The State of Aloha

Like most little boys on the island, my excitement grew as September started to wind down. First you’d see the wooden shacks pop up on the soccer field by the road across the street from the police station. That was the rows and rows of food booths. Then the large scaffolding and folded-up rides could be seen. Then, just before the fair started, they rose high up in the sky.

Back then, it was all about the rides. Nobody had a jumping castle at beach park birthday parties or at folks’ houses on the weekend. The only place I knew of where you could actually take your slippers off and jump on a jumping castle was the Maui County Fair. And my brother and I lived for it.

Over the years as we got older (and, more importantly for the fair, taller in height), we were able to expand our horizons to the other rides available only once a year. Their names are forever branded into my memory and youth: the Gravitron, the Music Express and, of course, the Zipper.

Obviously the fair is more than just rides. There’s the arcade of old-fashioned carnival games. There’s the dart game on one side and the ring toss over liters of Coke bottles on the other. Perhaps the most puzzling was the one involving Lucky Strike cigarette labels. I was terrible at all of them, but my brother couldn’t lose. He always walked out of there with some foam gecko on a wire leash or a large, overstuffed toy.

I was convinced that they were all stored here on Maui. After all, the T-shirts of the tough-looking guys operating the rides and the paper tickets to get on them all bore the same mysterious name: E.K. Fernandez.

Who was this guy? I used to wonder. Perhaps he had a big, Portuguese moustache like the men you’d see in Makawao. Or maybe he was tall and thin with a wild shock of white hair like an old aging Haiku hippie. And I was convinced that someplace on the island — hidden far away in some distant and secret baseyards — the rides and game booths were cleverly stored all year until late September came around.

Turned out that I was dead wrong. Sepia-toned photographs of Edwin Kane Fernandez reveal a clean-shaven, jovial man adorned by flower lei and a fedora. He started his company in 1903 on Oahu. It was a photography supply company that featured movies. The movies proved to be so popular he started charging admission. That led to live acts.

Pretty soon, E.K. Fernandez was dubbed the “Barnum of the Pacific.” He traveled the world in search of all kinds of acts to bring back to the islands. Dancing bears, trapeze acts, children on a tightrope; it didn’t matter. Fernandez wanted to bring a big and fantastic show for islanders.

His shows back in the day included animals. The first resident elephant at the Honolulu Zoo, Daisy, was a retired Fernandez employee. It didn’t take long before E.K. Fernandez took his shows across the Pacific throughout the territorial years.

And in 1916, he started working a gig on Maui: the county fair. The first fair featured a parade of local kids marching to the beat of a band from Honolulu and, of course, Daisy the elephant. Fernandez also delivered something that no one had seen on the island: a steam-powered merry-go-round called The Flying Jenny. His company is still synonymous with our fair.

Aside from brief interruptions by the world wars, the fair has been an annual event on the Valley Isle. Over the decades it featured outrageous acts and events. In the old days there were sports of all sorts: football games, tennis matches, yacht races, and even an ice skating show in 1938. In 1941, crowds gathered to watch a mock battle of an Army infantry battalion.

The fair is still a big community event. High school groups, churches and other civic organizations have booths selling fair food, parking stalls and other paraphernalia to raise money for their cause and group.

The War Memorial Gym features high school artwork, orchid displays and other agricultural contests. The livestock tents feature the biggest and best chickens, birds, cows, pigs and other animals in the county.

Of course, they are all judged and awarded. (I still am proud of winning a prize for displaying a stalk of apple bananas from Peahi in the late 1990s).

The rides, games, food, exhibits and contests are all cramped in that small space for a single weekend in October. It’s kind of like our entire community in a packed microcosm. You should go.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”