Reviving Greenwell

Clients can get a taste of old-fashioned, upcountry Kona life

By: Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

Kerosene lanterns, rug beaters, horseshoes, parasols, denim trousers, crochet yarn, castor oil, salt cod, tins of boiled beef as I walked around the Greenwell Store, it was clear that a century ago, it was the Walgreens, Safeway and Macy’s for families in upcountry Kona.

Mingling in the air were the pungent smells of dried fish, leather, soap, tobacco and roasted coffee. There was nothing extraordinary about any of the items, but for me, they provided fascinating glimpses of what everyday life was like for ranchers, farmers and their families in this area of the Big Island in the late 1800s.

“This was how they washed their clothes,” I thought, fingering the wooden washboard that reminded me of the one my grandmother used to wash her lingerie. “This was the worm medicine they gave their horses, the clothes they wore and the type of crackers they ate.”

Entrepreneur Henry Nicholas (H.N.) Greenwell built the 1,000-square-foot store in 1873 from lava rock and lime mortar. It doubled as the community’s post office, and customers flocked there to pick up their mail, necessities, niceties and the latest gossip. Greenwell’s wife, Elizabeth, served as the storekeeper and postmistress.

Thanks to the dedication of the Kona Historical Society (KHS), the 134-year-old store has been restored and restocked just as it would have been when it first opened. Mary Seelhorst, former curator of the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan, and Tom Woods, former director of historic sites for the Minnesota Historical Society and former executive director of Old World Wisconsin, served as the lead consultants for the project. Although KHS began studying Kona’s ranching history in the mid-1980s, six researchers including Maile Melrose, a great-granddaughter of H.N. and Elizabeth delved into the Greenwell Store aspect of it in earnest just five years ago.

“We reviewed old receipts, tax records, probate records, court records and correspondence at the Hawaii State Archives and Bishop Museum’s archives in Honolulu to determine what kinds of goods the store sold,” said Melrose. “We also considered the kinds of industries that were here at the time, the population mix and what their needs were.”

Ads in the Pacific Commercial Advertiser also yielded valuable clues about merchandise and the companies that manufactured them. With Seelhorst’s guidance, KHS volunteers made or acquired the appropriate boxes, barrels, bags, crates, tin cans and other packaging materials; recreated labels for the items from samples from the Smithsonian Institution and similar 19th-century general stores on the Mainland; and placed the wares on shelves and in cabinets just as they would have been displayed in the old days.

During a 30-minute tour, visitors play the roles of actual customers who are mentioned in H.N.’s diaries. They’re invited to measure a 24-foot length of tethering rope, turn a five-gallon butter churn, choose calico for a dress, feel the badger bristles on a shaving brush and more.

“We want them to examine the wares, ask what the prices are, basically shop like real customers,” said Melrose. “The ‘clerks’ in period attire impart a lot of information in an amusing fashion.”

The Greenwell Store Museum represents the first phase of KHS’ Kalukalu Homestead Ranch and Store project, which, when completed in about five years, will present a typical ranching homestead in Kona in the 1890s. To be constructed on three acres are a main house with a kitchen, a butter house, a saddle house, a laborer’s house, a blacksmith’s shed, privies and laundry facilities.

Already in place here is a traditional Portuguese stone oven that was used by immigrants from Madeira and the Azores who first came to Kona in the 1870s to develop and manage dairies. The distinctive beehive-shaped oven is fired up every Thursday to bake the delicious bread for which the Portuguese have become known in Hawaii. Visitors can stop by between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. to watch the process and to enjoy an unforgettable taste of old-fashioned, upcountry Kona life.


Greenwell Store Museum Kona Historical Society
81-6551 Mamalahoa Hwy
Kealakekua, HI 96750

Tours are available Monday-Saturday between 9 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Cost is $4 for adults and $2 for children ages 5-17. There’s no charge for children 4 and younger. Reservations are not required.


Areca Palms Estate Bed & Breakfast

Commission: 10 percent

Nightly rates range from $110-$145, including a full breakfast each morning. There’s a two-night minimum requirement.

Located about one-third mile south of the Greenwell Store Museum, it offers four beautifully appointed rooms; complimentary snorkel equipment and beach gear (towels, coolers, chairs, blue ice, etc.); complimentary tea cart; and knowledgeable hosts who can recommend restaurants, activities and attractions.