A century of serving much more than electricity

by Shayna Decker | May 3, 2021

A historical shot of Maui Electric employees in the 1920s.

Coffee cake.

This is my first recollection of Maui Electric. I was an 8-year-old Lihikai School student visiting Aunty Ruth at the company’s auditorium in Kahului where she passed out warm portions of the dessert and showed us how to safely use different electrical appliances at home (Don’t stick any metal objects in the toaster!).

Several decades later, I’m now working for Hawaiian Electric on Maui and as we commemorated our 100 years of serving our Maui County communities on April 28 this year, I couldn’t help but reminisce about this sweet treat — and the electrical safety tips — that made such a lasting impression.

In observing this significant milestone, current employees were able to catch up with retired employees like “Aunty Ruth”. Ruth Yamamura started as a home economist for Maui Electric in 1975 and for 32 years taught thousands of Maui County families and children how to safely cook with electric appliances before retiring as a community educator.

“Back when I first started, families were moving in from the plantation to Kahului which was considered Dream City,” Ruth recalled. “Many of the plantations had kerosene stoves so to switch to electrical was very different and many families were not used to using electricity. When the microwave oven first came on the market, I remember also going out to teach people how to use this different method of cooking and they got to enjoy what we made after.”

Today, it may seem odd for an electric utility to provide cooking demonstrations. But that was the need of the community at a time when electrical appliances were new and unfamiliar.

And that’s why Maui Electric was founded — to meet the needs of the people. In the 1920s, the central valley communities of Wailuku and Kahului were flourishing, businesses opening and wait lists for new homes swelling.

With this growth came an increased demand from the community for safe, reliable and affordable electrical service. This sparked a group of local business leaders on the island to come together to formally organize the Maui Electric Company to provide power and light in April 1921.

A month into business, The Maui News reported, “once more residents of Wailuku and Kahului who have to walk when they go out o’ nights are enjoying streetlights. Service was started by the new company…after weary months of darkness.”

Within time, Maui Electric reduced rates and expanded to all parts of the island — from Paia, Pauwela, Haiku, Makawao, Kula, Paukukalo, Waihee, Lahaina and Hana. The company went to take on service to Lanai and Molokai in the 1980s, all along fulfilling the increasing energy needs of the growing communities on three islands from decade to decade.

Meeting evolving needs through the years was aptly described by Maui Electric Company President Arden G. Henderson. Serving from 1976 -1990, Henderson once wrote that the company was “not just machinery, poles, wires and construction” but was made of “dedicated people…living in tune with the needs of their community” and employees “derived satisfaction from serving their community with much more than electricity.”

While our islands have changed and our communities have grown, this long-standing dedication remains today. We serve our customers by maintaining our system so an essential service is safely and reliably delivered 24/7. Employees have remained committed to helping those in need over the course of our 100 years — and especially through the pandemic. And we’re bringing in more clean, renewable energy to our islands to decarbonize our electric grid.

This commitment is also reflected in recent efforts to commemorate our 100th year of service. When employees were asked how they wanted to memorialize this anniversary, they chose to remember it by nominating local nonprofit organizations making positive impacts in our communities to receive contributions totaling over $11,000.

I’m thankful to be part of this century of service. It started long before I became an employee, dating back to that ono piece of coffee cake. Only now I know it was part of the caring efforts of employees like Ruth — and many others like her — who continue to take great pride in serving our neighbors, our communities with much more than electricity for the next 100 years and beyond.

Shayna Decker is a communications manager at Hawaiian Electric.

Our vision is to deliver cost-effective, clean, reliable, and innovative energy services to our customers.