The Retreat at Upcountry Maui

On the slopes of Haleakala, high above the health food store in Pā`ia and just below the paniolo town of Makawao, once stood the Wai`olu Girls Seminary, named for the stream than ran beneath the girls’ dormer windows, the water so cold they could keep a jar of milk beneath its surface for three days and it came out just as sweet as when they brought it down from Haleakalā Ranch. Not that the girls needed to keep the milk fresh, with the dairy only a mile away, and all the sweet, big-eyed cows to tease on the way. Mele used to stand on the kiawe fence and rub her thumb to forefinger, the sound soft as water on sand, and the cows would come, thinking she had fruit to give them.

At the school—where now The Retreat is built, with teak furnishings imported from Bali and saffron-hued mandalas painted on the concrete walkways—eighty-seven Hawaiian and half-Hawaiians (and one Chinese girl), ranging in ages from six to eighteen, were culled from families across Maui. An additional three hailed from Big Island, five from O`ahu, and one traveled all the way from Kauai to attain a fine ethical character, suitable for teaching or the strenuous duties of Republican motherhood. Indeed, the strictness of the girls’ schedule was part of their training, with Mondays devoted to washing, Wednesdays to choral rounds, Fridays to sewing, and Saturdays to bathing, when the entire school tramped down to the pools at Ka`ena. Sundays, of course, consisted of church and Bible study, though in the evening small domestic crafts such as lace-making or embroidery were allowed.

Where now, at the north east corner of the property, the Retreat’s heated infinity pool draws the eye to the horizon line, a goat yard once stood. Beside that was the makai wing of the school, with the first-floor kitchen and dining room overlooking the ocean, and the second-floor sickroom set at a distance from the main dormitory in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease. The mauka wing, with its windows facing the ascending hillside and the cloud-heaped summit of Haleakalā, was given over to instruction and a dedicated music room where the girls practiced harmonizing their hymns for a monthly performance at the haole church down the hill. The central hall that connected these two wings was dominated by a dormitory on the top floor and on the first floor an office beside the formal parlor, where Headmistress entertained guests, mostly members of the haole church who wished to observe the girls whose betterment they funded.

The school was built around a central courtyard that hosted sing-alongs and picnics, the main water-pump and, in May, graduation day. Hanging on the wall in The Retreat’s library you can see a photograph featuring the class of 1903, the first group to receive printed diplomas. The eight graduates sewed their own white holokū, trimming the wrists and neck in lace they stitched themselves, and wove the haku lei that wreath their heads. They pose against the wooden railing of the back porch or perch upon the steps, their knees folded gracefully together, their skirts a wall that reveals no curve, no suggestion of hip or leg. The wreathes highlight their hair, loose and wavy, and on their lips a smile arises. They could pose for a Waikīkī postcard were it not for those high-neck dresses, their hands chastely folded in their laps or tucked behind their backs.

Of the eight graduates, three are engaged to Lahainaluna seminarians and destined to become missionaries in the South Seas. They retain the zeal of the recently converted, and so will not recognize themselves in the natives of Kiribati or the Marquesas or Pape`ete, where they will be sent, the former to work with the London Missionary Society and the latter two to combat the evils of Catholicism in French Polynesia. Three more, including Mele, look forward to a September matriculation at the Normal School in Honolulu. The last have been selected as domestics. Pru is intended for employment by the Chapman Family, whose sugar cane fields fill the three miles of hillside between the ocean and the school and who are the most significant patrons of Wai`olu and its students. Beni will begin work in October for a well-known Honolulu family—a doctor, his wife, and their twins, one girl and one boy, only a year old at Beni’s arrival. She will raise them, feed them, love them as if she gave birth to them herself. After fifteen years with these children—her hānai, her heart—she will discover a rash on the edge of her earlobe and ask her employer, the Doctor, for a salve to calm the irritation. Instead, he will have her arrested on suspicion of leprosy.

In the photograph, Mele stands on the step above Beni, resting her hand on her friend’s shoulder. Mele’s is the only hand not hidden behind a back nor curled into the folds of a skirt, the only hand that seems to remember the gift of touch, of affection, of promise. Later, when the school burns, this is the hand that is scarred, the only human casualty in that whole awful conflagration. Pru, still angry at Mele for betraying her to Headmistress, will say the constellation of burned skin is a sign of God’s punishment. Headmistress—calm even in the face of the absolute destruction of her dear Wai`olu— will claim it’s a lesson, a reminder to Mele to think before she acts but always to act as she thinks God wills. And Beni, predicting the changes to come, how their lives are like canoes tossed by foreign winds, will say it’s a mark by which Mele can steer her life, as a navigator steers by a slash of stars in the night sky.

When next we read of Mele, it is not her name that appears but a mention of her hand. In letters collected by the Wailuku Historical Society and photocopied for The Retreat’s files, the Chapman women write that the “disfigured appendage” does not keep their domestic from being most helpful to them. She is their “dear girl,” their “little song,” a “regular aide-de-camp.” When, a year after her hiring, Mele runs away from the Chapman Estate, her abandonment practically breaks poor Mother Chapman’s heart. In a letter to her husband, Mother Chapman surmises, “If one cannot trust a Wai`olu girl, then is there hope for any of that entire race?”

The school’s reconstruction is completed in January of 1905. For the next thirty-five years it remains a female-only educational institution, until shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor when the property is enfolded into the Fourth Marine Camp and used as a military hospital. After the war it serves various purposes, as a co-educational two-year college and later as summer housing for pineapple pickers. But it falls into disuse eventually, until 2003 when The Retreat, LLC, purchases the property and renovates it, opening their holistic health experience in 2005.

When we reflect upon the photograph of the class of 1903, those girls seem lost to us now. Their home—the school—burned to the ground just days after the picture is taken. The missionaries’ journals turned to mush by the sea, and the blossoming educators forgotten in the turmoil of the 1909 labor strikes. Beni is the last to receive written attention, her medical records at Kalihi Hospital noting the impossibility of having her paroled and recommending she be sent to the colony on Moloka`i.

However, as any Hawaiian can tell you, memory lies not in medical records or archives, letters or diaries, not even in photographs, but in the land itself. Visiting The Retreat, you can dine beside windows that open over a sloping hillside of sugar cane fields still owned by the Chapman Family, the view to the ocean much the same as it was one hundred years ago. You may walk beneath the ironwood trees that line the drive and recall that these towering conifers—saplings at the time of the fire—escaped the same fate as the seminary building. Or clamber into the deep ravine beside the garden, where organic lettuces and herbs are grown, and wonder how, with the stream so slight, the girls ever fit whole bottles of milk beneath the waterline.

If, after a day of exploration, of comparing your own observations to that of the rich history dating all the way back to 1861, you fall asleep upon The Retreat’s linen bedsheets, you might dream you see a lantern hovering outside your window, or feel the pad of a finger running the outline of your ear, or hear a single watery splash as if someone has dived from a great height. If you let yourself, you might then dream of koa trees taller and thicker than ironwoods, and the heavy scent of sandelwood perfuming the air, and somewhere a tiny snail singing a melody that makes you thirst for water. You might dream all this, and more, and in the morning, unable to understand all these visions, let them slip away, one by one. And this is just as well. These recollections are not yours to keep. They belong to the place, are seeded in the land, and it’s the land that decides when the stories are released, and to whom, and what purpose they may serve.