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Hilo Rice Mill Co. celebrates 100 years


Tribune-Herald staff writer

Being in business for 100 years is a noteworthy achievement, especially when its long life included three different tsunamis in downtown Hilo. But Hilo Rice Mill Co. Ltd., today a wholesale food service and dry goods purveyor, survived and marked its centennial anniversary on April 1.

Takao Shikuma, one of the company’s board members, was asked to talk about the history of the Hilo Rice Mill at a centennial anniversary dinner on April 13. But Shikuma’s problem was the absence of historical records, artifacts or surviving memories of the business.

“It kinda went out with the tsunami in 1960,” said Naomi Hayakawa, currently president of the company. Her grandfather, T.R. Saiki, was among the founders of Hilo Rice Mill in 1913, but almost everything about the company was destroyed in the 1960 tsunami, she said. Hayakawa said that, originally, Hilo Rice Mill imported rice from California in 100-pound sacks, milled it, repacked it, and sold it wholesale to “mom-and-pop” stores on the Big Island. But that’s about it.

Shikuma started digging. His dad was a salesman for the company in the 1940s but didn’t leave behind any significant historical notes. Local plantation-era historian Wayne Subica said the only Hilo Rice Mill-related item in his collection is a sign for the Hilo Gas Co., which was next to the Rice Mill along a railroad spur that paralleled Ponahawai St., according to a pre-1960 map of the Kamehameha Avenue businesses that Subica provided. Shikuma found no references to Hilo Rice Mill at the public library.

Shikuma was scratching his head over what he would say at the dinner, fearing it might be a short presentation. Then a call to the Tribune-Herald unearthed the following notice about the company’s founding that was published in the Hilo Tribune on April 18, 1913:

“With a list of 125 subscribers, holding from one share to 200 shares each, the Hilo Rice Company Ltd., filed articles of organization Monday. The buying and selling, as well as the growing of rice are given as the objects of the new company. Capitalization is placed at $40,000 with the privilege of increasing to $200,000. This is divided into 1600 shares at a par value of $25 each. Of this number, 1557 shares are subscribed.” The papers are accompanied by a list of all the subscribers, nearly all of them being Japanese residents of the Island of Hawaii. The principals are named as S. Hata, T Niiya, Y. Tomikawa, T.R. Saiki, R. Degawa and T. Yokoyama.

T.R. Saiki is Hayakama’s grandfather, and S. Hata built the Hata Building downtown. Both were interned by the U.S. government during World War II, but Hayakawa isn’t familiar with the other founders.

It’s also not clear where the original Hilo Rice Mill’s location was on Bayfront.

“I think it was further down on Kam Avenue, the ocean side,” Hayakawa said. “My mom didn’t know. She was a youngster then.” Hayakawa said the business was damaged in its original location by the first of three tsunamis in 1922 or 1923. That prompted the move down Kamehameha Avenue where Hilo Rice Mill successfully weathered the 1946 tsunami. But the 1960 tsunami forced the company’s move to its current location.

The Hilo-born Hayakawa was attending school in Honolulu when the 1960 tsunami devastated downtown Hilo. But her cousin, Luana Kawelu, was found to have a key family perspective on Hilo Rice Mill’s past.

“I was working at Hilo Rice Mill right after the tidal wave,” Kawelu said. She was attending college at the time but put her education on hold to help clean up and relocate the family business to 67 Pookela St., in the Kanoelehua Industrial Area, where it’s currently located.

While last week Kawelu is busy directing the Merrie Monarch Festival, this week she’ll be sharing her Hilo Rice Mill experience at the celebration dinner. Kawelu will offer “just a few words,” she said, “to let people know how it really was.”

Meanwhile, Hayakawa, who became president of the company in 1995, after retiring with 33 years as a public school teacher, is modestly reluctant to draw attention to the rice mill’s anniversary. “We try to keep it low-key,” she said.

And Shikuma, now that there’s some semblance of a story to tell on the 100th anniversary, is finally breathing a sigh of relief.

Email Hunter Bishop at hbishop@hawaiitribune-herald.com.


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