makawao history museum: tiny museum, huge heart

Mak MuseumRight smack in the middle of quaint Makawao Town is a tiny museum with a huge heart: the Makawao History Museum.

The adage “It Takes a Village” certainly applies to the creation of this charming little slice of days gone by—the only museum of its kind on the entire island of Maui. Judy Mertens, who serves as an advisor to the museum, recalls how it all began. “I was involved with the Makawao Community Association at the time. We had a little money left over from a grant we’d received from the County. We’d talked so long about getting a museum started. So we said, ‘Let’s take that money and see what we can do.’”

So the group secured a location on Makawao Avenue owned by the Silva Family (formerly occupied by renowned photographer Randy J. Braun) for just the cost of maintenance. “We are indebted to the Silvas for their generosity,” Judy says. “We put the whole thing together in about three weeks. I called five people to ask if they would be on the Board of Directors and help with the project. No one even hesitated. They all said, ‘Yes, I’ll be happy to do it.’ I think that speaks to how much the members of the Makawao community wanted this.”

The Makawao History Museum opened its doors in November of 2013. But its off-the-beaten-path location meant limited foot traffic. In the meantime, Judy contacted Cheryl Ambrozic, who agreed to become the museum’s project coordinator. “Cheryl is a grant writer, and she really helped us move things forward,” says Judy. “Thanks to her, we’ve received several grants.”

The museum’s big break came when a new location on Baldwin Avenue became available. “We moved here in October of 2014, and the foot traffic has increased dramatically,” says Judy. In fact, the museum now welcomes more than 100 visitors per day. Admission is free, with donations always welcomed. In fact, a $20 donation will net you a copy of the museum’s cookbook, “Look What’s Cooking in Makawao,” a collection of recipes from the residents and businesses of the historic paniolo town. Made possible through a grant from the Atherton Family Foundation, the cookbook has become the museum’s most important fundraising tool.

Darrell Orwig, former executive director of the Schaefer International Gallery at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center, and Cherie Attix, who owns a bed & breakfast in town, serve as the museum’s curators. Former UH Maui College librarian Gail Ainsworth is the historian. “Gail knows a tremendous amount about this area, and she’s really particular about what she brings into the museum,” says Judy. “She wants to make sure every item is truly Makawao related. Darrell and Cherie work closely with Gail, and when new items come into the museum, they decide where they’re going to be hung.”

The museum is divided into sections: Makawao Town (businesses), churches and schools, Hawaiian culture, the paniolos, and pineapple. “We received a grant for temporary exhibits to keep the museum ‘fresh’ for our local community,” Judy says. The current exhibit features Haleakala Dairy, with many items donated by local resident Louise Smith.

The museum also received grants from the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation, Cook Foundation, and Hawai‘i State Historic Preservation Division to develop a historic walking tour, for which a printed brochure is available for visitors. “We have received an additional grant to put plaques on the buildings featured in the walking tour, so that’s in the works,” Judy says. “Our next really big venture is our oral history project. We want to hire an expert videographer and someone who excels at interviewing to obtain and record personal histories from Makawao’s elders.”

The museum is staffed entirely by volunteers. Minding the store today is Mary Matsukawa. “I retired from the Department of Health in April of 2013,” she says. “I happened to meet Judy, and she told me about the museum project. So I decided to become a volunteer. I’m passionate about keeping Makawao’s history alive, and I love being here!”

The museum’s welcoming exterior is vertical plank siding painted a cheery green. Window and door frames are a crisp white. A gigantic round railroad station-type clock announces the time; signage is hand painted in a old-fashioned style of script. “Deybra Fair [a local artist] did all of our signage, both inside and out,” says Judy. “We would call her and say, ‘Deybra, we need a sign,’ and within an hour we had one.’” Deybra’s inside signage also hearkens back to days gone by—painted lettering on weathered pieces of wood.

In the Makawao Town section, an old sandwich board on loan from Pam Peterson advertises hot dogs for 25 cents, hamburgers for 30 cents, and grilled cheese sandwiches for 35 cents. An adjacent bulletin board, inviting you to “Share Your Makawao History,” is filled with old newspaper and magazine clippings, as well as black & white photos.

A collection of branding irons is displayed on the museum’s back wall. Judy relates a touching story: “During one of the Third Friday events, a little girl came up to me and said, ‘Auntie, auntie, this is my grandfather’s branding iron!’ She was absolutely thrilled, and this is just one example of what makes this museum so much fun.”

In the far corner is a massive wooden door with its substantial hardware still intact. Judy tells me the door was obtained from the old Hali‘imaile Mule Stables. “You can’t imagine how heavy this door is. It’s a cherished keepsake from that area.”

In the museum’s pineapple section are woven hats, chaps, gloves, kau kau tins, and planting knives. Also on display is a sample of a bango number, imprinted on a round metal tag, which every pineapple plantation worker was required to have. The bango (which means “number” in Japanese) system was developed by plantation leaders to identify workers of several different ethnicities. Tags were of different shapes—circles, squares, octagons, triangles, and ovals—and made with brass or aluminum. A worker had to present his bango number in order to receive his paycheck under the “no bango, no pay” policy.

Towards the front of the museum, underneath a row of various styles of woven hats hung on a rafter, is a large black & white photo of the interior of the historic Matsui Building, which housed a general store where you could purchase everything from clothing, hats, umbrellas, and magazines, to marriage licenses.

Also featured prominently at the museum is a photo of “Komoda’s Curbside Service” depicting Violet Komoda of Komoda’s Bakery bringing out an order to Anton Tavares, who’d arrived on horseback. “Anton would call Komoda’s first and place his order,” says Judy. “Violet would come out of the store, give it to him, and he would put it in his saddlebags and ride home.” It’s fitting that this photo also graces the cover page of the Cookies & Candy section of the museum’s cookbook.

Judy says the Makawao History Museum is the result of a lot of hard work by a group of dedicated volunteers. “The museum is ever-evolving thanks to people who come and bring items in,’ she says. “And we have lots of ideas of things we’d like to do in the future. We’re constantly applying for grants so we can get money to pay for them.”

–heidi pool



Makawao History Museum, displaying slices of this historic town’s colorful past.


3643 Baldwin Avenue, Makawao


Open daily from 10am to 4pm.


Visit and “Like” MHM’s Facebook page. Project coordinator Cheryl Ambrozic can be reached at 283-3732; volunteer coordinator Kathy Nelson can be reached at 205-601-7002.


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