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Oct 29, 2007
Cover Story: Hawaiian Dynasty--The Parker Ranch - Forbes
Cover Story
Hawaiian Dynasty

For 160 years the Parker family ruled Hawaii's Big Island. Today their 150,000-acre ranch is a slice of paradise open to all.

The Big Island of Hawaii is one of the strongest drugs you can buy without a prescription. Below, sleepy sand beaches edging water so crystalline the French ought to bottle it. Above, invigorating 13,784-foot Mauna Kea volcano, whose white observatories glimmer through the clouds like a hula dancer's smile post-tip. And in between is the Parker Ranch, a soothing 150,000-acre spread of neon-green plains glowing amidst the basalt slopes with a "Bali Hai"-ish seductiveness that begs to be explored.


Riding one of the ranch's thoroughbreds beyond the old stone corrals and into the open, mist-enshrouded countryside, one can sense the primordial Hawaii that was here long before the local luxury resorts offered ukulele lessons. Up here, the western trade winds that perpetually blow between the mountains carry the scent of cattle, barbecue smoke and the tropics. There's an abiding gentleness inherent in the lush grandeur that seems to spread from ground to horse to rider--a sense of peace that withstands even that last mai tai.

This is one of the most remote spots from any mainland on earth, with the California coast some 2,300 miles beyond the horizon. Once ancient Hawaiians made petroglyphs, battled each other and built basalt altars on these very plains. Now 35,000 head of cattle and a dozen cowboys-- paniolos in the local lingo--share these eerily lush lava fields with wild boar, ibex and deer.

Six generations of Parkers etched their dynastic tale here, from the first Parker (who arrived when locals still indulged in human sacrifices) to the last proprietor, a professional dinner-theater singer who lived in a Hawaiian Victorian sprawl next to the founder's hut. The last Parker son to call the ranch home died in June, thus saying aloha to a 160-year saga that not even James Michener could have made up.

"The Parker dynasty goes hand in hand with the rise of Hawaii's monarchy," said Anthony Roberts, an eloquent and encyclopedic raconteur of local lore who manages the ranch's historical properties. Anthony was showing me around the original homestead, a New England saltbox constructed of koa wood that shares a French formal garden with the sprawling manor used by later Parkers. At today's prices, this modest saltbox would be worth at least a million dollars. A 20-minute drive from the Kohala coast resorts and down an isolated lane lined by hunched eucalyptus trees had brought me here to the center of what was once America's largest ranch. In 1809, Massachusetts-born John Parker jumped ship here as a 19-year-old. Staring sternly from a photo hung on the wall, he's the grim visage of Andrew Jackson on a bad hair day. King Kamehameha I (it required a beachside yoga session and happy hour to master that name), the warrior king who launched a European-styled monarchy after unifying the islands, must have seen a kindred spirit in the ambitious interloper; he let Parker marry his granddaughter and buy two acres of land on the slopes of Mauna Kea.

At the time, the island was being terrorized by herds of marauding longhorns, the legacy of five cattle given to Kamehameha two decades earlier by a British sea captain. Parker was entrusted with hunting the maverick critters with his newfangled musket, but not before sorting out the better ones for his own expanding ranch lands. He was prescient; salt beef soon replaced increasingly scarce hardwood as Hawaii's biggest export. Over the next century the Parker Ranch ballooned into a beef empire that survived the monarchy and Hawaii's entry as the 50th American state. By the 1950s, the ranch had 250,000 acres stretching from the snowcapped volcano to the increasingly valuable shoreline--even the Rockefellers had to lease their resort land from the Parkers.

The mix of New England and Hawaiian strains produced an outstandingly strong-willed and photogenic family. The Parkers became glamour magnets, traveling the world to cavort with the tuxedo set--they were even invited to George V's coronation. But life for the Parkers wasn't one big luau. They seemed to have a habit of dying young, twice leaving toddlers as owners of this vast empire. When John Parker's son, Ebenezer, died prematurely, his daughter-in-law was so distraught that she camped on his grave for six months before disappearing into the stormy Pacific; Parker's grandson, Sam, was such a spendthrift ("I try everything in life except incest and folk dancing") that his uncle attempted to insure against impending bankruptcy by burying money around the ranch. The discovery of a bag of gold coins by a ranch pole-digger last century reaffirmed the old legend of a lost Parker treasure yet to be found.

The Parkers' financial troubles became so acute that in 1899, facing intrafamily lawsuits and armed showdowns, Honolulu lawyer A.W. Carter was brought in to straighten things out. A.W. stuck around to personally manage the place for half a century, enlarging and improving the ranch while breeding some of the highest-grade cattle in the world. Parker Ranch range-fed Herefords became sought after by breeders and cooks far and wide, and the ranch's thoroughbreds became such legendarily powerful trotters on the rough terrain that even General Patton--an accomplished horseman long before George C. Scott learned to growl on camera--came to the ranch as a young man to personally select his mount.

The ranch played an even more important role in the U.S. military after Pearl Harbor, when 50,000 Marines trained here for island-hopping. The volcanic dome near the ranch headquarters was a stand-in for Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi during their exercises. The annual ranch rodeo, which now occurs every July, was started then as a morale booster for the troops. "It's different from mainland rodeos, as roping and horse racing are the big events," said Anthony.

After the war, the ranch's last heir, Richard Smart, took the logical career step of fleeing the ranch to become a touring theater singer; he even played Broadway, starring with Nanette Fabray in Bloomer Girl in 1947. "It's not so far-fetched when you think that John Parker used to entertain guests singing Hawaiian chants in a loincloth," Anthony noted.

Orphaned as an infant, Smart had a Citizen Kane streak, sending museumloads of art treasures from his travels back to the isolated ranch mansion that he had reconstructed as a French estate. Here, under Venetian chandeliers and a riot of Impressionist paintings and Chinese pottery, Smart held court with his many showbiz pals who came to visit. "It's fun to imagine John Wayne, an actor playing a cowboy, sitting here listening to Broadway show tunes sung by a real cowboy playing an actor," said Anthony, showing me around the mansion, now open to the public.

Lots of real cowboys--the paniolos--can be found wandering around the pleasant little town of Waimea, which sprang up next to the ranch. The word is a bastardization of españols, denoting the Mexican vaqueros imported here in the 1800s to teach ranching. In Waimea the tourist boutiques that dominate Hawaii's other coastal towns are replaced with ranch-supply stores and supermarkets where you'll see paniolos running errands in their trademark cowboy hats circled with flower leis.

"They'll put a lot of effort into making those leis," one of the locals told me. "They'll work on them in the ranch stations at nights while talking story. Someone's always got a slack-keyed guitar and a ukulele up there, so there's lots of singing, too."

Flower arranging and singing? Keep your smiles to yourself, pardner. These are awfully tough hombres. "Unlike the mainland, there's no winter here, so paniolos cowboy 365 days a year," said Anthony. "On this rough terrain you've got to be an exceptional rider and roper." In 1908 the Parker Ranch sent several of its paniolos, including Ikua Purdy, to the world steer-roping championship in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Much to the surprise of mainland cowboys, he cleaned up. Purdy's bronze statue now graces the front of Waimea's main shopping center.

The town also has a state-of-the-art theater--a legacy of Richard Smart, who moved back permanently after more than two decades away to stage-manage the last act in the Parker Ranch. When he died in 1992, he left the ranch not to his outraged heirs but to a nonprofit trust he'd set up to benefit the Waimea community through educational, medical and charitable organizations. At the time, the ranch was valued at $450 million. It has probably gone up several-fold since then. Lucky Waimea.

"We are primarily a livestock operation, we still ship our calves to the mainland. Yet we also have diversified operations, from tourism and hunting to quarrying," said Diane Quitiquit, the ranch's vice president, as she sat in her corner office in the modern, corporatelike headquarters overlooking the basalt plains. "Smart left an extraordinary gift to Hawaii, and our plan is to provide perpetual support for the beneficiaries by making sure the ranch endures."

Almost on cue, a paniolo led a dozen tourist riders past the rodeo arena and onto the open slopes. Out there on a remote pasture the Parkers were gathered in an intimate family cemetery overlooking their empire, now destined to be kept intact in perpetuity. And there are plenty of ways to enjoy it [see inset].

The sun was setting somewhere behind the gathering mist on the slopes of Mauna Kea's volcanic highlands. Eerie forms began to appear on the plains of dry grass and basalt. Patrick Fisher, one of the ranch's hunting guides, peered through his rifle scope while gingerly setting up a shot for his mainland client.


"It's all yours," Patrick said as the client squatted and looked through the scope.

"I don't see anything but a rock."

"Shoot the left side of the rock."

The flash from the rifle shot illuminated a set of daggerlike tusks on the "rock" as it rolled over in the dusk: another Polynesian boar headed for a cooking pit.

There's no beach in sight, and no one's wearing a grass skirt, but this feels like the real Hawaii, the one John Parker saw when he bet his destiny on it. "These feed off the clover," said Patrick, examining the dead beast. "It'll be sweet meat. Perfect for a luau."

Visiting the Parker Ranch

The original Parker homestead, and main Parker mansion, which houses Richard Smart's outstanding art collection, are on Highway 190 just outside of Waimea. (808) 885-5433. The museum in the Parker Ranch Visitor Center in Waimea narrates the saga of the Parker family and paniolo culture, and the ranch offers several guided daily horseback and 4x4 ATV rides, including sunset rides. Private, custom rides can also be arranged. (808) 885-7655 for reservations. Upland game bird hunting, using pointing dogs to pursue 12 species of birds, including kalij, erkels and Japanese quail, is available October though February. The annual spring turkey hunt runs from March to April. Big-game hunting, which includes Polynesian boar, Spanish goat, black Hawaiian sheep, axis deer and even wild Vancouver bulls, is available year-round. For more information on hunting at the ranch, contact Patrick Fisher, (808) 960-4148, Schedules and directions for visiting the Parker Ranch can be found at
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