The history of Parker Ranch is intimately connected with that of Hawai’i. As the website states (parkerranch.com), “the Parker family and Hawaiian royal families built relationships—as rulers and subjects, but also friends, colleagues and extended ‘ohana.” That history spanned a colorful and abundant 175 years, and as a result of this legacy, close ties and cultural bonds have remained between the ranch and community on the Big Island. The commonality is especially experienced in terms of the continued commitment on the part of Parker Ranch to sustain and support the past, values, trappings, spirit and lifestyle of paniolo (Hawaiian cowboys).
Dr. Billy Bergin is working on his last volume, number four, in his history about the Parker Ranch he named, Loyal to the Land, Parker Ranch, An Enduring Sense of Place. He describes to me how the Hawaiian cowboy, originally on foot, became a mounted rider and eventually excelled so much in ranching and horse mastery skills that the word got to the mainland of the amazing feats taking place among the paniolo, the name given to the Hawaiian cowboys derived from espagñol, the language the Mexican vaqueros spoke. Billy tells how the cattle first arrived in Hawai‘i in 1793, followed 10 years later by the horses in 1803. As the king’s order was in place that the cattle could not be butchered, to make time for them to populate, free-roaming cattle had produced a haphazard situation with gardens being uprooted by them and other messes created.
To bring the situation under control, the king invited “three Mexican vaqueros,” in Billy’s words, to the Big Island and others to Maui and O‘ahu. The aim was to gather the cattle into larger herds so that they could be roped and branded, that is, managed. The writer keenly observes that the Hawaiians took to the training naturally, fitting into the regimen, owing to their athleticism and skills they had already highly developed; for example, weaving and carving, they utilized respectively in making tapa (an indigenous bark cloth decorated with symbols) and canoe construction. These skills transferred, as if by magic, to weaving a lariat and carving the horn of a saddle. Billy points out the amazing eye-to-hand coordination the Hawaiians are known for that quickly helped them to adapt to the sport and culture of being a cowboy. He says it took them all of 18 months to climb onto the back of a horse and begin “taming the countryside.”
“The Parker family and Hawaiian royal families built relationships—as rulers and subjects, but also friends, colleagues and extended ‘ohana. That history spanned a colorful and abundant 175 years, and as a result of this legacy, close ties and cultural bonds have remained between the ranch and community on the Big Island.”
By 1908, the Parker Ranch paniolo were ready for showtime on the mainland. Three exceptional cowboys: Ikua Purdy and Jack Low (both the great, great grandson of ranch founder John Palmer Parker) and Archie Ka‘aua represented the Big Island ranch in 1908 at the premier rodeo competition, Cheyenne Frontier Days. From that day on, Purdy became such a legend that a statue memorializing him stands today in Waimea in front of the Parker Ranch Center. The three paniolo not only excelled competing among the best of rodeo cowboys, but in ranch arts that are rare today, for example, saddle-making. For his part, Purdy born in Waimea in 1873 had competed throughout the Hawaiian Islands, demonstrating his mastery of the rope. His claim to fame at the Cheyenne rodeo was that he set a record of roping a steer in 56 flat seconds. The onlookers also delighted in the Hawaiian cowboys’ style of dress. They sported lei (ropes of flowers) around the brims of their hats and paraded their superbly handcrafted saddles. Ikua Purdy and Archie Ka‘aua were recognized as “rascals of the lariat” by the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
In his musings about paniolo culture, Billy has come to realize that it is best understood as a brotherhood. As he puts it, “Cowboys all over the world are brothers beneath the skin.” According to him, Parker Ranch provided the paniolo with an abundance of the things they most cared about. Billy describes how cowboys love to work for an outfit that has prime cattle. As veterinarian for the ranch for 25 years from 1970 to 1995, Billy can attest to the fitness of the babies, remembering in the preface he writes, the “heavy weaning weights of the calves with slick coats and bloomy body conditions, and uniform consistency of feeders shipped from the ranch.” Next, cowboys go for horses. Parker Ranch excelled in the quality of animals they groomed for their operation. As for the horses, they were desirable in every respect, showstopping specimens that rose to the top in every field, whether ranching, horse racing, the cavalry or polo, according to Billy. He continues, noting the attraction the ranch held for an 18-year-old with the “best cattle and best horses” on offer. And, the tradition of excellence did not stop there. The cowboys could also have access to the best equipment. Overarching the entire establishment was the leadership “great men” were known to exercise at the ranch.
The paniolo were integral to the success of Parker Ranch, but they were only part of the story. Billy talks about how early on, even before it had become standard practice, Parker Ranch engaged the highest standard of veterinary medicine around 1901 or 1902. The ranch was under the leadership of A.W. Carter at the time who believed in “maintaining the best consultants,” Billy reflects. Professionalism existed across the board whether in animal welfare or agricultural sciences. The kind of leadership that always sought out academically informed “best” practices continued to influence ranch operations. The ranch’s animal doctor knew this to be especially true when Richard Smart took over management, and Billy experienced the executive function first-hand in management meetings with Smart for 25 years.
The glue holding this remarkable enterprise all together not only originated in commonalities about lifestyle and close relationships between animals and humans, but in the generous treatment of its employees by Parker Ranch with the idea of cultivating a ranch family, with the members loyal to each other and, as Billy puts it in his writing, “loyal to the land.” In the preface to his newest volume soon to be published, Billy recounts that people worked for the ranch for a “steady income, a roof over their head for the family, weekly allotments of meat, milk, and poi, abundant hunting and fishing opportunities. Others sought educational and medical benefits that were so dear to the heart of leaders such as A.W. Carter and owner Richard Smart.”
Billy experienced the making of a family in himself and in those he shared the ranch with over many decades. As he contemplates the past, he writes of the legacy of the ranch in the hearts and lives of the community. He reflects, “It is difficult to put into words the transformation that occurs when someone becomes a part of the Parker Ranch family. An individual rarely goes into the experience intending to fall in love with the lifestyle, the people, the work ethic, animals, culture and environment. Yet, no one who experiences the Parker Ranch can forget it, nor get the aloha for the ranch out of their system. It is a life-changing experience that becomes a part of that person; memories are cherished for a lifetime.”
The ranch is now run by trustees who maintain it as a charitable trust. Although there were inevitable bumps after Richard Smart’s death in 1992 and as the will was enacted, Billy estimated that around the years 2012 to 2014 “the trusteeship had pretty much professionalized with the Parker Ranch Foundation Trust coming into maturity.” Material support for the community enterprises that are the beneficiaries along with the stabilization of ranch operations have all occurred. When I asked Billy what was perhaps the most important legacy of the ranch, he pointed to “57,000 acres of its most scenic and productive land” that is now protected in “conserved” perpetuity. For the community, it only takes a drive-up Mana Road to enjoy the sights of the ranch, the remnants of Purdy’s home, rolling hills, the old silo, the forests, as Billy likes to describe, “the very scenery that helped the paniolo grow their deep roots in Hawaiian culture.” And, this experience is available to future generations in perpetuity.