Living in Timber Mill Communities: 1934-1948

Living in Timber Mill Communities: 1934-1948

Max’s Story.

The milling of New Zealand native forests started with arrival of the first British Colonists in 1840 who cleared vast areas of native forest. The “immense woods, lofty trees and the finest timber” described by early explorers were reduced very rapidly.

The resulting environmental degradation left mountainous areas susceptible to erosion. Flying over the heavily milled areas between Taupo and Napier, the scars of erosion are still visible.

Max completed his education at Mt Albert Boys Grammar school during the depression. As he was unable to find employment in Auckland, he cycled to Taumaranui to seek work in the timber mills in the rugged King Country, a distance of around 240km today. It took him more than a week to cycle over largely unsealed roads, with steep, narrow, and winding mountainous roads on the final part of the journey. It is estimated that today it would take a cyclist 16 hours to complete the journey.

Max was to work in the timber milling industry for around 15 years.

Taringamotu Totara Sawmill Company, Oruaiwi NZ.

Max obtained employment as an Orderman at Taringamotu Totara Sawmill Company in the township of Oruaiwi, in 1934.

An Orderman is responsible for the fulfilling of orders by the selection of material for cutting to required sizes and lengths, and checking and measuring completed orders and compiling for despatch. The role of an Orderman suited Max very well. He only had one arm, so the jobs involving sawing and chopping were probably not open to him, although he was pretty competent with a saw and an axe.

Oruaiwi, also known as Waituhi, was a small settlement in the valley of the Taringamotu River. The houses were wooden, with corrugated iron chimneys, and a bush railway track ran through the settlement.

Leaving his home in Auckland Max must surely have found Oruaiwi somewhat of a challenge, although he seems to have found the life in remote milling towns enjoyable. The single men’s accommodation was pretty basic, but it was a pretty blokey atmosphere, which Max enjoyed all of his life.

Oruaiwi Township
Max at Oruaiwi

Smyth Bros & Boryer Limited, Arohena, NZ.

Max moved to Arohena in 1936, to work for Smyth Bros & Boryer, Sawmillers & Timber Merchants. Apart from a working holiday in Australia in 1940, he worked for that company until March 1945 as a timber orderman, and then from 1943, he also worked in the office on timber invoice work for half of each working day. The timbers milled were rimu, white pine, totara and matai.

“Arohena had a school, tennis court and a hall, a shop, a row of family homes and a line of single men’s huts and the cookhouse. There was a mill office and the mill owner’s house.

The mill building was behind a big timber yard. It incorporated the log skid, locomotive terminal, and repair and truck sheds. …. The large area of sawn, stacked and labeled timber was criss crossed by hand truck lines. Truck roads transversed the area to allow for loading of customer orders. Circular turntables re-aligned the tram tracks for direction changes, and Max Bridges, holding his clip board under the stump of his missing arm, kept law and order, and recorded the incomings and outgoings of the timber. He later married our primer teacher, Cecelia O’Neill, and they had a garage at Arapuni when the mill closed.” (To Arohena from Chunuk Bair – Untitled

Arohena is in the Waikato area, which was less isolated than the King Country and the social life was, by all accounts, much livelier than was possible in Oruaiwi. Socials and dances were held in the local hall, and in the neighbouring villages of Pukeatua, Kihikihi and Arapuni. Max and his co-workers also went to the pictures, in Arapuni. The picture theatre was an old corrugated iron shed with numerous holes in the roof and walls. Max used to tell children that the theatre had twinkling stars on the roof, which made it sound rather splendid. He had to confess to the disappointed children that the stars could only be seen through the holes in the roof.

Max also enjoyed fishing on the nearby Waikato River and Arapuni Lake. He was a dedicated fisherman all of his life.

A re-enactment of the Battle of Orekau -“Rewi’s Last Stand” was filmed near Arohena, in 1940 and Max had a “bit” role as a British Soldier. Originally a silent film made in 1925 it was a historical drama based on the last stand of Rewi Maniapoto at Orekau, between 31 March and 2 April, 1864.

Site of the Battle of Orakau

Max married Cecelia O’Neill in Te Awamutu on 10 April 1941. Cecelia was a teacher at the Arohena school, by then a two roomed school. Max moved from the single men’s huts and he and Cecelia lived in one of the unpainted wooden houses provided by the mill owners to married staff. Their daughter was born while they were living in Arohena.

Max, second from right – Arohena

Arohena today is a farming community, with little sign of its former timber milling history.

G.L. Briggs & Sons, Briggsvale, NSW

Max left New Zealand on 10 May, 1940 on the Monterey bound for Sydney, via Melbourne. His occupation was listed as an Orderman.

His ultimate destination was Briggsvale on the Dorrigo Plateau in Northern New South Wales, where he was to work at the sawmill there. The journey from Sydney to Briggsvale by train would have taken more than a day. The train from Sydney to Glenreagh was an overnight trip, and he would then have had to get the train from Glenreagh to Briggsvale.

Ulong Railway Station – on the line from Glenreagh to Briggsvale, which Max would have passed through. (Picture credit Margaret Anne Block)

G.L. Briggs & Sons established a sawmill at Briggsvale in 1923, an isolated spot in the middle of virgin forest. Max worked on the planer, tallying and sorting timber. When Max worked at Briggsvale, there were around 150 residents. The village, comprising staff cottages and barracks was situated next to the mill.

Max and his workmates would catch the train to Dorrigo for social events – sport and the local pub.

Class A Climax geared locomotive, Briggsvale.

Max revisited Briggsvale in 1975 with Cecelia and his daughter. He identified the remains of the single men’s quarters and the cookhouse. The mill building, though in a state of disrepair, was still standing.

Max’s daughter and granddaughter recently visited Briggsvale. No one appears to live there now. It was necessary to bush bash and trespass to access the site. The site had not changed a lot since 1975, but it was not possible to re-identify the cookhouse site, or the single men’s quarters.

Above Left: Briggsvale in the 1970’s. Right: Briggsvale 2020

Max came back to New Zealand from Sydney on the Awatea, arriving in Auckland on 3 November 1940. He returned to his employment in Arohena.

Tarawera Timber Co Ltd., Te Haroto.

Moving to Te Haroto in 1945, Max was employed as an Assistant Yardman. His duties “besides classing, tallying and loading lorries, included the making out of specifications for each load”. (Reference from Tarawera Timber Co. Ltd, dated March 14, 1947.) His wage was six pounds per week.

Napier Taupo Road winding down to Te Haroto. (Credit – Whites Aviation)

Te Haroto is situated on the Napier-Taupo Road, in Hawkes Bay. In 1945 the road was narrow, unsealed and steep in parts. The hairpin bends were the stuff of legend. The big timber trucks frequently had to reverse a couple of times to get around the worst of the bends. Driving that road was not for the faint hearted. Cars would have to follow timber trucks for many miles before there was any opportunity to overtake. Radiators were apt to boil – there were numerous spots along the road, signposted, where they could be topped up from a stream. Bridges were narrow one way affairs, the downhill traffic being required to give way to those vehicles labouring uphill. Max had an old de Soto car, which managed the road pretty well.

Max and Cecelia initially lived in one of three little wooden cottages, built right beside the Napier Taupo Road. It must have been less than pleasant, with timber lorries constantly rumbling past on the unsealed road.

Conditions were primitive. Cooking was done on a fuel stove, with no temperature gauge. Cecelia used to wave her hand in the oven to guess what the temperature was. Great skill was required to keep the stove at a constant temperature.

The laundry consisted of a copper and a pair of concrete tubs, and was in an outbuilding with only cold water available. There was no time to cook on washing day, so Monday was washing day as there was always left over roast from Sunday, which was either eaten cold or minced and turned into something else.

A fire had to be lit under the copper, and when the water was boiling, in would go the items being washed. A wooden stick was used to stir the items around, and to lift them out into the tubs. A wooden scrubbing board was utilised to totally clean the boiled items. They were then rinsed and the white items were lifted into the second tub, which had a blue bag dissolved in it, to keep them white. There was no wringer, so all the laundry had to be wrung out by hand.

Old house at Te Haroto, which is much like Max and Cecelia’s house.

Ultimately, Cecelia ran the single men’s cookhouse, and they moved into the accommodation right at the mill. Cecelia had attended university, and held a BA. She was also a trained schoolteacher. Cooking for all the single men on a fuel stove in a remote timber mill community would surely not have been how she had envisaged her future.

Cecelia’s home town was Hastings, in Hawkes Bay. At least in Te Haroto she was closer to her family, and could often get a lift on a timber lorry to visit them.

Social activities included various sport, socials, and occasional concerts. The concert performers were generally people from the community who could play a musical instrument or sing. One performer played two instruments at the same time, a guitar and a mouth organ (held to his mouth by a strap).

Agricultural shows were held annually, which attracted people from the whole area. The shows always had woodchopping competitions, sporting activities, food stalls and a beer tent. Occasionally they featured Scottish dancing competitions. The highland fling and the sword dance from old Scotland would surely have been somewhat strange in a remote New Zealand timber milling community.

At the Te Haroto Show, 1946 – note the motor vehicles which navigated the local roads.

Max could see that the future of milling native timber was limited. Fire and logging had rapidly depleted native forests. Deforestation was becoming more environmentally contentious, particularly in areas where erosion had become a problem in the early 1940’s. The work was physically hard, with long hours and not well paid. He left Te Haroto after 15 years work in the timber milling industry in 1947. He made lifelong friends while living in the remote timber milling communities, and he always spoke fondly of his time in these communities.

A great tree comes down on hills already stripped of bush (Page 59 “The Way we Were Pictorial Memories of early NZ – Hawkes Bay/East Coast)

In New Zealand, native forests now have some legal protection. Native forest logging ended on public land in 2002. Logging of native trees is governed by a permit system. Exotic forests were planted, mainly pinus radiata to satisfy timber needs, one of the earliest being Kiangaroa, in the North Island.

Max enjoyed working and living in remote saw milling communities. He made lifelong friends, and he always spoke fondly of his time working at the timber mills.