Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 16, June 1972

(Inspired by seeing a recent advertisement for the sale of a redundant dairy factory).


One of my earliest recollections is of the country cheese factory which was about 300 yards across a shallow dip from home when I was a young child. How much rural life has changed since that time - a bit over 40 years ago. Now the experiences and enjoyment and the lessons about life which I learned from that factory are no longer available to a country child. It is depressing to me to drive through rural areas and see deserted and derelict factories dotting the countryside.

I am sure many of you will recall what these factories were like in their heyday. Large sprawling buildings usually painted in a drab uninspiring cream colour with a red roof. Quite often the building was in need of a coat of paint. The tracks around the building were a mixture of metal and cinders. A tall chimney sprouting through the roof of the boiler house: spilt coal: steam vents: pipes out to the big pot-bellyed whey tanks perched up on skeleton tank stands: a huddle of cottages around the factory with a slight]y more substantial dwelling for the factory manager.

Just before 7 a.m. one could hear the sound of machinery starting to rattle, and the bang of boiler doors as the boiler was hand stoked. Dark smoke drifted from the chimney in the clean spring morning. Just after 7 a.m. the sound of hoof beats and the rattle of steel shod dray wheels on the metal road could be heard. As the road was quite often well corrugated the milk cans rattled on the deck of the dray as the rig trotted along. The farmer in his milking dungarees stood erect holding the reins, a battered felt hat - possibly of World War 1 vintage - rammed hard on his head and a pipe clenched firmly between his teeth.

My father, as the country school teacher, made arrangements with a farmer along our road to bring us a billy-can of milk each morning. It was my job during the factory season to be out at the roadside with an empty billy and as the dray came by the farmer would lean over the side with a full billy which I took in one hand as I passed him the empty one with the other. The farmer and I became very proficient at this and could complete the switch with the horse still at a trot.

By 7.30 a.m. there would be a line of 7 or 8 drays waiting to decant their milk at the factory stage. The factory manager on the stage dipped out samples for the test and a burly assistant slid the full cans across the steel decked stage to the weighing tank. The smell of fresh warm milk was pungent in the nose of the small boy standing tucked away in one corner of the stage watching the process with keen interest and later moving out to "ear-wig" on the conversations of the farmers which ranged far and wide from problems on the farms to local, national and international politics. What a great forum for the exchange of news and information, and one that no longer exists. In memory I am there again.

From the stage the drays move to the whey tanks where the cans are filled with yesterday's waste from the manufacturing process, to be taken home for pig food. (To a boy's mind, vile smelling stuff, only fit for pigs.) From the whey tanks the drays move around the remainder of the factory road and return to the public road and, perhaps 50 yards further along, to the post office (opened by an understanding postmaster before the official 9 a.m. marked on the black and white enamelled notice on the door).

Just before 8.30 another dray comes flying along the road with the horse at a mad canter, the farmer urging it along with a shake of the reins, milk spurting up through two small holes in the lids of the cans as the whole dray lurches its way violently along the road. This is the farmer who has slept in and has to make the factory by the dead-line set by the manager for the receipt of the milk, or perhaps it is just "Old Bill" who is invariably late. (High excitement would prevail when two farmers decided to have an impromptu race to the factory. An eager school boy easily transported this scene to the days of chariot races in ancient Rome.)

With all the milk in, the process at the factory is under way, the rennet is added and the "beaters" twirl in the long vats. The initial excitement of deliveries over, the boy moves through to the cheese room where rows of fat cheese sit on shelves in the cool darkness. With a friend during holidays he is permitted to make up cheese crates. Great fun with the hammer and nails as we bang the battens on to the octagonal ends. The ends are embossed in black with a fernleaf and the name of the factory, its number and the name of the port to which it is to be shipped in England - Avonmouth. Its location has been found on the school atlas and another facet of our geography education is added. With crates half completed the factory hands lift the matured cheeses from the shelves and put 2 in each crate. We nail on the remainder of the battens, stamp the date and roll the crates towards the delivery door.

Back in the factory the whey is being drained off and the curds scraped towards the edge of the vat so that the whey can run down the dished floor of the vat. This is back-breaking work for the men and one job that a boy can't do as he is too short to reach far enough over the rim of the vat. Shortly after mid-day a terrific clattering commences. The solidified curds, cut into big wedges, are being passed through a giant mincer and raked around again to allow even more moisture to drain out.

A further delay and at last comes the time for the chopped curds to be put in the presses. These are lined with muslin and in go the curds. The shells are clamped on and the line of moulds are then wracked close together. The assistant commences to tighten the wrack with the huge lever while the ratchet toggle rattles over the cogs. Now the cleaning up, with water sloshing everywhere and bass brooms scratching on the floors and scrubbing brushes bringing the equipment up to a bright and shining state. The factory goes quiet, so we move up to the loft and along the cat-walks to a floor where there is a large old bath. The steam pipes are turned on and the bath filled to the brim with very warm water. The workers can clean up after their very strenuous day.

But the young boys' fun has not finished. The factory can be a wonderful playground. We can hide in the pitch darkness of the salt room where the salt stings any little scratches on our legs. We can scramble up and down in the coal bunker and get filthy black. While the factory is quiet we can stealthily hide in a corner with our B-B guns and wait for sparrows to fly into the store room to become targets for our guns. If this palls we can get on our bikes and race furiously round and round the factory imagining it as 5 laps of the famous Brooklands motor racing circuit.

Another aspect of our education was dealt with if we went to the rather remote toilet structure down a track through long fescue. Here the walls were so much written upon that it would have been hard to find a clear space on which to write another smutty rhyme. Many a country boy got much of his early biological education here. The word "pollution" was only another strange word in a dictionary. The waste whey and the washings from the factory went out through glazed pipes to an open drain. This drain was the home of the fattest and ugliest eels it would be possible to see. Catching them with an eel spear or a hook on the end of a piece of string also occupied hours of a young boy's life.

An event which also attracted us was the arrival of the big trucks of the Highways Transport Company which came to load the crates of cheese for the 17 miles to the port of Wanganui, on the first stage of its journey to England. The drivers of these large red trucks were the envy of many small boys, especially the part-Maori driver who always had a huge Alsatian dog which stood on the roof of the cab and presumably travelled in that position on the two hour trip to the port.

Many a young boy tasted his first cigarette given to him by an unthinking factory assistant, who, perhaps sadistically, wanted to see whether it would make him sick. However most of the factory hands were jolly good chaps who were most kind to us and showed us how things worked and told us why things happened. One man, I well recall, was an excellent swimmer who spent no end of time at the end of each day teaching us the finer arts of swimming, at the local school pool. Another was just as helpful with tennis.

These country factories have become victims of the progress in motor transport. Many became redundant as consolidation of factory on factory gradually took place, with the advent of the tanker. It is rather saddening to motor through the country-side and see the derelicts standing idle. Gone is the forum centre, the gathering place, the extra curricular education place and the playground for young country boys. The present generation of boys will not know what a bountiful source of wonderment and interest has been lost to them.