment. This definition makes historic sense because Kamehameha I trained his warriors for battle on the steep slopes of cinder cones near Kahua's main ranch house. Also, the ranch may have been named after a star, kahu'a. One thing is certain. Kahua Ranch is pronounced Kahu-wa, with the stress on the final a.

    A lot happened in those early years. Atherton's brother, Herbert Montague Richards, moved up to Kahua with his wife to try his hand at ranching. The man whose name is linked to the windmills and tomatoes of the diversified Kahua Ranch of today made his debut in 1929. Herbert "Monty" Montague Richards, Jr. was born at Kahua, and Ronald von Holt was asked to be his godfather. Although the Richards family returned to Honolulu in 1931 when Monty was just a youngster, he enjoyed summer visits at the big ranch house later in his childhood.

    Today, descendants of Kahua's original Hawaiian families -- Ho'opai, Akina, Kainoa, Rafael -- still work at Kahua Ranch. During the Depression, Kahua Ranch employed over fifty people. Of course, not all the men were chasing cattle. Some were planting trees.

    Kahua's first manager left more than one mark on Kahua, but the five mile long avenue of ironwood trees planted along the Kohala mountain road impressed everyone. Many of the first trees planted in 1929 died in a drought or were eaten by cattle, but the second try in 1931 brought success.

    Ronald married Dorothy "Da" Erdman in 1933. Longing for a family, the von Holts adopted two children, a daughter, Marian Kapi'olani, and a son, John Pini. The children were known as Pio and Pini, Hawaiian nicknames that their father loved. It was a joyful surprise when in 1948 a third child arrived, Harry Martens von Holt II. Named after his paternal grandfather, called Hale Ponoholo by the Hawaiians, the baby was called Pono. "Pio, Pini, Pono and Pau," was the family joke.

Ranch House
Main House Kahua Ranch about 1930's

    Atherton Richards, by all accounts a brilliant man, visited Kahua often to check up on his investment. A friend of Dr. Roland Force, director of the Bishop Museum, Atherton brought museum staff to Kahua to catalogue Hawaiian artifacts found on the ranch. A colorful and opinionated man, he had a reputation in the islands as a fighter and a dissenter. What a pair von Holt and Richards must have made, Ronald in his favorite ten gallon hat and Atherton in his cloth cap, battling the wind and rain of Kahua!

    A story that is funny now, but not so funny in 1932, was the purchase of Pu'uhue Ranch. Pu'uhue, the old Woods property, was Kahua's neighbor to the north. For years it was managed by Sam Woods, Frank's brother. (The two did not see eye to eye on much, but they shared a taste for fashionable widows. After Eva Parker's early death, Frank married Kahanu, the widow of Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalanianaole. Sam, not to be outdone, married Tootsie Dowsett, the widow of John Parker III and Thelma Parker's mother.) After Sam's death, the numerous heirs, unable to reach any workable agreement, decided to sell Pu'uhue. Atherton, ever the showman and lover of drama, commandeered an airplane in Honolulu and flew to Waimea to take Pu'uhue's owners on an aerial tour of their land. Up in the air, literally flying high, Ronald and Atherton hammered out a deal to purchase Pu'uhue. As the plane landed, it looked as if Pu'uhue was practically in Kahua's pocket. It was not to be.

    A. W. Carter, the iron-willed manager of Parker Ranch, was standing on the tarmac, waiting to greet the Woods family heirs when they set foot on solid ground. "How much did they offer you?" he asked. Apparently, Carter had helped the Woods family at some time in the past, and he claimed first right of refusal should they ever wish to sell. Carter matched the offer, and the golden opportunity slipped past.

Below:  Atherton Richards crossing bridge. Hawaii, December 23, 1934.

    One of the big parts of Kahua until about 1950 was providing horses and mules for the 1st Cavalry in the Pacific. In order to get big mules, the ranch would cross little jacks with big Percheron mares. Apparently, people always asked Ronald how the jacks could breed those tall mares. A great storyteller, he would say that he'd dig a hole for the mare to stand in. He convinced Pat Greenwell, Rally Greenwell's new bride and newcomer to the ranching life, that the raised cattle troughs (designed to hold minerals and salt) dotting the pastures had a special purpose. They were there so the cattle could "back up and deposit their load" in order to keep the pastures clean!

    In 1953, Pono von Holt was five years old. Ronald was working on a new project, dismantling Lorenzo Lyons' little missionary chapel at Ho'epa . With no one to care for it, the wooden framed building was falling apart. With permission from Imiola Church, Ronald had it rebuilt at Kahua for the extended ranch'family, a place for the growing number of christenings and weddings. No one knew it then, but Ronald von Holt's funeral would be the first service held in the new chapel. He died at home in his own bed at Kahua, quite unexpectedly, after a brief illness. He was only 55 years old.

    With Ronald abruptly gone, assistant manager Rally Greenwell stepped into his boss' shoes. Da von Holt and her three children moved to Honolulu. Waiting in the wings, young Monty Richards, Atherton' s nephew, finally got the opportunity to tackle Ronald von Holt Kahua himself in 1954.

Below:  Ronald von Holt
    It's what I always wanted to do -- was live up here," said Monty. Years of mainland boarding schools and college, with four or five years in a row with no Christmases in Hawai'i, created a burning desire to come home. If he could not get a job with the ranch, he was determined to head off to Africa with the British Extension Service.

    "I wanted to go someplace that had a lesser degree of development. I started writing letters -- this is pre-Mau Mau, by the way." If Ronald was a storyteller, Monty certainly is a joker.

    Just as he was reaching the end of his collegiate career, Kahua offered him a job -- in Honolulu. In December of 1953, he packed up his Jaguar (he had been racing in California) and caught the next ship home. Onboard the Matson liner, S. S. Lurline, Monty met Miss Phyllis Anderson, fresh from the University of Washington with her B. S. nursing degree. She was planning a short Hawaiian vacation, but ended up staying over a year.

    Monty spent the next year and a half working as Herman von Holt's office boy in Kahua Meat company's Honolulu headquarters. Trips to the slaughterhouse where fresh hides were salted and stacked to cure before being shipped to the mainland were an unforgettable part of that first year.

    "You know who'd get the call to roll hides," said Monty. "If someone rolls hides, nobody wants to shake your hand for a week afterwards." Rolling hides did not kill romance, but it was no help.

    Phyllis returned to Washington and Monty moved into the "bull pen" (the single men's quarters) at Kahua Ranch to work under Rally Greenwell. He soon decided bachelor life was not suited to Kohala's chilly nights. The young couple were married in 1956 and Monty proudly brought his bride home to Kahua.  All Phyllis had seen of her future home was a small snapshot of a house in some trees. The newlyweds arrived in the dark on a cold, wet and windy night, probably one of Kohala's worst. The weather, on top of Phyllis' first taste of the Kohala mountain road, made her wonder what the future held in store. The memory of that first morning -- "the sun was shining, the violets were in bloom, and it was so beautiful" -- is still fresh. She has been in love with Kahua ever since.

    This is not to say life in rural Kohala was always easy. Thank goodness Ida Lincoln ruled as cook in the kitchen, a warm Hawaiian woman who had been hired first to take care of Monty as a baby. When the men hoisted a huge quarter of fresh beef onto the kitchen table, Ida was there to show a startled Phyllis which end of a meat saw to avoid. When Monty put his feet through the only sheets in the house, help came from her mother-in-law on O'ahu who had new sheets flown up on Hawaiian Airlines. It was not long before the arrival of Pam, Patty, Tim and John Richards filled the Kahua Ranch house with a new generation of kama'aina to care for.

    In 1956, Atherton Richards moved to Kahua to manage the ranch. After two years, he turned the operation over to Monty who has skillfully run the ranch ever since. With his trademark sweatshirt, baseball cap, suspenders and ever-present radio, Monty Richards has pushed Kahua well into the next century. A first time visitor to Kahua Ranch has a difficult time knowing what to look at -- the gorgeous cattle, the woolly sheep, the greenhouses filled with carnations and lettuce, or the spinning windmills generating electricity for the entire "Kahua village." Soon there will be a Ranch Store (housed in a converted slaughterhouse), a pistol range and a spanking new Paniolo Porch for tour group picnics and ranch parties. Monty is even raising waygu cattle, better known as Kobe beef, known to be tender and delicious. When asked how the Japanese cattle liked Kohala, he answered, "They didn't come from Japan. They came in a bottle." Ah, so-deska!

    "Monty is a very open, diversified thinker," said Pono von Holt, talking about his former boss. "That's how Kahua ended up with sheep, wind farms and tomatoes. In 1989, we split into two ranches, Kahua and Ponoholo. In the process, we found a mutual interest in working together. We still do things together-- branding, grazing cattle on the mainland. Tim (Richards) is our ranch vet, too."

Shooting the breeze in a laid-back moment at Kahua:  (left to right, back) Pono von Holt, Monty Richards, Gilbert Perez, (left to right, front) Kimo Ho'opai and Harold Kailiawa.    Monty agreed. "We are extremely close, probably as close as any two ranches have been. I'm an officer of his corporation. The ranch lock systems are even the same."

    Seventy years ago, Kahua Ranch, Ltd. was founded. Today, the lands of Kahua support two ranches, Kahua and Ponoholo, each bound to the other by a common history and a common boundary. Compromise, cooperation and a lot of kokua between two kama'aina families have kept Kahua a vital part of Hawai'i's ranching industry. The future looks bright for the next generation. Hanahou, 0 Kahua.

Above:  "Shooting the breeze" in a laid-back moment at Kahua:  (left to right, back) Pono von Holt, Monty Richards, Gilbert Perez, (left to right, front) Kimo Ho'opai and Harold Kailiawa.


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