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compulsory grading system was introduced to ensure that the finest quality of fibre was maintained and associations were formed to look after the interests of mill owners and the flaxworkers. In 1906 there were 240 flaxmills in New Zealand with more than 4000 workers producing about 557,000 pounds' worth of exports.

The first Manawatu flaxmills were built during the first flax boom and by 1889 there were 50 mills in the district, most of them in the Foxton area. Low prices forced most of these mills to close and by 1895 there were only six left. In later years the Manawatu district produced nearly 80 per cent of the country's exported fibre.

When the second boom arrived in 1898, the Makerua swamp regarded up to this time as worthless, came under the scrutiny of speculative landbuyers. The swamp was covered with small flax plants growing about 30 inches high, a veritable carpet of potential wealth.

The flax growing area extended from about two miles north of Shannon on the western side of the North Island Main Trunk line west to the Manawatu River. The boundary of the flax swamp followed the river as far north as Linton some 12 miles from Shannon and to a point several miles from Foxton. In all, the flax covered an area of some 14,500 acres out of the 22,000 acre swamp. The swamp itself was part of the 215,000 acres of land granted by the New Zealand Government to the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company on completion of their railway line from Wellington to Longburn in 1886.

By 1902 10,000 acres of the swampland around Linton and Tokomaru in the north and along the Manawatu river had been sold. The remaining 12,000 acres near Shannon was regarded as worthless and unsuitable for further -development as it was considered too low for natural drainage to be effective while pumping would have been uneconomic.

In 1902 Dr W. A. Chapple, a medical practitioner of Wellington, paid 1000 pounds to the company for an option over the last unsold block of the swamp. He formed the Makerua Estate Company with Messrs John Plimmer and Sydney Kirkaldie, also of Wellington, and Alfred Seifert, a young flaxmiller of Paiaka on the Manawatu River between Foxton and Shannon. The company bought 12,343 acres of potentially flaxbearing land at two pounds 10s an acre, a total cost of 30,857 pounds 10s. The company courageously set about draining the land in spite of opinions of the exports who said it could not be done, and after thousands of pounds had been spent their efforts were rewarded.

The draining had a beneficial effect on the spindly flax plants and soon acres of flax growing eight feet high and over covered the "worthless" land. The land was divided into blocks and sold to flaxmillers at a handsome profit.

In 1906 Alfred Seifert, who had observed the operations of large textile mills overseas, conceived the idea of building a flaxmill on a larger scale than had ever been attempted before. His brother Louis, also a Manawatu flaxmiller, was also interested in the project and together they formed the A. and L. Seifert Flaxdressing Co. This company bought the last big

flax block in the Makerua swamp from the Makerua Estate Co, the Miranui block of 4200 acres, for 13 pounds 10s an acre, a total price of 56,700 pounds.

Alfred was only 29 years of age when he became the managing director of the company. The other directors were Messrs Louis Seifert, Hope Gibbons (chairman of directors), Maurice Cohen, H. F. Gibbons, J. P. Innes and C. J. Monro. Alfred was assisted with the plans of the mill by the consulting engineer Mr J. A. Merrett, and the company's architect was Mr L. G. West.

In January 1907 newspaper reports stated that the construction of the largest flaxmill in the colony would begin at Makerua. Eleven months later on Saturday November 16, 1907, more than 150 people gathered at the mill to witness the official opening ceremony performed by the Hon R. McNab, Minister of Lands and Agriculture.

At a luncheon held in the spacious dining room, Mr Hope Gibbons presided over the speeches given by a number of the visitors. He also read a telegram from the Premier Sir Joseph Ward who expressed his regret at being unable to attend, but who wished the company every success in its enterprise. Later in the day the visitors and press members were given a conducted tour of the mill and the flax fields.

Soon after beginning operations the company was faced with a fall in the price of flax fibre, and higher running costs. But gradually the price improved and production was increased from under 1000 tons of fibre produced in the first years to over 2000 tons by 1911. In 1908 a mortgage of 45,000 pounds was raised from the AMP Society, being the amount owed to the Makerua Estate Co for the purchase of the Miranui land. This debt was paid by 1919.

Frequent battles were waged against floodwaters which spilled from the Manawatu River into the swamp and over the years systematic draining of the land continued, coupled with flood control work. A fire in 1912 caused 350 pounds' worth of damage to the scutching shed and another in January 1914 destroyed a bunkhouse.

The outbreak of war in 1914 caused a major disruption to the mill. The stripping machines were shut down for three months after war was declared and the wages and salaries of mill workers were reduced as the price of fibre dropped to only 18 pounds a ton. However the low price was only short-lived and the following year the price rose to 28 pounds a ton and the year after that the company's annual report noted that the quantity of fibre milled was a record since the company started.

The summer of 1917 was the driest experienced for many years and the company lost twenty-two and a half acres of flax in a fire which swept through parts of the swamp. Neighbouring mills also lost heavily and it was estimated that some 500 acres of flax were burned that summer.

A critical period began in 1918 when a mysterious disease appeared, which started to attack and kill the flax. The disease first was noted in the north-west of the flax area on the Tane mill land sited near the present Opiki hall.

Almost immediately 200 acres of Miranui flax was similarly stricken, the cause being a virus, which

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Title
Miranui - The story of New Zealand's largest flax mill - page 4

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1977

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