LAIE, Hawaii —Near the northern tip of Oahu sits a town deep rooted in its culture and history, where life’s fast pace slows down. This is the country lifestyle of Laie.
The area is known to those who live here as the gathering place. It’s open and welcoming for anyone willing to make the trip up the windward side or through the North Shore. But, that’s not how it used to be.
“This was the area and there was a wall that went from the beach side all the way to the back,” said Gladys Pualoa-Ahuna, a longtime Laie resident.
Hawaiian historian Cy Bridges says Laie was once a pu’uhonua, or a city of refuge. A man-made wall protected its people during times of war and discord, but also presented opportunity.
“If there was an infraction, doing something wrong, if you were a warrior that people were trying to get after, if you cross the boundaries, then you would be safe,” said Bridges.
People in Laie will tell you, it still feels safe. Many residents attribute it to the strong spiritual influence.
In 1865, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints purchased land in Laie with hopes of giving the people there an opportunity to thrive both spiritually and financially. The land quickly turned into plantations, harvesting kalo, cotton and eventually sugar cane.
New settlers opened a village schoolhouse educating members of the community.
In 1879 they built the I Hemolele chapel that would serve the church members for nearly 50 years. In 1919 on the same grounds, the Laie temple was built and still stands today.
Although the town draws influences from around the world, it is a place still known for its family values, friendships and fishing.
“When I was growing up, this was a small fishing village. We only had about 300 families. The population was less than a thousand,” said Pualoa-Ahuna.
To feed the masses, the community would fish at Hukilau Beach. Boats would travel to the edge of the bay pulling traditional nets with lau leaves.
“They would roll it down to the water and it would go out and cover the whole bay and then when they said “Huki,” both sides would start pulling the nets in. By the time the two groups came together, the bag would be there and they’d pull in three to five to seven tons of fish — not pounds, tons!” said Pualoa-Ahuna.
“Oh that was so fun! Everybody knew they were going to get fish. They were going to take home fish and everybody was going to eat fish, but that was exciting times for us,” said Joseph Waioha Ah Quin, a Laie resident.
In the 1940s the fishing tradition presented an opportunity to raise funds after the old I Hemolele chapel burned down. Community members provided entertainment and food using fish straight from Hukilau Beach.
They charged $5 per person for lu’au and anybody passing by, they would stop and (say) ‘what they doing over here?’ They would come and have lu’au,” said Quin.
The group raised enough money to build the chapel that today sits down the hill from the Laie temple.
The project was so successful it continued year after year and it eventually spawned the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Now the PCC attraction brings in millions of visitors to Laie each year. It also employs students attending BYU Hawaii, the university founded from that early missionary school house.
The Hukilau also influenced the local eatery Hukilau Cafe tucked away in a residential neighborhood and just a few blocks from the bay. The café is actually an addition to the original Pang’s Store, now known as Sam’s Store and named after Laie native Chef Sam Choi.
“We sit there and we eat this pake cake and soda. It’s sort of like the tradition of Laie,” said Quin.
While eating this local treat in the late 1800s, a Laie boy named Joseph Kekuku invented the steel guitar in Laie.
“He used to sit out there and play the guitar. Then his comb, his metal comb, fell out of his pocket and it hit the string and he was really impressed with the sound, so he work for about 11 years to perfect it,” said Kaiwaanaimaka Meyer, niece of Joseph Kekuku.
Other notable Laie natives include professional football player Manti Te’o and Hamana Kalili who lived with only two fingers: his thumb and pinky.
“It was an industrial accident at the Kahuku Sugar Mill. His three fingers got cut off,” said Pualoa-Ahuna.
Old timers say they used to see him on the old sugar cane trains and when he was on the train, kids made signs to let you know he was there.
“You don’t touch the cane when he’s on the train,” joked Pualoa-Ahuna.
From that child’s play, the shaka was born. Child’s play was also alive and well here at what they called the beauty hole.
Every kid that grew up in Laie learned how to swim there because it’s so deep you can’t touch bottom,” said Pualoa-Ahuna.
But over time developers realized its true value was in real estate. So, they filled it in, flattened it out and covered it with a home.
Development would become a common theme as Laie grew. It still is and it’s still divisive.
Today, a new hotel, new shops and debates over a new traffic light. It’s a project to expand affordable housing around BYU-Hawaii, including 875 new homes being built in the area.
Despite change, residents feel this place will continue to hold onto its roots.
“It continued to be a pu’uhonua because it was a gathering place of the faithful, of the believers. They came from all over the Pacific and the world and they build a community,” said Bridges.