By Stephen Sumida
We built the coconut hut, Hale Niu, in the mid-1960s. We built it for Mr. Ippongi, an elderly Japanese immigrant who settled with his family at a far corner of the farm in the same year, 1928, that my grandparents began farming watercress at Kalauao. Mr. Ippongi had long cultivated a vegetable garden on the plot of land where we built the coconut hut. Mr. Ippongi used the hut every day, to store his gardening tools and his change of clothing, and to rest in the shade of the hut and enjoy the cool of the concrete slab we built it on.
My father asked me to landscape the farm in the ‘60s when we were regrading the land to enable the spring water to flow evenly from mauka to makai. I chose to add to the existing borders of taro, banana, and white ginger blossoms by planting willow trees, bamboo clumps, a few more coconut trees, and bright red canna lilies around the perimeter and to accent the setting with a thatched hut.
Our field workers actually built the Hale Niu. My fault, that at first it didn’t look right. The pitch of the simple gabled roof was too flat, so we added new rafters that made the roof look better by being steeper. The workers thatched the frame with leafy coconut branches.
This design worked well both to give shelter to Mr. Ippongi and to look nice from Kamehameha Highway. By that time Mr. Ippongi lived in a nearby neighborhood off the farm, in ‘Aiea. Mrs. Ippongi had been a harvester on our farm from the beginning, and their daughter Jane grew up to take on that job too. While they harvested watercress, Mr. Ippongi would move slowly through his garden, drawing water for his crops from the stream at its border. He was thin and bent over. A scarecrow would’ve been fatter. He grew green onions, lettuce, cabbages, beans, eggplants, squash, tomatoes, and other crops in his plot, 40 by 40 feet of dry ground in full sun, enough to feed his three-generation family and their friends.
After Mr. Ippongi was gone, we converted his garden into watercress patches but left the hut where it always was and is, on an island of its own.
In the ‘80s my sister Barbara began helping to manage Sumida Farm. She earned her degree in Tropical Agriculture at UH and was also a visual artist. She began to decorate the Hale Niu for holidays, and her poinsettias and wreaths at Christmas attracted the attention of the passers-by on Kamehameha Highway. For a while an old koa fishing canoe sent to us from Kona on the Big Island sat on the little island of the hut. And so a “tradition” began and grew, seeming to be timeless but is always under care and renewal by the stewards of the land.