Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 23, June 1979
By: B. Merle Binnie (nee Brown)
Seddon Street at its Eastern or "top" end runs beside Martha Hill, and the house where I was born stood on a steep part of the hill, behind the cycle shop of Isaac Brown & Co. My father was Mr Samuel H. Brown, Isaac's younger brother, and he came from Thames in 1899 to open the Waihi shop as a Branch of the Thames business.
The climb of sixty steps to our front door did not worry us, except when we were heavily laden, and once up the steps the view was full compensation. The Waihi Plains, encircled with hills, stretched ahead, Black Hill stood out to the left, the peak of Te Aroha Mountain showed up to the South, and away to the right, Karangahake Mountain etched its unusual line against the sky.
When I was small, the Plains were dreary, with only scrubby growth and a few green patches, but as the years passed, we watched the gradual change from brown to green, and saw clumps of trees grow, and fine homes spring up in all directions, reflecting expanding prosperity, the result of sheer hard work, plus fertiliser! In fine weather we could not see the Ohinemuri River, but at flood times it would gradually show up, until whole paddocks would become as lakes, and further out, near Ford Road, we could see the foaming mass of water dashing over the little Crown Falls there. At our feet lay the town, only the East End, and Bulltown, out of our view. It was a fine spot for a lookout in time of fire. The old clanging bell was very near, and impossible to sleep through! Later it changed to a siren which was just as terrifying. My sister Gladys (Mrs C.J. Gracey) and I would go to the verandah and take a careful look from East to West; if it was a large fire, or in the Main Street, we would report to our parents, and we might all dress and go to see it. There were many false alarms and often the wretched bell rang for a long, long time, it being nobody's job to turn it off. I can hear it yet, clang! clang! clang!
The worst fire for us was when the Stirling Hotel opposite, and several adjacent large shops, went up in flames. We stood on our lawn and found it quite hot enough there! Down at street level the heat was cracking our shop windows and my father nailed up wet blankets to save them. The whole thing was like a nightmare.
We lived very close to the Martha Mine and seemed a part of it. Blasting shook the house and the Mine Whistle was as good as a clock, and really boomed with an Easterly blowing. The Mine train whistled and rattled across the town every half hour and we children liked to watch for the weekly "special" carrying the bullion - a man sitting in the small open truck, guarding the boxes, and carrying a gun so we were told.
The big Strike occurred when I was tiny (3 years old) and I have two memories of it - first, of angry crowds milling about at the foot of the Mine Road; and second, of a man rushing through our property, crying out, "They're after me!" I had no idea what he was scared of but I was certainly scared myself.
On Paydays our corner took on a new interest. The men came down the hill in their hundreds, lunch-tins swinging, and their pay in their pockets. Some made a beeline for the hotel bar, but waiting under the first shop verandah would be a group of women. Each would approach her husband and usually he would "hand out" as required, but now and then there would be an argument when voices would rise, and occasionally fists too!
If the Mine Whistle sounded in continued blasts we knew it meant fire or accident at the Mine and it struck fear to our hearts. The worst accident occurred in July 1933 when a cage, full of men, ran away in the shaft, all the men sustaining injuries. It took many hours to get the thirteen men up, one by one, and I shall always remember the silent crowds waiting near the corner, and the Ambulance going up and down, up and down the Mine Hill.
Over the years, we had hundreds of visitors to stay at our home, and I loved to be chosen as guide to show them a little of the Mine. We would go about 3.30 p.m. just in time to see the men "change shift" at the shafts. Then we would walk to the top of the hill to see the "Big Cut" and explain why it was there. Then, home via the Pumphouse to see the warm water gushing up, and running off to keep our streets clean! I loved the Mine Hill and often climbed up via Martha Street and the old Reservoir, to sit on a favourite hillock and admire the town lying in its circle of lovely hills.
Next door to us was the Salvation Army, so that each week we were lulled to sleep with the Band practice! When the prevailing Westerly wind blew hard, we could hear the Federal Band as well!
Being so handy to town we had no excuse for absence from any meetings even on pouring wet nights and oh! couldn't it rain! In winter we wished for a longer walk to and from places, to warm our feet, so I often walked home with a friend, then back alone through the quiet streets. I suppose nobody walked Seddon Street more than we did - we had to, to get anywhere! Often I met the policeman on his beat, trying the shop doors as he went along. Several times he climbed our steps at night and banged on the door, calling, "Mr Brown, you haven't locked the shop."
Speaking of the steps, I have often thought of the amazing goodness of the milkman, who used to climb them and go round to the back door (never locked) and leave the milk on the kitchen bench. He never complained, but in later years, milkmen stood up for their rights, and then our milk was left at the foot of the steps - not so good from our point of view!
To reach the steps from the footpath was a long dark passage between the shops. Before the days of torches it was a fearsome place when one was alone. Once, just at the foot of the steps, I stumbled over a large shape - to this day I do not know whether it was a large sleeping dog or a drunk man. I usually ascended the steps two at a time, but that night my feet scarcely touched them at all!
We had a private telephone between the shop and the house - a funny old fashioned model, but it saved us many steps. We worked on a system of rings like a morse code, for quick messages. Of course all our goods had to be carried up the steps. The coalman brought six bags at a time and my father would come behind taking some of the weight. Our car, when we had one, had to be kept at street level. Dad was amongst the early car owners in Waihi, and began with a Model T Ford. As my father aged, the Doctor advised him to "get off those steps" - this was not easy, for he had built the house and brought his bride, Rhoda Collier of Coromandel, to it at the turn of the century.
For almost forty years my father was a well-known figure around town, often on a bicycle. He had a funny habit of leaning his bicycle against a post, forgetting about it, and walking back to the shop. Next day the police would ring and say "We've got your bike here again, Mr Brown". One night, however, the policeman missed it. It was under Mr Wilson the Dentist's verandah, with a packet of Creamoata balanced on the seat! All intact next morning, proving that Waihi is a good honest town!
I have sometimes thought that the Waihi Fathers should have made Rosemont Road the Main Street, because as everyone knows, the howling westerlies shoot up Seddon Street as into a funnel. But have you happened to look down the length of Main Street when there is a particularly beautiful sunset over Karangahake? It can be breathtaking, making up for everything else. I am proud to say "I was born there".
P.S. September 1966. I have just paid Waihi a flying visit, and it was a distinct shock to see that my father's shop was gone! - just a gaping hole left against the bank, where the excavations show how he built his workshop at two levels. I felt relieved that he could not see it now but at least he would be glad that the piece of land is to be used by the Salvation Army always our good friends and neighbours.