About the Author

Ben Lowenthal

Ben Lowenthal grew up on Maui. He earned his undergraduate degree studying journalism at San Francisco State University and his law degree at the University of Kansas. He is a deputy public defender practicing criminal defense in trial and appellate courts. He also runs “Hawaii Legal News,” a blog covering Hawaii appellate courts. The author's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach him at ben.lowenthal@civilbeat.org.

The life story of the longtime Upcountry resident personifies the need to embrace the ups and downs of the Valley Isle.

It’s easy to lament about how the good old days are no more. It’s tempting to think life was simpler, things were cheaper, work was easier and folks back then were friendlier, kinder and united. That indulgent thinking is not only inaccurate, but yearning to flip the calendar back can turn people against one another, make us resistant to inevitable changes in our society, and hostile to newcomers to the community.

Peter Ohashi’s exemplary life was the opposite of resistant. Instead of holding on, he found ways to ride the waves of change that have reshaped Maui over the past 80 years.

Born in Makawao in 1938, the Maui of his youth is long gone. All of Hawaii was a territory then. Lawmakers and judges were overseen by the U.S. Congress thousands of miles away and the economy was dominated by two tightly controlled industries.

Ohashi went to Maui High School in Hamakuapoko — the same school that saw the likes of Congresswoman Patsy Mink and the first mayor of Maui, Elmer Carvalho. When he went to the school with its buildings designed by local architect Charles Dickey, the campus was surrounded by sugarcane fields. The stately buildings were hidden by the tall cane stalks that ran for miles from central Maui and Kihei to the edge of Maliko Gulch. He graduated in 1956.

Beyond Maliko, sugar gave way to the other main industry on Maui, pineapples. Narrow and orderly rows of the low-growing fruit went for miles from the highway down to the edge of steep cliffs on Maui’s north shore. 

West Kuiaha Road and the cannery formerly used by the Pauwela Pineapple Co. in Haiku, which has been repurposed many times after it stopped operation in 1961. The Ohashi General Store was nearby. (Ben Lowenthal/Civil Beat/2023)

Towns and neighborhoods were carved out between steep, verdant gulches on narrow ridges. West Kuiaha Road was one of them. The biggest building on the road through Haiku is still the cannery formerly used by the Pauwela Pineapple Co. In its heyday, it was a bustling workplace with heavy-duty machinery, huge trucks, and shifts of workers harvesting and sorting pineapples.

Ohashi returned to Maui after serving in the U.S. Navy as a reserve in the Seabees and in the Department of Water Supply and Honolulu Fire Department on Oahu, to take care of his aging parents. For three decades Ohashi served the Maui Fire Department at stations in Wailuku, Paia and faraway Hana. When he left the department, he was a captain.

Peter Ohashi was a firefighter for three decades. (Screenshot 2023)

Ohashi then embarked on a new enterprise. With his wife, Napua, he opened a little general store on West Kuiaha Road a few yards away from the old cannery.

Ohashi General Store was an important place for kids like me.

I can’t remember why or how it happened, but the cannery was the designated school bus stop — even though our home wasn’t very close to the stop. Nevertheless, I considered myself really lucky because it meant I could walk up the hill to Ohashi’s and get a snack after school. That store provided entire generations of kids with after-school snacks like candy, soda, cone sushi and hot dogs.

Haiku has changed since Ohashi’s student days. Pineapple operations ended on West Kuiaha in 1961 and sugar was quickly fading. The new dominant industry was tourism, but tourists then mainly passed through Haiku on their way to Hana and never ventured off the highway.

My classmates were local kids, Native Hawaiians, and the children of hippies from the mainland. The other newcomers were windsurfers from Europe and South America looking for cheap rent.

Smaller businesses opened shop in the old cannery. A video store came and went. Workshops for surfboard repairs had their day. There was even a trampoline gym that kept kids busy on weekends and after school. His general store nearby was a fixture and an essential part of the community.

And so was Mr. Ohashi. I remember going into his store as a young boy. He was always friendly and wore a tank top that showed off his strong arms. He was a weightlifter and preached the benefits of physical fitness like the gospel.

Then Haiku changed again. Money and tourists eventually came to the area. Haiku, Paia and Makawao grew more and more gentrified. After running the store for 20 years, the Ohashis closed their business.

Money and tourists eventually reached towns like Haiku, Paia and Makawao, and they’ve grown more and more gentrified. (Ben Lowenthal/Civil Beat/2023)

Instead of a quiet retirement, Ohashi found a new role in the community. He sold avocados and fruit from his yard and kept the Pauwela Cannery and Polli’s Mexican restaurant in Makawao tidy and clean.

This brought him into contact with store owners, residents and passersby. Well into his 70s and 80s he was strong and limber enough to climb up trees and trim the branches near the cannery. Through it all, he remained generous, welcoming to newcomers, and ready to share stories about pets, fruits and the weather — just as he had done in his store.

Ohashi died on Dec. 12 at his home surrounded by his family. He was 85. He will be missed by many in Haiku and Makawao.

A momentous year for Maui is coming to an end. The wildfires in August have brought about uncertainty and are going to bring about long-term changes to the community. The uncertainty that lies ahead will surely bring about fear of the changes that will come to the island, fear of being left behind by a changing economy, and fear of being pushed out.

Those are legitimate concerns, but hostility to change is unproductive. Now, more than ever, Ohashi’s approach to life must be celebrated. He was confident in himself, secure in his place in the community, and embraced the dramatic changes that came to his part of Maui. His example can guide us into the new year.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.


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About the Author

Ben Lowenthal

Ben Lowenthal grew up on Maui. He earned his undergraduate degree studying journalism at San Francisco State University and his law degree at the University of Kansas. He is a deputy public defender practicing criminal defense in trial and appellate courts. He also runs “Hawaii Legal News,” a blog covering Hawaii appellate courts. The author's opinions are his own and don't necessarily reflect those of Civil Beat. You can reach him at ben.lowenthal@civilbeat.org.


Latest Comments (0)

Itʻs not so much "yearning to flip the calendar back" as it is wishing that these often horrendous times in which we live were indeed kinder and simpler.Back then, many were poor and they all coexisted. Everyone managed to share, and afford to be here through hard work and shared sacrifices. Sounds like a lot of trite phraseology, but if you were here and lived through those times, youʻd understand.abed, watched honeybees feed on sunkissed, raindropped pua kī ʻula

Patutoru · 1 month ago

Thank you.

under_dog · 1 month ago

Reading this beautifully written tribute about one of Maui's quiet heroes reminded me of another family, another small business, on another island: Mr.and Mrs Lau of Alexander Grocery. on O'ahu. I shall always remember them with great fondness and respect.

cavan8 · 1 month ago

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