My first assignment when I arrived at The Maui News in 1992 was to cover the planting of six orange trees in the parking lot near Mana Foods, on Baldwin Avenue in Paia.
It was pretty lame as far as assignments go, but I was game. Sandy Zalburg, my old editor at The Honolulu Advertiser, used to say, "Kid, there's always a story."
I dreamed something up. "The trees are to feed the people of Maui," the self-styled unofficial mayor of Paia, whose name escapes me now, declared. I think about that ceremony when the two remaining trees, now 20 years old, bear golden fruit, as they are now.
Thank you, county Planning Department, for the design guidelines that have preserved the history of our charming town. According to Bill Tavares, whose father, Antone F. Tavares, used to control the Kahului side of Paia (John Medeiros had the Hana side), some original buildings from the pre-1930s still remain.
One is the old Paia Clothes Cleaners building on Baldwin Avenue, a two-story wooden building a little bit below Akoni Lane, now housing the shop Dahlia. The "nice little building on a mound" just up the road, now Sophie Grace Maui, was the old draft board. Cafe des Amis occupies the site of the former Machida Drug Store. The Hew Building toward the entrance of town housing Maui Hands survives. Moana Cafe, which recently closed, was Ikeda Store.
These were spared in the devastating fire that broke out in the early-morning hours of Sunday, July 6, 1930, at an automotive shop near the corner restaurant where the Paia Fish Market is now.
"Billy, Paia is burning," Antone Tavares said, waking up Bill and his brother Carl. He led them out into the smoldering ruins, holding their hands to keep them away from downed electrical wires. "He was almost weeping. He lost a lot of his buildings," Tavares recalled. "We were scared to death when we saw the destruction on the corner. It was totally burned."
Owners of the Paia Mercantile building, where Milagros is now, put wet bags on the roof, desperately hoping wind wouldn't shift and blow that way. Mercifully, it prevailed from the northeast and spared buildings on the Hana side of Baldwin Avenue.
But flames drove through the Kahului side, gobbling up small dwellings and other businesses. The fire jumped Hana Highway in the vicinity of Nagata Store, now Paia Pharmacy, and drove through structures on the ocean side of the street. From an upstairs window, Tavares saw an explosion as gas tanks at the Kubo Service Station ignited. There, he believes, the fire ended.
County firefighters with their their "dinky" engine and lack of water supply looked on helplessly as melted connections in the burning buildings lowered the pressure to such an extent that the fire hose was useless.
"We just had to sit and watch it burn," said Deputy Sheriff Frank Silva, according to The Maui News. When fire jumped across the street "from the Medeiros building to the police station," Silva and his men tried dynamite. They blew up one building and, convinced of the futility of the plan, abandoned it.
"Finally a pump belonging to the Maui Agricultural Company was brought into action and water was pumped from the ocean and turned on the charred and smoldering remains of what was once the business heart of Lower Paia. It was late in the game but prevented the wind from picking up live embers and scattering them among the undamaged buildings."
By 5 a.m., the flames that "threatened to wipe out the entire Lower Paia area" had "ruthlessly laid in ashes some 15 stores and a number of smaller structures." Damages were estimated at anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000, and about 150 people became homeless.
Townsfolk recovered quickly from the shock. The ruins were still smoldering early Sunday morning when the Japanese and Chinese organized relief committees. There was no looting. Everyone cooperated, and new buildings erected in a few months were considered an improvement over the others.
"Thank God the wind didn't blow the other way," Tavares said. "We all would have been wiped out."
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.