Reinventing Hawaii’s Round Top
For decades, Puu Ualakaa State Wayside was cared for by one man. Now, its management is changing hands, to a commercial tour company. What the shift means for one of Oahu’s most scenic parks.
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Crazy Shirts founder Rick Ralston lived at Nutridge for three decades, turning it into the estate it is today.
Photos: David croxford
Puu Ualakaa State Wayside—near Round Top lookout—looks the way it does today because of Crazy Shirts founder Rick Ralston. If you’ve driven around the state park entrance at dusk or dawn and seen a rather scruffy-looking man opening or closing the gate, or mowing along the side of the road, you saw Ralston at work. He took care of the property for 31 years. As he puts it: “Just part of the deal.”
Ralston’s arrangement was one of about 40 leases administered by the Hawaii state Department of Land and Natural Resources statewide. He lived on a month-to-month, revocable lease arrangement for $604 per month, provided he lock the gates, discourage overnight visitors, and generally keep the place in good condition.
For decades, that arrangement worked for both the atypical businessman/entrepreneur and the state parks division.
When Ralston first visited the Nutridge house at a dinner in 1976, there was a volleyball-sized hole in the living-room ceiling and pine trees growing through the roof. The lawn was so overgrown that he couldn’t walk through it. “It was deplorable,” Ralston said. He had to have it.
Ralston, now 72, says he immediately saw the beauty that once existed at Nutridge (see sidebar on page 46 for more history), and could taste the marrow in its bones.
Ralston took over the lease from the previous caretaker. He bought the man’s furniture and his Lincoln Continental and sold them, turned over the proceeds so the man could buy a condo, and then Ralston started the renovations that would span decades.
“People wondered why I would want to take over this run-down house and spend a lot of my money fixing it up when I couldn’t buy it and could only get a short-term lease that was month-to-month,” Ralston says.
But fixing things just made sense to him, even as a kid. “We didn’t have any money, so if we wanted a bicycle, we’d get some rusty wreck and strip it all down and sand it and paint it and grease it up. I was into fixing things up out of need and necessity. I developed the concept of saving things.”
Nutridge was in definite need of saving, and Ralston ended up doing a complete restoration: “Gave it a brand-new roof, redid the floors, redid the wallpaper, redid all the fixtures, took every piece of hardware off, replated everything. We did it right and it was the perfect historic preservation piece.”
Ralston paid for all the work on the house including termite treatment, landscaping of the grounds, as well as any yardwork done outside of the state park. The state estimates he spent about $40,000 of his own money on Nutridge; Ralston figures it cost that much to repair the roof just once.
Fortunately, Ralston had the money to afford all the renovations, thanks to an earlier and equally unlikely-sounding venture. Ralston arrived in Hawaii in 1962 with $60 in his pocket. To make some money, he painted T-shirts with sharks and surfers on them and sold them to sailors. That cruising lifestyle grew into a business called Ricky’s Crazy Shirts—now known simply as Crazy Shirts—which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. (Ralston no longer owns the company, having sold it to Big Dog Holdings in 2001. He remains a consultant.)
By the late ’70s and early ’80s, business was good enough at Crazy Shirts to enable Ralston to buy and invest in the restoration of aging properties that intrigued him, most of which are on the National Register of Historic Places. The magnificent Graystones house on Nehoa Drive? That’s a Ralston rescue. So is Mānoa Valley Inn and Maui’s Lahaina Inn.
Ralston’s projects have taken him across the state and made him philosophical about moving on to his next project.