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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Is this the best use of Puu Ualakaa? Round Top resident Charles Black is going to miss Ralston’s touch on the property. Black lived on the mountain his whole life, and remembers in the ’30s going down with his brother to Nutridge, then still a working mac nut farm, with .22 rifles and poking rats’ nests with long bamboo sticks, earning 10 cents per tail for every rat they shot.
“Rick has made it just an incredible property that was more than what it ever was under Mr. Van Tassel’s regime,” Black says. “He has enhanced the grounds with trees and plants and flowers, just made it a very spectacular retreat.”
Black says that, in the days since the transition began, the roadside areas that Ralston maintained grew wild again.
“You can tell right now it’s gone to hell. ... I’m sorry to see him go. I don’t believe the state or the city will be able to do the maintenance, and I really don’t feel it’s up to the Tantalus residents to get out there on [weekend] work days to do what the city and state should be doing. As it is a national historic road, it becomes a tourist attraction.”
Chad Thompson, the son of Ralston’s girlfriend, has since taken over as groundskeeper for the home at night, as well as landscaper outside the park gates. It’s a continuation of Ralston’s work, but it also benefits Discover Hawaii Tours to have the area look groomed for clients.
Jennie Peterson, a Round Top resident for 66 years and historian for the Tantalus Community Association, says, “Rick was a fabulous neighbor. He mowed that lawn outside the park,” with a dedication that government workers will never be able to match. “Rick also kept graffiti down a lot. All that work; we’re just so disappointed.”
It’s the same for Ralston. He understands it was a unique situation, an ongoing project to keep the house in good shape. And he has a new project to work on, one valley over. “I’ve got a nice, big farm in the back of Palolo Valley,” he says. When you live month-to-month at the behest of the Hawaii state government, you make sure to have a backup plan. “I’ve been sitting on it for 20 years. ... My girlfriend is a real trouper, putting up with all this stuff. She really made it clear and simple when she said, ‘Rick, you can start fixing up the old property instead of fixing up the state’s property.’”
He leaves without bitterness. “It was a lot of maintenance, but I loved it. We had hundreds of beautiful sunsets every year. It was a wonderful community. … I’m going to miss all of them, but right now, I’m overwhelmed with the work to do in my new home to get settled in and clear the jungle there,” Ralston says, adding that he’s also busy with a new line of aloha clothes at another company he founded, Rix Island Wear. “I don’t have a chance to miss anything, really,” he says. “I’m just too focused on looking ahead.”
History in a Nutshell
Of the houses in the tantalus community The Ernest Shelton Van Tassel House, or Nutridge, certainly isn’t the biggest or the most extravagant, but it’s historic enough to be named in the National Register of Historic Places. Here’s how it came to be:
1922: Architect Hart Wood designed the house for Van Tassel, who got the money for the project from his aunt, Marjorie Merriweather Post, a socialite and the founder of General Foods.
1925: Van Tassel had planted about 700 macadamia nut trees there by 1925, but eventually found the wet weather wasn’t ideal for the trees. He focused his macadamia growing instead on the Kona side of the Big Island and decommissioned the farm at Round Top.
1947: Van Tassel continuted to live at Nutridge until his death in 1947.
1983: Rick Ralston took over the lease of the aging estate and saved it from the brink of collapse at least twice.
2014: Today, Nutridge is seeing a change of guard. The Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of State Parks re-evaluated its relationship with Ralston in an effort to increase its revenue from the property. “The real goal,” says Curt Cottrell, the assistant administrator for the division and initiator of the change, “was that I wanted the public to have access to the structure because it’s so beautiful and so unique.”