If trees could talk
by Estee Manfredi | April 5, 2021
At the entrance to the Waiau power plant on Oahu, just behind the Waiau Visitor Center, stands a large monkey pod tree. It is visible from Kamehameha Highway and its distinguishing mushroom shaped-canopy provides a large amount of shade.
“I’m 95 and the tree was already big when I was a little kid,” says Judy Oyama, who grew up under that tree.
Judy and her daughter Lynette drive by the power plant often when they run errands. Every time they pass it, Judy says, “There’s my tree!” One day, Lynette decided to pull into Waiau to see if they would let her mom visit her tree. Security contractor Shaun Fukumoto was on duty and he kindly asked them to pull in and wait while he checked with his supervisor. Rei Mindo, Security supervisor, met with the mother and daughter and learned about Judy’s connection to the tree.
The day I got to meet Judy, she showed me a hand-drawn map that shows the Waiau of her childhood. The concrete parking lot where she and her daughter parked for their visit is where Judy’s two-story house, outhouse and ofuro (Japanese bath) once stood. The dairy farm is now a garage and a large mango tree is now a driveway. Though the buildings have changed, her tree is still there — it’s one of the few landmarks that remains exactly as in her memories.
Judy tells me that there used to be a tire swing hanging from one of the branches of the tree. She remembers one of the kids from the neighborhood climbing up the tree and hanging it up and that all the kids used to play on it. She also remembers a bomb shelter under the tree and that she took her junior prom photo under the tree in front of the shelter. Like most of our memories from childhood, she says that she remembers the tree as being bigger.
Judy shows me a photo of a group of kids swimming in a small river that fed the Chili Pepper pond. She tells me about the railroad tracks and the train that used to run on it. While she is talking, sometimes her voice is drowned out by the noise from the highway and she recalls how the Kamehameha Highway from her childhood had very few cars and was mostly used for pedestrian traffic.
Back in 1926 when Hawaiian Electric was celebrating its 35th anniversary and planning its first office building on King Street, Judy was born in her family’s two-story house that used to stand not far from the tree. Her family had moved from Maui and leased the Waiau land from the Konia family to farm watercress, ong choy and taro. It was 10 years before Hawaiian Electric even thought about building a power plant on the farmlands of Waiau.
Hawaiian Electric selected the Waiau site and started negotiations to purchase the land in 1936. Excavation for the foundation of the power plant started on June 3, 1937 and the installation of the first 7,500 kw unit was completed and placed into operation on June 20, 1938. A second unit, a steam turbo generating unit rated at 15,000 kw, was placed into operation on August 28, 1940.
In order to protect water rights and allow for future plant expansion, the company purchased additional land at Waiau and by 1940, the property at Waiau was nearly 17 acres right on the shoreline of Pearl Harbor. Because of the far commute from downtown Honolulu, the Waiau Plant employee’s housing project was planned, and ten wooden cottages were constructed on the site.
While all this was going on, Judy and her family continued working on their farm. On Dec. 7, 1941, she remembers hearing a lot of planes flying around and being at the neighbor’s house when the bombs were dropped. Judy says her dad ran down to the water’s edge and watched the U.S.S. Arizona sink into the water.
After that day, Judy remembers that she and her family would work the farm all day but were told that they had to leave at night and sleep in an empty warehouse down the road with other Japanese families. She remembers that is when they put up the fence around the power plant property and that there was an armed guard stationed on the other side of the fence right behind her house.
Eventually, Hawaiian Electric bought the land from the Konia family, and Judy and her family moved from Waiau. They took the kitchen and the entire top floor of the house and relocated the structures on another property where they lived and continued farming.
As our conversation winds down, Lynette puts away the two heavy albums that she has brought with her. They are filled with post-its and hand-written notes, carefully identifying the important details: who, what, when and where. She tells us that she is their family historian and that she is also teaching her children — Judy’s grandchildren — to be historians. Passing down the family history for the next generation. “If only this tree could talk,” Lynette says wistfully. If only. What stories it could tell.
Special thanks to Rei Mindo and Shaun Fukumoto for taking the time out of their busy day to welcome Judy and Lynette and for uncovering this story and sharing it.
Estee Manfredi is a corporate librarian at Hawaiian Electric Company.