Just outside the town of Waimea on the big island of Hawaii, sits Parker Ranch. In truth, however, like neighbouring Waikoloa Village, the town actually sits on the ranch. It was once the largest cattle ranch in the USA under sole ownership and definitely the largest ranch in Hawaii (500 000 acres and 30 000 cattle at its peak).
Its history goes back to 1809 when 19-year-old John Parker jumped ship in Hawaii. He crossed paths with King Kamehameha I and when, after one of his travels, he returned to the island with an American musket, he was the first man the King allowed to shoot some of the wild cattle that roamed the islands. Just 21 years earlier, a British Captain had given the King five head of cattle – and these had multiplied into thousands. Parker, recognising a good thing, was in large part responsible for initiating the export of salt beef from the island. In 1816, he married the daughter of a local Chief and, with a daughter and two sons, the Parker dynasty began. It ended in 1992, after six generations, with the death of Richard (Dick) Smart, last sole owner of the ranch, Broadway actor, and high-flying socialite. The Parker Ranch Foundation Trust now works to support healthcare, education and charitable giving through named beneficiaries in the Waimea community.
During the Second World War, the ranch was home to Camp Tarawa and 50 000 marines as they prepared to do battle at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In the 1960s, as the land became too dry for cattle, Smart leased land to hotelier Laurance Rockefeller who built the Mauna Kea Hotel in Kaunaʻoa Bay. He began to diversify, building towns, villages, theatres, and museums, recognising that tourists would be the new cattle. Today, you can drive for miles through the Big Island’s high desert and still be on Parker Ranch land.
There’s a small part of me that wishes I’d been born into the wild west. I’ve been overdosing on Bonanza, and Have gun, will travel, and the like and somewhere, deep down (very deep down) inside, there’s a bonnet-wearing, petticoated, church-going, pie-baking, homesteading woman just waiting for a hat to be tipped in her direction, accompanied by a low-drawled ‘ma’am’. Fanciful, I know. But what can I say? Manners, good manners, win out every time.