Honokaa is the most intact and impressive small town on the island of Hawaii. Its primary artery, Mamane Street, presents a coherent architectural tableau, the work of Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, and others who moved beyond plantation jobs to start their own enterprises. Almost all the buildings date from the opening decades of the twentieth century and are wood frame, their materials having been floated in from ships to the Haina landing. These buildings are primarily of double-wall, post-and-beam construction, and they display vernacular variations on Renaissance Revival themes. Many of the lots are deeper than usual, and, as a result, shop owner housing is frequently found behind the commercial structures.
For many years Honokaa was the second-largest town on the island of Hawaii. The town dates from the late nineteenth century, and its origins relate to the development of sugar plantations in the immediate area. Cane cultivation commenced in 1873, when W. H. Rickard started the Honokaa Sugar Plantation. Three years later, this enterprise became the Honokaa Sugar Company, which placed additional lands under cultivation and erected the first sugar mill in the Hamakua district. The completion of the Upper and Lower Hamakua ditches in 1907 and 1911 opened new lands for sugar production, and led to prosperous times during the 1920s. The town itself had once been a small Hawaiian village, and its privately owned parcels, as well as its proximity to the Haina landing, made it attractive for commercial development independent of any plantation. At its peak during the 1920s, the town served as the commercial center not only for the surrounding plantations but also for Parker Ranch and its cowboys. The tsunami of 1946 had serious consequences for the town. The Haina landing closed in 1949, and improvements to the belt highway in the late 1950s provided easier access to Hilo. Later, the development of Parker Ranch Shopping Center in Waimea further eroded Honokaa's customer base, as did the closure of the district's last surviving plantation, Hamakua Sugar Company, in 1994.
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