KAUPO, Maui — Nearly a million people annually visit the Haleakala National Park Kipahulu District to swim in the pools at Oheo and hike the bamboo forest on “the back side” of Maui.

Most visitors arrive and depart via the 600-plus curves and 54 bridges of Hana Highway. But thousands of tourists, against car rental company rules, turn south on Route 31, the Piilani Highway that connects Kipahulu with Ulupalakua.

The 7-mile stretch between the national park and Kaupo is a bone-jarring, mostly one-lane mix of rutted dirt, loose gravel and potholed asphalt. The rewards are jaw-dropping views of waterfalls, golden grasses, grazing cattle and herds of wild goats.

Members of a tiny Maui community are pulling together to preserve the abandoned Kaupo schoolhouse and a nearby teacher’s cottage Tad Bartimus/Civil Beat

Ignore the man-made fences and introduced mammals and your imagination can transport you to ancient days before Polynesian canoes and three-masted schooners.

Arriving at Kaupo Store, most travelers make a beeline for its cold soda pop, ignoring the two dilapidated buildings nearby. I am a frequent “back road” commuter who is always in a hurry to reach central Maui’s commercial district with my chore list. Years ago, I stopped noticing Kaupo’s abandoned schoolhouse and teacher’s cottage as I sped by.

The teacher’s cottage will also be renovated. Courtesy of Jonathan Starr

When a friend invited me to a Kaupo Community Association meeting to hear news about a million-dollar makeover for the termite-riddled old structures, I was amazed to learn they are the “best” survivors of last century’s once-plentiful rural schools. That status qualified them in 2000 for the National Register of Historic Places.

The outdoor gathering on the school lot provided an uplifting antidote to the acrimony and incivility pervading much of our public discourse these days.

Open to all 160 citizens who call Kaupo home, including 70 full-time residents, more than 50 adults listened politely to a legislative update from state Sen. J. Kalani English and project reports about funding, architectural design and site preparation. Audience members asked informed questions, bought fundraising T-shirts, then shared the food they’d brought while mingling on the lawn.

Instead of a contentious public free-for-all, it felt like a family reunion where not everybody knew one another but seemed happy to be in like-minded company.

‘All The Memories Come Back’

“We’re making it up as we go along,” Jonathan Starr told me during the potluck lunch. Starr is a retired Maui businessman, an association board member and the restoration project’s manager. “If they hadn’t been historic buildings it would have been easier to knock them down and start fresh. But a lot of us are (emotionally) invested in this old building.

“The main themes guiding us are to support families that have traditional lands in Kaupo with a place to come together and welcome back family and friends, create a resource center for the community that lasts a long time, and outfit it for a disaster,” Starr said.

The school and cottage were built in 1890 when eight local public and private schools were consolidated into one state school. That year, 81 students were enrolled in grades one through five. When the school  closed in 1964 and its eight students transferred to Hana School, the buildings were abandoned.

Kaupo Community Association chairwoman Linda Ha’i Clark addresses members about the million-dollar makeover of the structures. Photo by Jacob Aki/Sen. J. Kalani English office

Now planners are adding up-to-date infrastructure that includes a photovoltaic solar system to provide power, refrigeration and hot water; a 30,000-gallon water storage system for fire protection and to make potable water available to residents and visitors who may need it in an area that gets fewer than 40 inches of annual rainfall.

“This is a community of strong families and diverse individuals,” Starr said. “What ties us all together is that we all really love this place. We put community well-being first. This is a grassroots collaboration.”

A native New Yorker and traveler “who’s built things all over the world,” Starr settled on Maui in the 1980s, splitting time between his Wailuku office and off-the-grid Kaupo farm with his partner, Helen Nielsen, a founder of the Hawaii Islands Land Trust and former University of Hawaii regent.

There are six other association committee members besides Starr.

• Chairwoman Linda Ha’i Clark is the fourth generation of a Kaupo ranching family and has extensive work experience with Maui nonprofits.

• Former postman and lifelong fisherman Sam Aina traces his Hawaiian ancestry back hundreds of years.

• Kaupo resident Timmy Chinn is location manager for “Hawaii Five-0.”

• Retired Fire Department Battalion Chief Bob Murakami is descended from Antone Vierra Marciel, who gave up whaling to become the cowboy who bought local land and brought in cattle in 1889, resulting in Kaupo Ranch.

• Board secretary and cultural practitioner Kauwila Hanchett, whose family long has been associated with Hana Ranch and the Kaupo region.

Helen Nielsen, left, and Rose Soon at the association meeting. Tad Bartimus/Civil Beat

• There is also Rose Soon, the living symbol of the old school. At 92, her presence at every meeting encourages expeditious decision-making to keep the overhaul on track to finish in 2019.

“My grandfather, Soon Sing You, came from Canton to work on a Hilo sugar plantation and when his contract was finished he decided not to return,” Soon said. “He wrote home, ‘I want a bride,’ and they sent him one from Hong Kong.

“My grandparents were very young when they started the Kaupo Store. I come from very special people, they go after what they have in mind and keep after it until it’s done.”

Her grandparents had six sons and a daughter.

“Everybody moved out of East Maui looking for bigger pastures except my father, Nicholas, who stayed on to run the store. In those days, supplies came by boat from Nuu or Kipahulu, or we got them from Ulupalakua or through the (Kaupo) gap and over the (Haleakala) crater.”

Soon was 5 when she started at Kaupo School in 1929, the earliest age allowed by law. She had to transfer to a Maui boarding school after sixth grade. She went to Baldwin High School, then earned college money as a hotel maid during World War II. After graduation from a mainland college she taught school in California and Hawaii before retiring in Hana. 

“I have the gift to live to be 92,” she said, her voice charged with energy. “Just the fact that I am alive is a gift. I am trying to get to know all these new (Kaupo) people better, it just takes time and effort. I never expected to be on the board but someone in a loud voice said I should, so they picked me and I am. I was so surprised.

“When I go to these meetings about fixing the school all the memories come back, even the walls haven’t changed colors at all. I can hardly wait to hear the pounding of the hammers.”

‘We Intend To Set The Example’

Community consensus dictated that planners make the school and cottage look as much like they did in the late 1920s as possible, meet all building codes, be engineered to withstand a major hurricane and be equipped and usable as a disaster center for residents and tourists. In 2006, rock slides and subsequent long-term roadway repairs isolated Kaupo for more than a year.

The community helps an uncounted number of tourists and residents who run into trouble on the road or are injured in backcountry accidents so a helicopter landing pad will be included on the restored school’s 2.25 acres.

“The Kaupo School project is an inspiring example of community support, engagement and creativity,” said Kiersten Falkner, the Historic Hawaii Foundation director who attended the gathering. Her organization has committed $70,000 to the project.

Jonathan Starr, left, and Linda Ha’i Clark and Doug Cornelson are among those pushing for the restoration. Tad Bartimus/Civil Beat

“This preservation and reuse project is galvanizing and inspiring the community to revisit its roots and revitalize its identity.”

Last session, the Legislature appropriated $975,000 to fund construction. English, who represents East Maui, told meeting attendees he is pushing for operations money, especially emergency preparedness funds.

“We had to get our ducks in order,” said association chairwoman Clark after presiding over the gathering of neighbors, friends, partners from the national park.

Service, Hawaii Historic Foundation, a private architectural firm and a future construction team. “We focused on grants last year. Surveys are done. Drafts are finalized. The project is underway and everything is coming into a reality.”

All stakeholders – local, county, state, federal and nonprofit — believe Kaupo’s grassroots collaboration on its ambitious project is unprecedented in any Hawaii place of comparable population and resources.

“We intend to set the example,” Starr said. “A town can struggle and hang back or it can be proactive. It makes us happy and proud to be a model for small community empowerment.”

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