The First Kona Coffee Festival Parade: Kona Nightingale Gals ~ 1953
Would you believe that once upon a time lovely young ladies competed for the title of Miss Kona Nightingale? You bet they did! Step back in time to 1953 and be a part of the FIRST Kona Coffee Festival Parade. It started in the town of Kainaliu and ended at Konawaena High School, covering a distance of exactly two miles! It featured beauty queens, classic cars and LOTS of donkeys. Our photo comes from the Nobriga Collection in the KHS archives, one of several that records that first light hearted celebration. There will never be another parade like it.
Our photo captures the happy end of the parade. Julian Yates’ Field is lined with spectators dressed in their festive best, seated beneath the shade of attractive `inia and monkeypod trees. Having valiantly hiked up Konawaena School Road’s steep incline, both four-footed and two-footed parade participants are taking a well earned rest. On the far right is Margaret Paris (Yes,“Uncle” Billy Paris’ mother), smiling broadly while leading a good looking donkey modeling the very latest in lauhala coffee baskets and charming neck lei. Rose Falconer is behind her, astride a donkey and peeking out over Margaret’s lei-bedecked hat. (Does anyone recognize that handsome man seated on that tiny donkey to the left?) Steve Wichman, dressed as a coffee picker, stands on her own two feet and holds a sign, KONA’S REACHED A DOLEFUL PASS, WHEN OUR BRAY GIVES WAY TO GAS. Teenaged sisters from Hilo, Pudding and Barbara Burke, were roped into participating while visiting their grandmother, Noenoe Wall. Pudding’s sign says: NO REPAIR BILLS ON US, OUR MACHINERY IS BUILT-IN. Barbara is firmly seated in her saddle, a sure indicator of her parade prowess in years to come. (These sisters are known today as Pudding Lassiter and Barbara Nobriga.) Standing behind and between her cousins is Patricia “Cheeta” Wall, now Cheeta Wilson, purveyor of fresh eggs in Kainaliu. Signs behind Cheeta’s head announce: OFF TO THE HILLS AND FAR A-BRAY and JEEPS HORN IN, WE BRAY OUT.
On the far left is Mary Keli`i, in a mu`umu`u no less, riding what may be a sturdy mule or a large donkey. (It is difficult to tell because we cannot pick out the animal’s ears.) According to Barbara, other participants may have been Alice Wall, Amy Greenwell, Dorothy Mitchell, Nancy Wallace and even Lei Collins. What has not been forgotten is the fun everyone had. “It was a blast,” recalled Barbara, who has a dim memory of her donkey trying to go AWOL and “getting back on track” somewhere around Wilama Weeks’ garage, the present day location of The Strawberry Patch Restaurant. When I asked about traffic problems on Mamalahoa Highway during the obviously rather lengthy parade, Barbara practically snorted with laughter: “What traffic?!”
This donkey pride entry was organized by the Kona Outdoor Circle, a fledging organization in those days ( founded in 1948), but one that has stood the test of time. On a dreary note, there will not be a Coffee Festival Parade this year, something to do with lack of funds. There will be a Miss Kona Coffee competition, which is fine, but I think the title Miss Kona Nightingale has a classy ring to it that cannot be matched. According to my friend Val Corcoran, her mother, Mrs. (Frank) Leilani Thompson, was particularly thrilled to be First Runner Up back in 1953, not bad for a mother of two young daughters. As she rode through Kainaliu, perched on the back seat of Walter Eklund’s open car, accompanied by her fellow contestants, Heidi Paik, Katherine Debina Beaudet, and Emmaline Kawamoto, she felt every inch a Kona beauty. Indeed, she most certainly was.
Sixty years have passed in the blink of a donkey’s eye. In 1953, World War II was still a fresh memory in Kona. When the U.S. Army moved out, they left many of their Jeeps behind, those almost indestructible four wheel drive vehicles perfectly suited to Kona’s notoriously rough, lava strewn roads. Everyone wanted a Jeep - ranchers, fishermen, weed men, chicken fighters (How better to get to remote places for weekend fights?), adventuresome boys, and especially coffee farmers. Soon Kona was filled with Jeeps sporting canvas tops and open sides; such a fun way to buzz around town. With the gas tank under the driver’s seat, colorful cushions and Japanese zabuton making metal seats cozy, and dogs and children told to get in the back and hang on for dear life, travel by Jeep was almost as much fun as ....riding a donkey! No seat belts, no baby carriers, no air conditioning, no safety checks, no air bags - just a stick shift and hand signals. It was a different world.
For those of you who have forgotten or never knew what a Kona Nightingale might be, let me tell you - it surely isn’t a bird! It’s a donkey; a furry faced, big-eared, bright-eyed, knobby-kneed quadruped, the Model T of beasts of burden and the poor man’s friend. Donkeys arrived in the Hawaiian Kingdom nearly 200 years ago on board Englishman Richard Charlton’s sailing ship Active. Sold at auction, the four original creatures probably lived at a Honolulu address, but it wasn’t long before other donkeys found permanent homes on the island of Hawaii. According to T. Quentin Tomich, mammal expert and historian, 19th century donkeys successfully carried hides for Mauna Kea bullock hunters, taro for Waipio Valley farmers, and coffee fruit for Kona’s farmers. Those little beasts survived and thrived on not too much feed, navigated our winding roads and stony trails with sturdy little unshod hooves, and allowed themselves to be tamed to become useful members of the family.
How did the name “Nightingale” become attached to Kona’s donkeys? For centuries, poets have depicted nightingales as sensitive and beautiful birds. In reality, they are loud, noisy, drab little creatures who produce “an impressive range of whistles, trills and gurgles” in their song, punctuated by frog-like alarm calls and loud whistling crescendos. Heavens! (Mahalo to Wikipedia for helping me out here.) Long ago, bird experts assumed the nightingale’s wailing nocturnal song was uttered by a female - thank you, astute male chauvinist bird experts - so the name “nightingale” means “night songstress.” With the passage of time, bird experts discovered the song belongs to (surprise!) the male, who is trying to do one of two things: attract a female to his boudoir branch or warn other males to get the heck out of his territory. ( And, we wonder why there are always communication problems between the sexes!) I am struck by how much nightingale noise is reminding me of male coqui frogs!
Once donkeys arrived, the formerly peaceful silence of Kona’s dawn and dusk was shattered on a regular basis by the enthusiastic braying of lonely, love-sick donkeys. Moonlit nights may have been particularly difficult to sleep through. To their credit, donkeys have mastered the tricky skill of making noise on both the inhale and the exhale, hence their distinctive call: (inhale) “Hee” (exhale) “Haw.” [Or is it “Hee” (exhale) - “Haw” (inhale)? Try this a few times during a boring football game and you’ll discover what fun it is to sound like a donkey.] And, yes, those singing donkeys were probably males. Whoever gave Kona’s donkeys their distinctive and most appropriate nickname had to have been someone with a sense of humor. (Could it have been a bird expert?)
Uchida Coffee Farm is home to Charlie, a fine example of a real Kona Nightingale. In a fitting twist of photographic fate, Charlie was given to KHS by none other than the Nobriga Family, donors of this wonderful photo. Rancher Jerry Egami gave Charlie to Mahealani Ranch several years ago. After numerous little Nobrigas learned how to ride a donkey using Charlie as their guinea pig, the family donated him to KHS, knowing his donkey disposition was practically bomb proof. He will be on display during the upcoming Kona Coffee Festival for visitors to photograph and admire. Although he is well loved and cared for, he now leads a calm and sheltered life compared to the frisky donkeys who probably stole the show back in 1953. Who knows? One of those long-eared fellows may be his great-great-great (you get the idea) grandsire, or, as we say in donkey lingo, his ancestral jackass. What a hard act to follow!
Aloha no, e Kona. What a great place to call home.
by Maile Melrose