Friday, 21 March 2014

Rapt In History

The Mill House, Waianakarua: Constructed in 1879 by a German immigrant, Ernst Diehl, the massive building is now an accommodation-restaurant complex. Born amidst treachery and tragedy, the mill stands as a symbol of both continuity and change in the Herbert-Waianakarua District.

THERE ARE PLACES where history wraps around us like a warm blanket – or a winding sheet. Sometimes, like both at once. The Mill House, located 25 kilometres south of Oamaru on State Highway One, is one such place.
Originally a flour mill, it was constructed in 1879 by a German-born immigrant named Ernst Diehl – and it was built to last. According to a contemporary report in the North Otago Times: “The foundation is laid on solid rock, and is 9 feet in depth, the walls being 3ft 3in in thickness.”
Alas for Herr Diehl, his mighty structure had hardly been standing a year when it was beset by treachery and tragedy.
In the words of local historian, Dorothy McKenzie: “A considerable amount of money was held in the mill safe over the summer, so that farmers could be paid out as they delivered their bags of grain. At the height of the first season of operations, the mill was burnt out and as the local story has it [Diehl’s business partner] Davidson had disappeared, leaving an empty safe behind him.”
The Mill may have been burnt out but it was not burned down. Under the management of the appropriately named Phoenix Milling Co., the refurbished mill continued to grind flour for another 60 years, finally closing its doors in 1939.
Growing up in the neighbouring village of Herbert in the 1950s and 60s, I remember the mill as a mysterious industrial ruin. Massive and seemingly indestructible it guarded the graceful span of the Waianakarua stone bridge like some misplaced medieval castle. Its blank windows shedding less and less light on a story that fewer and fewer people could remember.
Now an “accommodation-restaurant complex” the Mill House wraps its 3ft 3in walls around visitors from all over the world. New stories are daily being added to the old.
For me, also, this past week has been a mixture of new and old stories. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, on 15 March 1864, the contemporaries of Ernst Diehl founded Otepopo (Herbert) School. Aging adults, who, when last I saw them were children, came from as far away as Sydney, to greet the geographic, architectural and human strongholds of their youth.
From them I learned how many of the farms of the original settler families had already passed – or were passing – into the hands of faceless foreign corporations. “Bewley”, the property my father farmed, I was told, had gone with them.
The great forest that the State had spread over the hills above Herbert in the 1930s is now in the hands of an American forestry firm.
Herbert’s beautiful Presbyterian church, St John’s, stands forlorn, its future uncertain. Spiders’ webs seal its padlocked wooden doors.
This is not, of course, a tale familiar to North Otago only. All across New Zealand the solid signposts of the past are being dismantled. The family farm, which for 150 years has given this nation a foundation as solid as the Mill House’s, is rapidly fading away.
Only a handful of the children I attended Otepopo School with remained in the district. Most were scattered, like gulls blown on a boisterous wind, to Sydney, London, the North Sea, Wyoming. Or simply to places in New Zealand with more to offer than a sleepy North Otago township.
But those children did not leave Herbert empty-handed. The values imparted by the teachers of Otepopo School and the ministers of St John Presbyterian Church went with them.
And not just with them; because the same values were also imparted to successive generations of New Zealand children by thousands of equally caring rural teachers and clergymen, farmers and farriers; railwaymen and road workers; shopkeepers and country GPs.
And now those New Zealanders, rural no longer, are imparting to their own offspring a core of values not so very different from the ones they learned in little places like Herbert up and down the long length of Aotearoa.
Thus does history wrap us warm in its blanket, and bind us tight in our winding-sheet.
And thus did my thoughts run as I looked down from a window set in the Mill House’s 3ft 3in walls. Listening to the Waianakarua River chuckling in its sun-dappled bed, and the bell-birds tolling the hours.
Thinking about where New Zealand has come from – and where it is going.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 March 2014.


Brendan McNeill said...


You are an incurable romantic. :-)

However if you truely believe that: "The values imparted by the teachers of Otepopo School and the ministers of St John Presbyterian Church" are still being imparted to children "up and down the long length of Aotearoa", then you need to get out more.

New Zealand is a beautiful country, but is one of the most secular on the planet, with one of the highest incaseration rates in the world.

Our high levels of child abuse are appaling by any standard, with large sections of our community plagued with family breakdown, dysfunction and welfare dependency.

These outcomes are not produced by people who embrace and live by the core values of the school teachers and Presbyterian ministers you grew up with.

We have been appaling at communicating the Christian faith, and the values that underpin it to the next generation. The fruits of our failure surround us every day and should be cause for our ongoing embarrassment and shame.

Like the old Mill House, we can be restored, but it requires intentionality on our part. For now just like the locked doors on the St John Presbyterian Church in Herbet, only the disused form of our social-cultural heritage remains.

Kat said...

Whats the bet Key has offered the Chinese a few more dairy farms on the side. No publicity photos though!

Chris Trotter said...

To: Brendan.

Why so gloomy, Brendan?

Yes, there are a number of appalling failings in our social system, but the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders remain decent, caring people.

It was precisely because I "got out" to my old school's 150th birthday, and was able to mingle with so many lovely people, that I can attest so positively that this is still a great country.

Could it be better - of course! But, secular or religious, the values that continue to hold out the promise of improvement are still very much alive and kicking.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Brendan, if secularism is so bad, how come there are so few atheists in prison compared to Christians and other believers? If child abuse is so bad, how come so many Christian priests indulge in it?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Oops, forgot to say – one of the few countries in the world with a prison population larger than ours on a percentage basis is the United States – coincidently one of the most religious countries in the Western world :-). (Dammit we'll call that a senior moment shall we?)

Jan said...

Brendan, I am quite surprised to discover that your philosophy of life is underpinned by what you describe as 'Christian values'. They aren't the same as the ones taught to me by my Methodist minister father. What happened to "judge not that ye be not judged" and "though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal"?
I refer particularly to your comments on the last post about poverty - not much aroha there, is there!

Brendan McNeill said...

Hi Chris

It is true there is much to be cheerful about, reported crime is down, and our economic prospects are improving.

However I remain unconvinced that you can sever the root and long continue to enjoy the fruit of western civilization.

It is yet to be determined if secular humanism contains sufficient glue to secure what remains of our cultural capital. Europe gives no cause for optimism.

I also wonder if those good folks you met with from your rural school reunion are a representitive cross section of New Zealand society. You all grew up in a social-cultural environment that no longer exists for most Kiwis today.

Glad you enjoyed it though - I had a similar rural upbringing. I still appreciate the down to earth honesty, pragmatisim and sense of community that exists in much of rural New Zealand.

Davo Stevens said...

Sometimes we drift back into those lazy, hazy schooldaze of our youth.

I grew up in the far North (just north of the Bay of Islands). Waitangi was just down the road and the Stone Store at Kerikeri, the church with musket holes in the wall (still there to this day).

Times were much different then, 200Ha as a playground, building forts, climbing trees (and falling out of them too!), the old swimming hole in the creek!

Off to Sunday School each Sunday until the teacher had enough of my asking questions and told me that my talents would be better served somewhere else.

Yep, them's was the daze!

Unknown said...

200 hundred years our so called christian care has run in our land.The stone illiterate age, we got them to know about our ways and they even got to tell us to call themselves a culture name Maori,a Italian word, and family name,who!s culture is not in the minds of our history educated control.Suggesting that some other else was here before our dominance.

The church and its pulpit,has a dominating rule in the Maori culture,more catholic than any other.Yet the Maori is a show me how its done,and it will do it.

And that is a show,that they have grasped like a child playing in the sand box at a school play ground first year enter.Their new found rule and acceptance in our culture,is second to their care of their culture,our care culture ruthless like theirs,control is power.But heh! the Maori,may catch the Waka of humanities care without copying our ruthless selfish capitalist rules of control.

Nic the NZer said...

Jesus Brendan, you jumped the shark well before this phrase was even coined.

"New Zealand is a beautiful country, but is one of the most secular on the planet, with one of the highest incarceration rates in the world."

NZ ranks 74th/223 on the 2013 numbers.

Also there are a large number of 'religious' countries well ahead,

US (Christian) 1st.
US Virgin Islands (Christian) 4th.
Russia (Christian) 8th.
Iran (Islamic) 39th.
United Arab Emirates (Islamic) 54th
Israel (Jewish) 62nd.

I would say there is no connection between religion and locking people up, but to the extent there is one it seems to be a positive correlation.

Might you try using facts rather than assumptions in future?

Anonymous said...

Chris, I like your historic reflections, not always, but in this case, it makes sense and should lift spirits.

Well, those Germans, hey, perhaps we need a few more migrants from that place to get things working better here?

Solid and quality workmanship, that is what they are known for, also, (that is apart from some modern day, corrupted youth, that lost it, and that shit in red zone homes in Christchurch), and New Zealand needs more skilled and talented workers and entrepreneurs.

As for Brendan, you are always so negative and right wing centric, get a life, why do you bother reading a blog that you never agree with?

The "christian faith", yeah right, but there are many people without such "faith" that do well and contribute. As for religious people, I have seen enough abuse in homes of professing "Christians".

Brendan McNeill said...


As always context is everything. Cherry picking from the Scriptures is unhelpful at best.

And you are not judging me over my previous comments regarding welfare are you? ;-)

@Nic the NZer

We are in the top third of countries when it comes to incarceration, which I don’t believe detracts from my earlier statement.

You may not be a fan of Christianity, but the human rights record of nations characterized by atheistic secular humanism is not encouraging, so you take your pick.

There is no religiously neutral option.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Well Brendan, according to the figures I have the most religious countries are Niger, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Somaliland, Morocco, Malawi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Mauritania, Egypt, and I could go on, but not too many of those with more than 90% of the people who think religion is important to them have particularly good human rights records. On the other hand the world's least religious countries being Estonia, Sweden, Denmark, Czech Republic, Norway, Hong Kong, Japan, Netherlands, United Kingdom all have reasonably good records, apart from maybe those ex-communist countries. Still – facts never faze you do they Brendan :-).

Nic the NZer said...

@Brendan, Yes, I think there is a substantial difference between the statements 'one of the highest incarceration rates in the world' and falling just inside the top third. Never the less I think NZ could do better, and that would be a good thing.

No doubt if Colin Craig gets elected his good Christian values will require that he exacerbate the problem at any turn by strictly siding with the 'sensible' sentencing trust. If you think that locking people up for maximum sentences regardless of the actual circumstances will reduce the incarceration rate in NZ then you are plainly bonkers.

I assume you side with him on this issue and therefore would support the incarceration rate rising for New Zealand in future. Its really about time that you took some actual moral responsibility for the results of what you support. If you support harsher sentencing and it passes then yes the incarceration rate in NZ will rise and that is in some part your responsibility.

Your statement, "You may not be a fan of Christianity, but the human rights record of nations characterized by atheistic secular humanism is not encouraging, so you take your pick", would imply that there is simply nothing to be done about NZ's own human rights record. Never the less you are simultaneously supporting people who clearly will worsen it if elected. I think this shows clearly that your sense of personal responsibility is rather hollow and not something you apply to yourself in such circumstances.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Brendan, it would be really helpful if you actually addressed the question occasionally. "If atheism is so bad how come there are so few of us in prison?"

And here's a good one, "If cherry picking the Bible is so bad how come Christians do it all the time? :-).

And "How can there be no religiously neutral option, when technically the United States has one?"

Victor said...


You might be right that the virtues of New Zealand's national character (if such exists)have not declined significantly with the passage of many decades.

However, building standards obviously have!

Jigsaw said...

Teaching in a small country school-one teacher and 17 pupils was one of the most satisfying times in my life - mind you it only existed because of the pork barrel politics of Keith Holyoake and has long closed but in general New Zealand was well served by those teachers who taught in so many out of the way places. It was great system and was largely killed off by Tomorrow's Schools' - a pity.

paul scott said...

I always go through that back road, Oamaru then Kakanui to Wainakarua on the way south. I love the waves of the road, and the green and the sea, it roils past you for 15 minutes and then you are there eat Wainakarua river crossing. it’s the best part of the drive South. Trotters gorge is good also but the Kakanui road is the best. Always I look at those toilets some farmer erected in his paddock.
This is country where you give the nod to every farmer along the road there, I have learned this as a traveller, you give the most subtle recognition and they always see. Farmers don’t look at cars, they look at who is inside the car. After nearly three hours driving from Christchurch that sea is such a welcome sight. Kakanui is always such a good kick. I used to sleep in the back of the Holden along the banks of the river just before the bridge. That’s the Wainakarua river, on the flats just before your picture there of the old flour mill.
Next day it was an easy trip south again.
But one night it was at 2am, I was nearly ready to sleep,the road was blocked through to Wainakarua and I had to go up Bowalley road to Herbert to get to the South main road, again, I said to myself jesus this is Trotter territory, then I realised you were just a boy when you lived there then, Trotter , so I just looked at your farm and kept on cruising south, I can forgive anyone who is a farmers son

Trotsky said...

Brendon I've got to agree with the majority of the Bowallyers, your being a miserable bugger, who among us dosnt venerate the past - the good old days when things were simpler, folk were friendlier and life was milk and honey.

Recently I drove through the almost non existent town of Rangiwahia and looking at the boarded up windows and other evidence of mass unemployment and human desertion I wondered why the town ever existed, the only reason I could think of was its proximity to the railroad, the trains stopped stopping and Rangiwahia died.

In a way the small towns rise and fall are a microcosm of the countries fortunes, much of it from forces well outside our control. Wall street crashes and bank failings in the 30's, Britains joining the EU in the early 70's and the oil shocks and collapse of the Bretton woods of that terrible decade with its stagflation and stagnation.
The deflation and new economic agenda of the 80's followed by the asian crisis, dotcom bubble crash, and US caused Great recession - to return full circle to the 30's, we survived in aggregate, but organs of the country like Rangiwahia failed or are failing because they couldn't find new ways to fulfill they're citizens needs.

We persist and at times flourish because we have many offerings, but we must grow them to defend our prosperity or the small town called Aotearoa will find its villagers leaving for better climes and will become another Rangiwahia - just how we manage to do that is a question with so many reasonable answers.

Anonymous said...

Word has it that the Herbert Forest was given to the Maori on strength of spiritual importance as part of a treaty settlement and the deed was transferred to the Canadian company Blakely Pacific within the week.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Ah... the famous word. Even if true, why are you so quick to condemn Maori for something Pakeha would do in a New York minute :-).

reed said...

In the UK... "In 2000, the largest group of prison inmates were Anglicans, who formed 39% of the prison population. Next in size was the group with No religion

Irreligious have a much higher rate of imprisonment than their population 25%.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Firstly that's the UK, in which 73% of people say religion is not important to them, so the nonreligious are doing quite well there. Not to mention that no religion does not mean atheist. In the U.S., which is a very religious country atheists are an even smaller proportion of the prison population :-). Sorry – big fail.

jh said...

The latest New Zealand Geographic has a cover article on population. It praises our diversity.
Yet diversity doesn't bind us together it tends to drive us apart according to a large study (which the author sat on for five years and is battling it's interpretation)

and computer simulation

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I read both articles, later get hold of the original research. But it doesn't seem to be all negative. Diversity has pluses as well as minuses, and may well get better with time.

jh said...

Guerilla Surgeon says:
"I read both articles, later get hold of the original research. But it doesn't seem to be all negative. Diversity has pluses as well as minuses, and may well get better with time."
But why do it. Why make diversity (through policies of population increase) a goal of public policy?
One answer might be found here:

it’s basically OK if economic differences widen as long as the increasingly successful elites come to look like the increasingly unsuccessful non-elites. So the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Okay JH, point taken but what would you rather do, keep all minorities poor? I'm not a great fan of population increase myself, but if we are going to have migrants should we not choose them on a fair basis rather than sticking to a racial norm as Australia did with the White Australia policy?
Just as a matter of interest, the articles did not mention some of the benefits of diversity accruing from Transnationalism, though to be honest they tend to be benefits for business people – but still…