The Honolulu that greeted Captain Hackfeld and his wife was not much more than an overgrown village with narrow, unlighted streets and unpaved alleys. Shops were dark and forbidding and the streets were deep with dust. All water was pumped by hand, or by windmills from wells sunk in the coral rock. Here and there among the prevailing grass huts and adobe houses was a wooden house of two stories, which belonged to some prosperous family.
The harbor of Honolulu was small and comparatively shallow. The wharves were crude -- hardly more than landing places. A slaughter house and meat market projected out over the water; opposite them was a long row of shanties that filled the air with strong odors of fish and vegetables.
Despite the unkempt appearance of the town and the harbor, trade was booming. Only a short time before the spectre of depression had hung over the Islands, caused by the decline in the number of whalers that came to Honolulu. The discovery of gold in California had suddenly saved them from that dire prospect. The varied and heavy demands of the California market were stripping every store in town, wholesale and retail, of its merchandise. Conditions were chaotic and prices fluctuated violently. Flour sold for thirty dollars a barrel!
As winter came, a flood of immigrants from the gold fields poured into Honolulu to bask in the Hawaiian sunshine, and the town had its first great housing shortage. The three hotels and all of its boarding houses were crowded to overflowing. Unfortunately, that winter set a new record in cloudy days and rainfall. The natives gleefully insisted that the newcomers had brought their own inclement weather with them!
The business of H. Hackfeld opened its doors on October 1, 1849, offering its wares in a small wooden building on Queen Street, between Bethel and Nuuanu Streets. Its first advertisement appeared a few days later in the Polynesian. Under the general heading of "Dry Goods, Crockery, Hardware and Stationery" were listed such items as parasols, silk waistcoats, bird cages, dinner sets, iron bedsteads and window glass.
Business was brisk. An entry in Daybook No. 1, dated three days after the opening of the establishment, read:
"Give my note favor Everett & Co. for sundry articles bought at auction, at 6 months, endorsed by L. H. Anthon, for $1,943.92. Woolen stockings, finger bowls, shawls, matting, nanking, handkerchiefs, pongee, backgammon boards, china plates, 2 china couches, cigar boxes, tea caddies, 9 writing desks, camphor trunks, axes, black tea, toweling."
Before settling in Hawaii, Captain Hackfeld had been a trader on the China Coast, sailing his own vessel. He was born near Dalmenhorat in Oldenburg, Germany, in 1815. He left Hamburg on November 28, 1848, on board the 156ton Wilhelmine, and began a voyage that took him around the Horn and across the Pacific to Tahiti and finally Hawaii. Accompanying him were his wife Mary, and her young brother, J. Charles Pflueger. One of the crew members was his nephew, B. F. Ehlers. The vessel, carrying cargo valued at $8,394, arrived in Honolulu on September 26, 1849.
A trader of experience, Captain Hackfeld foresaw a growing demand on the Islands for manufactured goods from Europe and America. He had the advantage of knowing where to find them and how to have them brought to Honolulu. His first establishment was shared with one C. S. Bartow. But six weeks after it opened, Bartow had moved to other quarters and Captain Hackfeld's business was occupying the entire store.
Not long afterwards he joined with two other merchants, Swan & Clifford, in a retail store, but the partner. ship did not last long. After it was dissolved, Hackfeld continued the business alone, moving it in 1850 to a new location on Fort Street. The "Upper Store," as it became known, offered new goods from Boston and placed special emphasis on stationery and account books in its first advertisement. The name of Nahum Mitchell appeared as manager, assisted by young Ehlers. Because of the voluminous silk gowns worn by the chieftesses who congregated there, the natives called it "Mauna Kalika" or "Mountain of Silk." In later years it became B. F. Ehlers & Company. Today it is The Liberty House.
From the first, Captain Hackfeld took an active interest in the community. When a small group of businessmen met at the store of Starkey, Janion & Co. to found the Chamber of Commerce of Honolulu, his name was on the list of charter members. The organization served the useful purpose of providing merchants with statistics on imports and exports, arriving and departing vessels and general price information.
Vitally interested in religion, Captain Hackfeld and Mrs. Hackfeld became regular attendants at the Oahu Bethel Church, one of the first churches in Honolulu to be established for foreigners. It must have been gratifying to Captain Hackfeld to note the general progress that Christianity and education were making on the Islands. By the time he came to Honolulu nearly all of the Islanders had accepted the teachings of the Gospel. At that time there were 437 Protestant schools and 103 Roman Catholic schools in Hawaii. Some of the residents claimed that it was difficult to find a ten-year-old Hawaiian child who could not read the Bible.
Although the port was bustling with trade, Honolulu in 1849 provided ample opportunity for community recreation. On Saturday afternoons after the heat of day had passed, the men, women and children met on the plains east of town to race their horses, and display their bright draperies. The best riders were the women and girls. They sped across the plain, forty or fifty in a group, with loose, flowing drapery and their hair streaming in the wind.
Nights were blessed with almost perfect quiet. Loud noise was outlawed. The penal code prescribed that "Whoever after sunset shall by hallooing, singing in the streets, or in any other way, make any disturbance or disorderly noise, in any village, town, or part of the kingdom, without justifiable cause for so doing, shall be liable to summary arrest and imprisonment, and upon conviction, be punished by a fine not exceeding ten dollars."
Captain Hackfeld could not have selected a better time to plant the roots of his business. By 1950 the boom created by the California Gold Rush had reached sizable proportions. The historian, Sylvester K. Stevens, observes that "the demands of the whaling fleets for the products of Hawaii were nothing as compared with those of the rapidly expanding population of California. Mad with lust for gold and confronted by an undeveloped country, the newcomers could not possibly produce sufficient food to supply their needs."
In a letter dated June 18, 1850, the Rev. Richard Armstrong reported that "every bean, onion, potato, or squash we have to spare is at once snatched away to California to feed the hungry multitude there." Another observer of those times informs us that prior to the Gold Rush the Hawaiian market had been glutted with English, American and Chinese merchandise which was waiting for whalers who never came, but that "suddenly all the merchants were deeply engaged in the trans-shipment of goods to San Francisco. Clothing, shovels, pickaxes, flour, bread, boots, shoes and such articles as were suitable for a mining population were in demand." Exports from Honolulu to the Pacific Coast ports of the United States jumped from about $13,000 in 1848 to more than $25,000 in 1851.
One significant result of the boom was to increase the value of property and attract more foreigners, chiefly from California. In 1848 the foreign population numbered 600; in 1849 it had increased to 1,500. In the following year the legislature passed a law which removed the last remnants of feudal land tenure. By this Act, the right to land ownership, which previously had been limited to naturalized citizens, was extended to all foreigners.
In this atmosphere of prosperity, Captain Hackfeld's enterprise blossomed steadily. In 1853 he took into partnership his young helper, J. Charles Pflueger, who was not yet 20 years old.
The change of the business from that of an individual to that of a company was announced in an advertisement which appeared in the Honolulu newspaper of July 5, 1853:
" J. C. Pflueger has this day become a partner in my business, which will henceforth be carried on under the name of H. Hackfeld & Company, General Commission Agents and Ship Chandlers."