In ancient times, Hawaiians made the Makawao area home, known through the existence of archaeological sites within the region. The modern settlement of Makawao was probably built on the site of an ancient small village.
According to Hawaiian practice, all lands belonged to the ali`i, or chiefs. Bowing to pressure in 1845, King Kamehameha III announced an experiment whereby commoners could own land in Makawao. This first break in the feudal land system led three years later to the Great Mahele, a policy that established a private system of land ownership throughout the kingdom.
Sugar cultivation in Makawao began in 1857 when H.A. Spencer pioneered the East Maui Sugar Plantation, also known as Kaluanui Plantation. Starting in the 1870s, Tong Akana operated the 12,500-acre Pi`iholo Plantation. Undoubtedly the most significant Makawao sugar operation began in 1869, when Henry P. Baldwin and Samuel T. Alexander purchased a 12-acre Hawaiian homestead for $110. They then enlarged their holdings with the 559-acre Bush Ranch located in an area called Sunnyside. These seminal parcels became the foundation for the Alexander & Baldwin Corporation, known in Hawai`i as one of the Big Five.
Makawao’s expansive lands and ample rains supported more than sugar. Wheat growing in Hawai`i centered in Makawao, spurred on during the 1850s by the California Gold Rush and fading in the 1860s. More importantly, Makawao supported ranching. Ranches in the Makawao area ranged from a few acres to Haleakalā Ranch’s 30,000 acres.
A visitor in the latter part of the nineteenth century described Makawao in this way. “Several stores, some kept by Chinese as butcher shops, and a couple of coffee saloons and the post-office made up a tidy little township.” Hawaiians and Chinese first populated the town, followed by the Portuguese and Japanese, many cultivating their own plots or working on surrounding ranches. In the 1920s and 1930s, Makawao residents patronized general stores, as well as the Makawao Theater, a meat market, a slaughterhouse, two service stations, a harness shop and three blacksmiths. The still-operational T Komoda Store & Bakery reminds us of that era.
Infatuation with both cow punching and competition inspired paniolos George Manoa Sr. and Harold F. “Oskie” Rice to form the Maui Roping Club in 1955 and, just one year later, to sponsor the first Makawao Rodeo. The celebrated Makawao Rodeo held each Fourth of July highlights a rodeo season that showcases Hawai`i’s best ropers and riders.
Three Makawao churches have long served the community. Po`okela Church pioneered in 1843. In 1917, well-known architect Charles Dickey designed a new Makawao Union Church, first established in 1870. Founded around 1882, the current Saint Joseph Church building has served upcountry Catholics since 1911.
Contemporary Makawao maintains its reputation as Maui’s paniolo town, preserving its old-time flavor through the retention of its time-worn buildings which are draped with red, white and blue each Fourth of July as cowboys and cowgirls enliven the town for the annual Fourth of July Makawao Rodeo and Parade.