Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 12, October 1969
By ARTHUR BEASLEY
My association with Karangahake and its people was brief a matter of a mere six months but it has left impressions which have remained half a century. Never, before or since, have I met with a more warm-hearted community. As a stranger I was welcomed, as was my wife, and some of the friendships formed then have endured throughout the years.
I returned from active service in World War I at the end of May 1919 and took the normal demobilisation leave at the expense of the Army after which I was offered a temporary appointment as headmaster at Karangahake. However the "month" lasted for six months and proved to be a very happy time for my wife as well as for me.
As I knew nothing of conditions I left my wife in Auckland the idea of occupying the School house being out of the question. Meanwhile I would take whatever accommodation was available. The train arrived some time after dark and to my surprise, on alighting at the station I was warmly greeted by a group of friendly men - members of the School Committee, led by the Chairman, Mr. Arthur McGuire. They had already arranged accommodation for me at the hotel and insisted on carrying my luggage. For an ex-infantryman who had been used to carrying a seventy-pound pack around France this was something of a change.
The proprietor of the hotel and his wife Mr. and Mrs. Rae, were a very hospitable couple and at the end of the first week were pleased to welcome my wife. Another guest at the hotel was Miss Marshall, the Postmistress, while from time to time a number of casuals, particularly commercial travellers arrived. At that time the hotel which had once held a licence was "dry". The town itself as I first saw it was in marked contrast to what it must have been in its heyday. Abandoned and burnt-out cottages were scattered about the hillsides with gorse and fern taking charge. Rumour had it that fires in Karangahake were almost daily (or nightly) occurrences until insurance companies refused to accept any more risks. During my time in the district there was no suggestion of a fire.
Karangahake was a dying town, for both mines, Talisman and Crown, had been more or less worked out. Most of the miners had left and, apart from exploratory drilling in the hope of once more "striking it rich" there was little underground activity. An indication of the decline could be seen in the roll of the school. At one time about 480 pupils attended and previous headmasters had been middle-aged or beyond so a comparative youth still in his twenties was somewhat of a novelty. However, at that stage the roll had fallen to 180 so there was no overcrowding. In addition to myself there was a staff of four, Misses White, Hill, Gibb and Jackson, all very enthusiastic and capable so I had no real problems. The parents almost without exception, were friendly and co-operative, the Committee supported the school whole-heartedly and the pupils were courteous and responsive. In short it was a happy school.
While most of the miners had left, the permanent staffs were retained so that, had more gold been found, the mines could have been brought back into production without undue delay. As a result many of the men were far from overworked. The bowling greens and tennis courts were well patronised and, in bowls especially, Karangahake excelled. At that time, with Ernie Jury as Skip, the local team held the New Zealand Championship while Jury himself was holder of the National Singles title. In addition to bowls and tennis the town sported an enthusiastic bridge club. As I had played bridge almost daily during the voyage home I was as keen as any of the locals and spent some very pleasant evenings at the Club.
As with most small communities there was a suggestion of social distinction in certain quarters. Shortly after our arrival in the district we were invited one Saturday night to attend a social at what was referred to as "The Little Hall". Functions such as this were not patronised by certain residents. While I was in Camp in England awaiting a passage home there were frequent social functions at which both the Valeta and the Maxina (new at that time) were very popular I asked the girls at the hotel if these were known locally but they were not. So, humming the appropriate tunes I demonstrated both dances with one of the waitresses who soon became as efficient as if she had danced them since childhood. So the Valeta and Maxina made their debut in Karangahake in the hotel kitchen.
The pianist at these functions was Mr. Mick Meehan who could play by ear any tune he had heard once or twice. I hummed the tunes to him and in a very short time he was able to play them right through - note perfect - so my partner and I demonstrated both dances. Before long more and more couples took the floor until it was crowded to capacity. The next day we attended church and were asked if it was true that we had been to the dance at "The Little Hall" the night before. Having agreed that we had we were asked "was it well conducted?"- "Yes, perfectly". Naturally it was not long before the whole town knew that "the schoolmaster and his wife" had been to a dance at "The Little Hall" and before long the little hall dances had to be held in "The big hall" and at a later stage some patrons came from both Paeroa and Te Aroha.
During our stay the Peace Treaty with Germany was signed by Britain and her allies and in common with other communities in several countries Karangahake decided to celebrate the occasion. Arrangements were made in the expectation that the local M.P. Mr. Hugh Poland, would be available to address the gathering. However, Mr. Poland had already agreed to speak at a similar function at Paeroa so the Karangahake Committee, had, at short notice, to make other arrangements. To my astonishment, the Chairman, having read Mr. Poland's apology, suggested "That our headmaster an experienced public speaker and also a returned Soldier be asked to give the address".
Before I had recovered from the shock the motion was carried with acclamation so there was no alternative but to accept. Several factors made the assignment a relatively easy one. We had won the war, pride of race was strong, Britannia then (if not now) ruled the waves. In short, I knew what type of address the people wanted and I gave them just that. Actually I quite enjoyed myself in the knowledge that my whole audience was with me and as I stepped down from the platform, one simple soul, whose figurative language was expressive if not poetic, shook me warmly by the hand and said "That was a grand speech. It was just like pouring water out of a kettle".
About three months after our arrival the hotel was taken down in sections and transported to Te Puke where a licence was available so we had to seek other accommodation. This we found with Mrs. White at Mackaytown. For a good many years Mrs. White had taken a number of paying guests but was somewhat reluctant when I first approached her. She didn't mind taking men boarders but she didn't think her pioneer home "would suit the schoolmaster's wife". I assured her that she need have no fears on that score so finally she agreed. Within a few days "the schoolmaster's wife" was more than popular - in fact Mrs. White seemed to regard the girl from the city as her own special charge and responsibility. We had a very happy 3 months there and was particularly gratified at the way the people did all they could to make my wife feel at one with them.
In addition to those already mentioned other families come to mind. Mr. McGruer was Manager of the Crown Mine and Mrs. McGruer was most hospitable. Incidentally their daughter Alma was later a well-known vocalist in Auckland. Then there were Mr. and Mrs. Aitken and Mr. and Mrs. McLean who were our close friends for many years. Other names which will always be associated with the district are those of Mr. Fallon the local tailor, Mr. Brocket and Mr. Shand who owned a grocery, Mr. Murray the accountant for the Talisman Mine and Mr. Jamieson who was in charge of the School of Mines.
As the time came for our departure just before Christmas Mrs. White began looking around her farmlet to see what she could find for us to take back to the city. If my memory is dependable after the lapse of fifty years we had a case of plums, a duck, a bottle of wine and various other odds and ends. Surely this was an example of the good old pioneer spirit. Some fifteen or twenty years later we called at Mackaytown and renewed our friendship with Mrs White who, then in her eighties, was working on her section. Truly a remarkable old lady. As I look back I have many happy memories of Karangahake and its people. Most of those I knew have probably moved to other parts or have passed away but they have left with both my wife and me a feeling of real satisfaction that we were privileged to know such warm hearted people.