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Cannery Tales: Community Leaders Talk Story About Bygone Summers in Honolulu’s Pineapple Factories

Honolulu’s pineapple factories provided a rite of passage for generations of teens, including state senator David Ige and sumo star Konishiki. These summer jobs tossed them into the grind of a production line and left them with a mix of memories.


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historic photos: courtesy of the dole food co. archives at uh’s hamilton library

 

For decades, Hawai‘i served as the crown jewel of the world pineapple industry, growing the golden fruit, running state-of-the-art canning operations and providing generations of students with summer seasonal work in the fields and the factories.

 

In Honolulu, the seasonal job served as an important rite of passage, an introduction into the world of work. It was a chance to earn money, often enough to get by without a part-time job during the school year.

 

It was one of the most common jobs available to teenagers in the 1950s until the 1980s when pineapple production wound down. The work could be hard, the hours long, but a lot of folks told us these jobs shaped them in ways they didn’t expect back when they were identified by round metal bango numbers pinned to
their shirts.

 

Former cannery workers now are woven throughout our community. We’re pretty sure most folks know someone who can share a cannery tale. Among them, we found a bank president and his financier father, one of Hawai‘i’s most famous sumo stars, two state senators and a host of others with stories to share.

 

The work convinced them to study harder or to work someplace easier, impressed upon them the importance of teamwork and gave them a chance to meet a lot of other teenagers. We reached out to folks who spent time in the line at the Dole or Del Monte canneries here on O‘ahu. We know others worked in fields across the state and at other canneries, but we focused on the Honolulu operations for this slice of life.

 

We found a wide variety of experiences, including one man who lasted less than a week, whom we will keep anonymous: On his second day on the job, he drove a forklift into the elevator shaft.

 

Some stayed one season, such as Bank of Hawai‘i president and CEO Peter Ho, who spent the summer of 1979 at Dole Cannery scooping pineapple scraps onto a conveyor belt.

 

Others, like his father, financier Stuart Ho, spent multiple summers at the cannery. Stuart Ho said both he and his children attended Punahou School, so working at the cannery offered them a look at life outside the private-school community. He took his son to apply for a summer job there one Saturday morning. Instead of heading for their usual breakfast at King’s Bakery, he drove to the pineapple water tower at Dole Cannery.

 

When they walked out, the 14-year-old Ho was signed up to work the night shift—from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m.—at $3.40 an hour, a nickel an hour more than the day shift. Peter Ho, now 49, says he is glad he had the experience. “It was an eye-opener for me.”

 

Stuart Ho fondly recalls his cannery work as a fascinating, fun and fast-paced time.

 

But why take his son to work there instead of some finance-related job? “It was manual labor; because I thought that somebody who would probably end up behind a desk ought to know what that was all about.”

 

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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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