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The ruins of a ghost town

The Boys of Waialee

An historical profile of Waiale‘e’s most curious piece of architecture

Between Kahuku and Waialua, the rubble of a looming territorial-age building leans exhaustedly on the property where Crawford’s Convalescent Home now resides. Trade winds spill into what’s left of its four concrete walls, and the mountain ridgeline travels through each open hole, making landscape paintings out of rows of rectangular voids.

Hand-painted on wood and nailed to what used to be an entrance, a trio of signs greet us: No Parking; No Drink; Keep Out. Our photographer is already outside, respecting the imaginary boundary lines, taking pictures of what looks like the cubistic ribcage of some long-forgotten monster; a 2002 fire destroyed all but the concrete walls left standing now.

Although the building has long been vacant, one can’t help thinking about the boys who lived here from 1903 to around 1950: the boys of Waialee. According to Myron B. Thompson who wrote a Masterʻs thesis on the place, reasons for their confinement ranged from truancy, to larceny, assault and disobedience, but they shared one thing in common: a collective vitiation from society.

For the ‘Helpless and Neglected’

Hawaiʻi’s first reformatory school moved from Kapalama to Waialee in 1903, where it was named the Waialeʻe Industrial School For Boys. In 1865 the Pacific Commercial Advertiser reported that in the previous year, Kamehameha V, under the recommendations of the Board of Education, approved an act authorizing the BOE to “establish an industrial and reformatory school for the care and education of helpless and neglected children, and also for the reformation of juvenile offenders.”

The last section of the Act states that six thousand dollars were to be appropriated from the public treasury to help establish the school, “and with a surplus of funds accruing from the labor of children . . . may enlarge the school and establish branch schools on the other islands.”

Six thousand dollars in 1864 is roughly equal to $82,674 today, and bought the school an ahupuaa that included about 700 acres from the mountains to the sea.

Dark Cells

The school appears ghastly in a photograph in a 1919 Star-Bulletin article with the caption, “Dormitory.” The article reports, “[m]embers of the education committee of the house of representatives are of the opinion that the so-called dark cells or dungeons are improper and should be abolished.” The basement still exists today, hiding behind the overgrowth. One can’t help but wonder if this was where the “dark cells,” and dark activitiy held therin, were located.

Another Star-Bulletin article reveals excerpts of a journal discovered by then-superintendent Morris Freedman that covers most of the inmates from 1989 to 1908. “Disobedience to the moral suasion of parents [resulted in] a man-sized term of 3 to 5 years . . . Runaways were not few and far between . . . Ball and chain were used.”

Thompson’s thesis quotes from an unpublished article written by Freedman between 1935–1939 that reflects on the school’s startling policies on corporeal punishment before his tenure: “Oregon boots, shackles, leg irons, cat-o-nine tails, straps soaked in vinegar and salt, terrific lashings and beatings were the order of the day. In 1921, when Mr. Wesson [took over] the school his first act was to destroy these vestiges of the Dark Ages era [and he] discontinued the use of dark cells which were built below the level of the street surface . . . his treatment was by far more humane than it had been before.”

Sustainable Irony

The Waialeʻe Industrial School For Boys was meant to be a self-sustaining school. The boys, whose ages ranged from seven to 25, cultivated their own taro, bananas, sweet potato and sugarcane and raised cattle and pigs for milk and meat, and managed the school’s farm, repair shop, engine room, generators, water power, carpenter shop, tailor shop [and] ice house,” according to the Honolulu Advertiser in 1928. As times changed however, the boys’ work moved from agriculatural to industrial.

An average of 180 boys are reported to have lived at the school at any given time; they even assembled a music band and performed in many parades in Honolulu. The practice hall remains today, covered in graffiti across the street.

It’s surprising then, that in the school’s 50 controversial years of behavioral correction there is only one instance of a known escape. In 1946, four kids apparently made it all the way to Kahala in stolen cars, only to break into several homes in the area before they were captured by Honolulu police.

Alice Lou, the current owner of the property and administrator of Crawford’s Convalescent Home was amazed at how far the boys got when they had escaped. She and her husband have owned the property for over 50 years, yet claim to know very little about its history.

“You know,” she said, “when I was a little girl we used to take the open train from Aala Park in town, all the way to Haleiwa Beach Park over here. All the roads after that were covered in rough coral rocks. It must have been a whole other world for [those boys], out here in the country at that time.”