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.
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
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.”
Community leader and retired financier, 79, worked as a tray boy at Dole Cannery in the early 1950s.
It was pretty good money in those days— almost a dollar an hour. I was the lowest of the low, what was known as a tray boy. I worked at the Dole Cannery. It was good work when you could get it because of the labor laws at that time. With the summer rush of pine, when the harvest was at its peak, you could work until you dropped. When you worked over eight hours, you could work overtime, you could even get doubletime.
You didn’t think of it as a hard job. Everybody thought it was a neat way to make money during the summer. A lot of your classmates were either working on the line or were tray boys like you. The more experienced, year-round workers became your supervisors during the summertime.
If you were going to a school like Punahou, you sure met the community, I tell you that. You met all kinds of people. It pretty much opened your eyes. You met a lot of guys that you would meet later in life. Tommy Fujiwara, the singer? He was a good-looking guy. He was a mechanic and wore a khaki cap that allowed him to roam anywhere throughout the cannery. He was always hitting on the girls and they loved it. You met all kinds of guys. It was a lot of fun. You met the main street. You learned discipline. You learned you had to show up on time and get back from your break on time. You had to meet a schedule. You were expected to do your job or things started to pile up. You were in a factory. In a factory, you keep going and, if you don’t, things stop.
48, senior vice president of Island Holdings Inc. parent company of several subsidiaries including: Island Insurance, Tradewind Capital Group, Atlas Insurance Agency, Pacxa, IC International. He worked the night shift as a palletizer at Dole for the summer of 1982. (Disclosure: Keith’s wife, Bonny Amemiya, is the chief financial officer of our magazine’s overall owner, aio group.)
I was 16 and I needed a job to make money. We just all went down and filled out paperwork and got hired. Several of the people I met working at the cannery, I still keep in touch. It seemed like everybody worked there, until the early ’80s.
You did it not only for the money, but to prove yourself in a challenging working environment. It was hard work. I didn’t necessarily go out of my way to tell them I went to Punahou. You worked constantly. I worked the night shift. I swear it was a quarter more. I had an unusual job. I was a palletizer. I stacked the pineapple cans on a pallet. The cans just keep coming down this conveyor belt. The palletizer device had suction cups.
When there were enough cans, you drop down the suction cups, it would suck up all the cans, drop it to the right, and you put a piece of cardboard on. And do the process over and over and over for eight hours.
Sometimes they would be large cans, sometimes the tiny tuna-size cans of rings. It just depended on the day and what was being processed. It was monotonous, but it forced you to pay attention. You had to move fast. If you let the suction go too early, all 50 cans just fall. If you released it too early before the cans reached the pallet, then all the cans would go flying all over. The bad thing is then you slow down the rest of the line.
If the palletizer has to stop the cans from coming down, then you slow down everybody. So there was pressure to not screw up. If one person doesn’t do his or her job, it stops the whole process. I was the end of the line.
You always smelled like pineapple the whole summer. The smell and stickiness of pineapple. For years, I didn’t want to eat any. But eventually I got over it and I like it again. Just the one summer, that was plenty.
Best known as the Hawai‘i-born sumo star Konishiki, worked for Dole in the late ’70s/early ’80s, first in the field, then on the line at the cannery as a UH Lab School student. Now 50, he lives in Tokyo, and his current jobs include entertainer, producer, DJ and founder of the Konishiki Kids Foundation which benefits the children of the Leeward Coast.
It was fun. I was young and wild. I was picking pineapple one summer, and then I worked the cannery one summer. I think the cannery was better. I was working nights. We had the graveyard shift.
During the summer, it was mostly all same-age people, and you see guys who played football on other teams. We trained all day and that’s why we worked graveyard.
I used to throw the pineapples down into the shoot. It takes off the heads. I worked the section where the pineapple goes through the machine, and then it cleans around and takes off the skin, and then it goes down into the section where they cut the pineapples. You got to watch out, the pineapples fly out of the machines and the things hit you in the arms. Everything was so itchy. Our arms used to be all scratched.
It wasn’t a good job; it was the only job. No more too much choices. Some of my friends used to go to Lāna‘i and pick pineapples. It was the only thing they really had. You don’t have to use your brain. You use your brain all year round for school.
Anytime you’re thrown into a community of workers that has rules and regulations and uniforms, it teaches you. It’s like a team. If you don’t have the labor to carry out the ideas, this world won’t turn. The laborers should get more pay. Imagine if they all walked out? I own my own company. I create and produce shows. That was my first experience working with hundreds and hundreds of people. I would encourage any kid at a young age to try to get into a workforce where there are a lot of people, so they can see the importance of labor in anything you do. It’s like in football, if you don’t have the linemen, the quarterback would never make points.
Teamwork is very important. You have to have a solid team all focusing on the same goal, making sure everybody stays with the plan. If you try to be different, try to be too slow or too fast, you spoil the whole team’s efforts.
I had a lot of fun. We’d take breaks. We used to sit in the parking lot. Sometimes we’d fall asleep and they would find us sleeping in the parking lot. I think we got fired. It was almost the end of the summer.
We were getting ready for football anyway, so it was a good time to go.
63, worked as a trimmer for Dole and California Packing Co., Del Monte’s predecessor, during the summers of 1967 and 1968.
The two canneries were really different. CPC was kind of strict. You had to stand the whole time, and there was no talking. Dole was fun. They played music—The Young Rascals, The Raiders, “Heard it Through the Grapevine,” Herman’s Hermits. All the trimmers would kind of dance as we worked. We would go to the right, then go to the left. Dole had a happier, better atmosphere, and we were more productive. And Dole had seats. We didn’t actually sit down a lot, because you worked better standing. But you could grab a seat when the machine got stuck.
You know that show where Lucille Ball is working in the chocolate factory, and the machine starts going faster and faster, and she can’t keep up so she starts eating the candy? That’s how it felt in the cannery sometimes. Sometimes the pineapples would go by so fast, it definitely reminded me of I Love Lucy.
Shirley Tanabe Lee
66, worked as a trimmer at Dole Cannery one summer in the 1960s. Today, she’s a tariff administrator at Young Brothers.
I worked one summer at Dole during the night shift, around 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. It was work, no fun. So one summer was more than enough for me. But I always say, everyone should work at the cannery so they have the ambition to do something better. Checking pineapples was a boring job. The pineapple came out of the shoot and those at the beginning checked what they could and those at the end had to hurry before the pineapple went down the drain. Someone told me, just take off two slices at each end and you’re good. At that time, I hated pineapple, but guess what, today I love pineapple, especially with li hing powder!
60, worked on the catwalk in the Dole Cannery during the summer of 1968. Today, he’s the host of KHON-TV’s Let’s Go Fishing.
I worked on the catwalk to ensure the cans filled with pineapple didn’t jam up on the wire tracks as they were headed for sealing. When the cans would invariably jam up, we would reach over with sticks and knock them loose.
I remember the giant pineapple water tower was still on the roof then. I remember the cafeteria food was good. It was real local food, like tripe stew. I remember catching the bus home from this part of town at 5 in the morning was sketchy. I lived in Kaimukī, and I would often fall asleep and miss my stop. The shift was 44 hours a week, if I remember correctly. Overtime didn’t begin until the 45th hour.
I remember there were days when all the pineapple processing stopped, and everybody showed up dressed to scrub down the entire place. There was some really weird white mold on the bottoms of the conveyor belts the ladies worked on. Some unusual life that I had not seen before.
One summer of that was enough for me.
Chair of the UH Department of Medicine, worked as a packer for Del Monte in the summer of 1969.
I worked there at the urging of my mom and dad. They really felt that if you grew up in Hawai‘i, you should have that experience. It’s funny, though—they didn’t ask my younger brother and sister to do it. I think the issue was that I landed the 3-to-11 p.m. shift, and my parents would have to pick me up every night after work. That may have been a deterrent.
The cannery was very colorful, very diverse. Sometimes there were knife fights in the cafeteria. I won’t say who, but they were usually between the women of different racial groups. So yeah, it was very colorful. But it was neat to meet people of all ages, of all socio-economic groups, from high school to almost grandpas and grandmas. It was a great equalizer.
Working cannery didn’t shape my choice of career, but it may have influenced how I apply it. I feel very comfortable providing care to the underserved or different economic groups. I think I may listen a little more carefully for the backstory, what got them into my office, into the hospital. I think hearing all those stories at the cannery, and just learning about all that humanity, was very important—more than I realized at the time.
58, general manager of Dole Food Co. Hawai‘i, which is part of worldwide Dole, one of the world’s largest marketers of fresh fruits and vegetables. He has worked for Dole for 26 years and worked alongside the teen hires when he first started in 1988.
Dole was the biggest fruit cannery in the world at one time. The company is still growing pineapple here on O‘ahu but this is fresh fruit, not canned. We now grow about one-third of the crop of the heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.
I was a shift-supervisor trainee in the cannery, training with the high school kids. I had to learn the line jobs. They wanted to make sure you knew how hard those jobs were. How sore your legs get from standing for eight to 10 hours.
Trimmers, packers, everything has to be clean and cleaned over and over again. One crew goes to lunch while another rushes in with raincoats and hoses. There wasn’t a single job there that was easy. Feeding the Ginaca machine which sent out 60 pineapples a minute. Coming down one a second with four people trimming them, you can kind of get seasick if you haven’t done it before. All that movement, it’s kind of like being in a rocking boat.
And nobody gets to sit down. You sit, you stand, you sit, you stand. Every job in a cannery is a tough job. I don’t think anybody had an easy job. I did ‘em all but I did them poorly.
The natural harvest of pineapples in Hawai‘i peaks in the summer. Way back in the day, they’d peak it up on purpose even though fruit takes 18 months to reach harvest.
I remember being impressed as a kid when I first heard that workers could drink as much pineapple juice as they wanted and then I found it was true!
The Hawai‘i pineapple industry starting shrinking with the first construction of Mililani. Now, there’s a sweeter pineapple with less acid than that used for canning. The pineapple you buy today is much more palatable and can be picked riper. They’re fresh and they’re being shipped as whole pineapple. In the past, they had to pick fruit green to ship to the West Coast, because shipping takes about a week from field to market. Now, we pick it today, it can be in the local store tomorrow.
58, a dietitian and diabetes researcher with UH’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. She worked as a trimmer for Del Monte in the summers of 1971 and 1972.
I was prone to having a lot of pine juice splash on me. It used to drip down my apron and go behind my knees. I used to get pine burn all over. I was always in the infirmary. They would put some kind of ointment and powder on my arms, then wrap me up in gauze. My arms were always wrapped up with tons of gauze.
It got so bad sometimes they would pull me off the line and put me to work in the cafeteria making sandwiches—bologna, tuna and egg salad. I also made dressing.
After the graveyard shift we would get something to eat at Jack in the Box, usually tacos, and we would drive along Hotel Street. We were good girls, cruising Hotel Street because we were so amused by all the men in women’s clothing. It was like, “Wow! Check it out! We definitely don’t have any of this in ‘Aiea!”
When I got home my family would go, “Ugh, you smell like a pineapple!”
As a dietitian, I can say pineapples are terrific. They’ve got lots of vitamin C. They’re tasty. They have an enzyme called bromelain that’s kind of a tenderizing agent. Working at the cannery didn’t ruin my image of pineapples. I still like ’em.
66, a Hawai‘i state senator, worked at cannery jobs for three summers in the 1960s as a trimmer and a packer.
Minimum wage was $1.25 per hour but we felt like millionaires on payday. We used to put Vaseline and baby powder over our arms and the elastics of athletic socks before putting on our gloves so the pineapple juice wouldn’t run down into our gloves, causing bad rashes.
If the trimmers at the front of the line didn’t pick up their share of pine, those at the end were unfairly burdened. If you were quick, you could find yourself at the end of the line. But a good floor manager could bring balance by changing how we lined up.
I have a scar on my left ring finger from stopping a trimming knife from hitting someone next to me. It slipped out of the hands of someone trimming across the table from me.
That same forelady chose that time to tell me the original shaka sign was from someone who worked in the cannery and lost their three middle fingers in the Ginaca. After that, I used to have dreams that someone was screaming after opening a can of pineapple and a part of a finger was in there—mine.
When the Ginaca machines sent pineapples down too fast, the forelady would signal the guy (for some reason only the guys got to work the Ginaca machines) by pointing to her cane-trimming knife and then pointing at him—meaning that she would have it in for him if he didn’t slow it down.
Whenever the pau-hana time was changed to later hours, the time would be posted on a scoreboard and there would be a loud groan throughout the cannery. We worked night shift and worked so much OT, depending on how many trucks kept coming in. I caught the bus to and from work and was very self-conscious about smelling like a pineapple. It took me almost 30 years to eat pineapple again.
55, spent the summers of 1974 and 1975 working as a trimmer in the Del Monte Cannery. Today, he’s a nutritionist with the state Department of Education.
When you got a job at the cannery, there were no interviews. You just got in line and applied. They would tell you right away if you were hired. I was 15, and, not knowing anything about the process, I stood in the wrong line. The lady said, “OK, are you ready to leave in one week?” I had accidentally gotten in line for picking pineapples on Lāna‘i. I had this sinking feeling, like I had just accidentally joined the Army. I did not want to pick pineapple on Lāna‘i, but I was too gun-shy after that to apply for a regular job at Dole, so I went to Del Monte.
We were very young and there was a lot of monotony. I remember the rowdy guys used to jam up the Ginaca machine sometimes. They would hold their hand over where the pineapples shoot out, and the pineapples would stack up and get stuck inside. If you jammed it right, you could get a 15-minute break while they stopped the machine to clear it out.
That job made me think that when I got out of high school, I never wanted to have a job such as that again. I went to UH and majored in education with a minor in food. I work for the DOE. The ironic thing is my office is at the Dole Cannery building, which has been converted to shops and offices. I got a job at Dole after all.
59, consulting economist, worked at Dole Cannery in ‘Iwilei in June 1973 as a forklift operator earning $1.65 an hour the summer after he graduated from high school. He quit after nine days.
I did show my lack of finesse once by taking a turn too quickly—mind you, we’re driving backward—and out of the corner of my eye I watched each layer of those tiny cans of crushed pineapple, steaming hot cans right out of the boilers, peeling off in layers one by one like a grotesque, twisting, slow-motion unraveling of the world’s largest Lego tower come unplugged, flying outward from the curvature of my turn and onto the pavement below, that black, hot asphalt and a million hot, steaming cans of crushed pineapple exploding as they hit the ground, making an awesome, syrupy mess, which, of course, I had to clean up. I learned to appreciate and respect people’s skills honed over a lifetime of work.
The biggest lesson I learned at Dole Cannery was that if there was ever a reason to go to college and get a higher education, spending nine days down in Iwilei in that Dole Cannery lot was reason enough. That place, in June 1973, baked like I had never known heat. Now, I lived on the Windward Side, and mauka at that, so it was pretty much tradewinds. Mind you, I wasn’t taking an acid bath like the ladies on the Ginaca machines in the cannery itself, I was out shuttling loads from the line to the cooling shed, or from there to the packing shed. But I was out in that damn lot, in and out of the shade of those hot warehouses into the direct heat of the sun. And that smell, how can I describe that smell? It was not a pineapple smell. No, it wasn’t pineapple. That’s the smell of the Dole Cannery yard, and you can go behind Costco today and that same smell is still in the air, in that spot. Remarkable, and eerie. But anyway, a week or two with these old dudes who had spent their lives driving forklifts at Dole Cannery and I was all ready to go to college. No offense to them, but I was ready for air conditioning and higher thinking, shall we say.
66, worked as a trimmer one summer in the 1960s. Now, she’s retired and babysits her grandson.
Forty-plus years ago I worked at CPC (California Packers Co.) as a trimmer. I had to wear a hat, apron and rubber gloves. They also issued a bango number because it probably was easier to keep track of people by numbers instead of names.
I was assigned to a table or line of maybe 12 people. When the skinned and cored pineapple shot out of the machine, we would trim whatever excess skin the machine left on the pineapple.
The people at the beginning of the line, where the pineapple shot out of the machine, worked really hard trimming the pineapple and toward the end of the line people were cruising. But when the foreman started shouting, “Pass the pine down,” we knew the boss or bosses were coming to check on us. That’s when everyone on the line had to work.
State senator, 57, gubernatorial candidate who defeated incumbent Neil Abercrombie in the primary. He worked at the Del Monte Cannery for five years, 1973-77, starting as a trimmer earning $1.40 an hour in high school, and then working in quality control testing in summers home from college.
I chose Del Monte because I thought I could get more overtime, because they didn’t go to three shifts, they only ran two shifts.
We always worked the night shift, the last shift, because it gave us the best opportunity for overtime. We volunteered to be part of the cleanup crews on the weekends.
Because it was a full-time job during the summer, we could make a lot of money. It allowed me to not have to work during the rest of the school year. I was obviously saving for college, university and spending money.
We would work until they laid us off, usually in late August. Be prompt and on time and not call in sick. We were reliable and they could count on us being available.
It was fun. It wasn’t the most glamorous job but there were a lot of younger people working there. I chose to work at the cannery because it did allow me to work only during the summer. I was very active in student government, I was on the newswriting staff, the yearbook staff, I was playing tennis. You learn a lot of time management. Working at the cannery just allowed me to do more stuff at school and allowed me to be involved.
The thing that was remarkable, the pineapple canneries in Hawai‘i really were amongst the leaders in the world, in terms of the technology. There were a lot of things that were developed that were the first of their kind in the world.
You do learn to eat quickly. Lunch was 30 minutes, exactly. The whistle would go off and you had to get to the cafeteria and get your food and eat. You had to be back at your station in 30 minutes. You learned very quickly or you starved.
You met lots of people. It was kind of what teenagers did at the time.
50, worked in the Dole Cannery for three summers after he graduated in 1982 from Leilehua High School and while attending Michigan State University. He is now president and CEO of public relations firm Stryker Weiner & Yokota.
It taught me how hard manual labor is, especially in a factory. It’s hot. It did give me an appreciation for people who do that kind of work. I grew up in Wahiawā. My friends were picking pine in the summers.
I went to Michigan State and the second summer that I worked there, one of the other guys working at the cannery was on the Michigan State football team. A local guy. A Division I athlete and he’s working at the cannery.
I don’t remember my job title. My job, which was actually considered one of the easiest jobs in the cannery, was I monitored the conveyor belts. Sometimes the conveyor belts would get jammed and my job would be to unjam the cans so they could go to get labeled. I had a crowbar that I would use to help unjam the cans. The cans all ran overhead through three buildings. In the places that usually got jams, they actually had stairs and ladders, so I was supposed to climb up and get above and unjam it that way.
But, one jam, it didn’t look too bad and I was feeling lazy. I just started poking at it to try and knock the cans loose. I clearly hit one can a little too hard. It popped out of the conveyor belt and fell straight onto my head. See that scar? It gashed my head. I didn’t realize how bad it was. I walked back to where my supervisor was. He told me “You’ve got blood all over your face.” They actually stitched up my head in the dispensary. It was only like three or four stitches and then they immediately sent me back to work.
It did teach me not to take shortcuts. When you’re doing something that is potentially hazardous, definitely don’t take shortcuts. The safety rules are there for a reason.
There was always that constant smell of pine, cooking pine, they steamed it in the can. I couldn’t eat canned pineapple for about two or three years after I worked there. Now, I love it. I love canned pineapple.
Additional images from the Dole archives at the UH Manoa Hamilton Library.