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Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 18, June 1974

A TALE OF HUMAN TOIL (N.Z. HERALD 1935)

By (le Baigneau) STANLEY W. BAGNALL

It is in the neighbourhood of twenty years since the heart of the Old Mill ceased to beat, twenty years since the reeking saws bit deep into the fallen timbers of forest giants. In his youth the Man toiled in the shadow of its broad spreading roof; in his age he watched the Old Mill die. If you wander along the riverside among the rank weeds and the over-grown grasses you will perhaps find a few rusty bolts and an old concrete pillar or two that mark the site of the Old Mill. Little is left to remind one of the days when the village throbbed to the tune of the buzzing saws and the pulsing of the giant engines, its very life wrapped up in the life of the mill. Only the river flows silently by, only the mountains stand as they have stood since the beginning of Time. All else is change.

Brawny bushmen, full chested, bitten with the frosts of winter, bronzed with the heat of summer, felled the giant kahikateas with flashing blows of axes and swinging sweeps of saws. Great draught horses, straining at the chains with swelling muscles and heaving flanks, dragged the fallen monarchs along the wood-paved tram-line through hanging festoons of green, where the tawhera grew, and the lovely pikiarero swung in snowy white; along to the mill by the riverside. Hefty mill-men wielding powerful jacks, rolled the trunks over the slippery skids to the vertical saw that cut and sliced, the life-blood of the old white pine dripping beneath the biting steel. Followed the circular, whose lightning flash cut again until the giant was hewn into wet, heavy flitches, ready for further manipulation into scantling and boards. Drag-saws and planing machines played their busy tunes and the timber passed from the mill into the yard, a miniature town of sky-scraping timber stacks, neatly laid along the groups of rails.

Day and night the Mill toiled on. By day, dark volumes of smoke poured from the lofty smokestack; by night myriads of sparks whirled into the murky darkness - until science invented a scheme for their suppression - while the engines throbbed and the whirring saws bit deep. The slab filled engine-room glowed red as the grimy stoker fed the flames, and the mighty wheels spun and raced to the push of the driving steam. Men came and men went, boys grew up and worked among the flashing saws, or went out into the great world, but the Mill toiled on, and the Man toiled on.

On the flood tides came in the square-rigged ships, the barques and barquentines from over-seas, a stitch or two of canvas set if the wind was fair, but always with the fussy tug that held them in the close embrace of heavy coirs, the pilot shouting loud-voiced commands until the weighty anchors dropped and the moorings held them fast. Tall ships that spread their white sails out to dry in the afternoon breezes; black-ported ships, whose tarry shrouds whistled and sang, until, deep yawning holds filled with timber from the Old Mill, they lay loaded to the Plimsoll mark, ready for sea, awaiting the pilot and the fussy tug. Then they would go. Deep sea sailors manned the capstan bars, while chanties sounded to the tramping feet on the fo'c's'le head, and anchors came dripping up from the limey depths; rough-voiced sailors with tattooed chests and hairy arms, with a roll in their walk and a tang of the sea in their speech; men who lived in the bows of the ship, in the dark forecastle with its smoky lamp, a stuffy place that would later resound to each hammering wave as the vessel ploughed her way onward. And so the ships passed on to the open sea, dipping their flags in answer to the fluttering ones on shore, bidding a last goodbye to the village and the Old Mill. One by one they sailed away, some to return, some never again to nestle their stout sides against the welcoming wharves.

Then the piercing whistle of the mill would shrill out a message to the tiny groping steamers that churned their way up and down the broad bosom of the river. Squat and bluff-bowed they were, and shallow of draught, homely boats by day, fairy boats on a calm, clear night, with their bright lights mirrored in the star-filled waters beneath, and the cold moon shedding a silver pathway from shore to shore. The river flowed on, ebb tide and flood tide, ceaseless and silent, save when the north or the east wind blew, tossing it into grey foaming waves that crashed and beat on the stab-filed breastwork. The bitter winds of winter howled round the Mill, whirling through the cracks and crevices, blowing through the open doors, and leading the sawdust a merry dance on the draughty floors. The brazen sun of summer poured down on the iron roof, drying neighbourhood into so much tinder. Bush fires occasionally raged painting the night sky a fiery red, while men fought the crackling flames.

So time passed on, and the Mill and the Man grew greyer and older. The forest giants became fewer and harder to get, and it became evident that the day of the Old Mill was past. Night-work ceased and a stillness settled on the village that had so long listened to the busy engines, and the buzzing saws, and the clanging bell. Those who for many years had gone to sleep to the noise lullaby lay awake, and wondered at the stillness and the loneliness, until they grew accustomed to the silence. The breast-works rotted and fell into the passing waters. The wharves that had resounded to the tramp of many seafaring feet shuddered and collapsed, and became mere skeletons with sharp fangs pointing starkly up through the muddy tide. In the hands of the breakers the Old Mill ceased to be, leaving only a lonely gap by the riverside. And the Old Man lived on and watched the old change into the new, the sombre bush change into verdant pasture land, the tireless motor take the place of the sweating horse. Each year he grew frailer and more bent. Each Sunday while strength permitted, his gnarled old hands rang the bell of the Village Church until now like the Old Mill, he has passed on forever, leaving only the memory of the vanished Mill, and the memory of the simple, honest God-fearing son.

(1900-1914 period)


MR. STANLEY WELLINGTON BAGNALL born at Turua, was the only son of Richard W. Bagnall and Lydia Chadwick (Lamb) of Thames. His father was a son of George Bagnall who came to N.Z. with his wife and family from Prince Edward Is. (Canada) in 1864, and later established a Sawmill at Turua. After attending Auck. Grammar School, Stanley Bagnall joined Mr. Porrit's legal firm in Paeroa but during World War I served overseas. On returning to N.Z. he took up farming on the Hauraki Plains and married Bertha Phillips. During the depression the family left the farm and moved to Papakura, then to Albany; later to Birkenhead where Mr. Bagnall died in 1971 aged 81 years. He had written many articles for Newspapers and maintained his interest in Turua. His daughter, Dorothy is a member of our Historical Society and we are grateful to her for sending us a copy of the above article.