Community Contributed


Kete Horowhenua2020-03-23T16:51:19+00:00
An account of the early Prouse sawmilling days - ballot for land - previous milling & shifting the mill to Levin - railway - characteristics of the trees - railway - shift to Shannon - Gorrie's mill at Ohau - tramways - employment conditions - bush & mill fires - train to Wellington for wages - Mrs Prouse as nurse & midwife.

Interviewer: RICHARD ALLAN PROUSE was born in Levin in 1894. He was the only son of Richard Prouse one of the firm of Prouse brothers sawmillers who milled the heavy timber which covered the area from Horowhenua Lake to the foothills…..

Allan Prouse. Alright Dave. On March 20 1889 a ballot was held in the temporary Land Office in Customhouse Quay in Wellington. It was for the sale of 3000 acres of land in the Horowhenua block which had been bought from Major Kemp for forty shillings per acre. Levin was the center of the block. Attending the ballot was Richard Prouse senior and his three sons - James, John, and my father Richard. The two sons Richard and James secured 600 acres of standing matai bush, the northern boundary being a survey line where Queen Street now runs, from the railway crossing to approximately Gladstone Road. The southern end had a line running from Beach Road to Gladstone Road.

Prior to coming to Levin, James and Richard Prouse first started sawmilling in the Wainuiomata area about three miles south of the present center of the town, down the coast road. In fact it was only on May 12th 1963 that I, in company with three generations of the Prouse family attended the centenary of the Methodist church built by Richard Prouse Senior and his three sons; and some of the timber was pit-sawn, as well as circular-sawn; it was built of heart of totara and stands there on its original site today.

I'm not quite sure when they shifted from Wainuiomata to Whiteman's Valley, but my father Richard was married on the 22nd May 1879 and lived at Whiteman's Valley where the brothers had been sawmilling for some time; and as the end of the sawmilling in that valley was in sight, it took about three years before they finished in Whiteman's Valley to get started in Levin. The mill had to be shifted and quite a few houses had to be built, including two big houses for James and Richard, and a lot of timber had to be cut. I have been told that most of the men and the bosses were living in tents for a while. When the two houses were built for James and Richard, the family shifted up to Levin in August 1891. The mill was on the site at present occupied by the Horowhenua Electric Power Board depot, and ran until approximately 1907.

Interviewer: That would be at the corner of Liverpool St and Cambridge St?

Allan: That's correct Dave. Then the mill was again dismantled and sold, and John Prouse took it up the King Country.

The shifting of the mill was no small task in those days, and everything from Whiteman's Valley had to be let down a steep hill with a big drum and a wire rope. Then it was loaded onto railway wagons and brought up to the Weraroa siding. The Levin railway station in those days was situated just a few chains north of the present Roslyn Road crossing where Mr Peter Bartholomew had his mill, somewhere about two years before the Prouses arrived in Levin. I was in that area a few months ago, and came across some of the old concrete foundations there The Bartholomew's mill was shifted to a site approximately on the corner of Oxford St South and Beach Rd shortly after we started milling in this area. The railway had difficulties in stopping their trains at Roslyn Rd - Levin station in those days - as it was halfway up the Koputoroa hill, Kereru in those days, so decided to shift their station down to Weraroa and was built where the water tank now stands.

Interviewer: Where the Weraroa station is ….

Allan: Yes, just a few chains north of the present railway station. Then it was shifted from Roslyn Rd to Weraroa - the date was 1894. The railway was owned and operated by a private company, the Wellington-Manawatu Railway Company, and all the people and firms who could spare a few pounds had shares in it, and believe it or not it paid 7½ dividend to its shareholders each year. Both Prouse brothers and Mr Bartholomew had shares in the company, and when they applied for a railway siding for their mills, it was promptly put in and free of charge - amazing but true; like most of those good things it came to an end in December 7, 1908 when it was taken over by the government of that time and all the shareholders were paid out. The purchase price was £933,000

Interviewer: Do you know if all that money was paid at once or spread over a period?

Allan: Well I think ...I don't know, but I think it was all paid out at once at that time, when the government took the railway over. The standing bush in that milling area was really marvelous - matai and totara were predominant, with a few rimus, white pines, ratas, and occasionally a miro and a pukatea. The matai were so dense that I've seen three trees growing together, all good milling size from two feet to three feet-six diameter. These trees had reached their age of maturity, and the sap was only an inch thick in nearly all the trees. When heart timber was sold in those days it was heart and clean at eight shillings per hundred feet.

Interviewer: What would it cost today Allan?

Allan: Oh, I wouldn't like to say, Dave - it's about 133 shillings per hundred. I have seen timber fed into the boiler - which was the power that ran the mill - because of a small defect of sap, or a knot or shake. The old fences round the old home and the shed, even the floor of the old cowshed was cast out timber in those days, and still solid after 70 years. I've never seen a bit of heart matai with a grub in it, but the sap was eaten to dust. Perhaps I should explain something that my father used to be very particular about, and that was that heart timber cut out of a dead tree would always take the borer because the resistance of the timber died with the tree. At the corner of Bartholomew Road and Liverpool street out in the paddocks….

Interviewer: Somewhere about where you lived ?

Allan: Yes, just a little bit up, next-door to the new hospital grounds, right on the corner of Bartholomew St and Liverpool St. Out in the paddocks there grew a giant rimu tree on a clay bank that runs through that area. In 1920 I was ploughing there and I dragged away some very large roots of that tree. Working with me at the time was Mr James Parsons and I asked why they were so big, and he told me that he had felled that tree which was the king of forest, 108 ft high without a limb, and over 5 feet in diameter, and said what it was used for - some time in 1935 the Bank of NZ in Wellington were renewing the inside of their bank, and when the counters were taken out, no-one could find a join in a 12-foot long, 3 inches thick, and 4-feet wide board, and fortunately I was able to tell them where the tree grew and all its dimensions in timber terms. The tree was unblemished, and cut eight twelves and one ten, and it can be seen there to this day. I suppose millions of pounds in cash have passed over that since 1900.

Interviewer: That would be the same tree, Allan, which you previously mentioned, in the vicinity of Bartholomew Rd and Liverpool St.?

Allan: Yes, that's correct Dave. Of course that's all cleared and farming now.

Now I have mentioned Kereru which is known as Koputaroa today - the name was changed when the government took over the railway - I have been told that there was another Kereru somewhere else. Prouse Brothers had another mill at Kereru just at the back of the railway station, and a lot of white pine timber was cut there and sent to Australia. I can clearly remember seeing the big new (?B) railway wagons loaded and being loaded with white pine in pieces 10x10 and 12x12, 40 to 50ft long, the full length of those big trucks. The manager of that mill was a tall thin man and his name was (?Bill) Rogers. That mill, when it had cut out timber, was shifted to the horseshoe lake on the Manawatu River. The road out to this mill was at the southern end of the Shannon railway station running in a westerly direction to the Manawatu River by the ?Saunders old homestead, and rata and white pine was cut there for about three years.

I remember seeing some big dead trout in the backwash of the river where the sawdust was being dumped and afterwards learned it was the acid which came from the rata sawdust which killed the fish. The practice of dumping the sawdust was discontinued when it was discovered what was killing the fish.

At Ohau, James and Richard Gorrie had a sawmill just at the back of the railway station on the east side of the line, and some of the old mill houses were still standing and used by the Maoris until a very recent date. The Gorries were relations of the Prouses, and used to work together in most ways. To keep these mills going, it had to be fed with logs, and to do this were miles and miles of tramways carting the logs into the mill from different stands of bush.

In most or nearly all, the trees were picked out for length, size and kind according to the orders received, and the bushmen would get their advice from the mill foreman as to what was required. The logs were felled and dragged up to a set of skids either by bullock teams or steam winch ready for the tramline in to be loaded onto the trucks to be taken to the mill or to other sets of skids where the logs were stored handy to the mill.

In all cases and in most all mills these tramways were hauled by horse teams. I can remember one big set of skids where the Veteran Soldier's Home now stands today, and the tramways branched at that point - that's just at the corner of Prouse St and Matai St here - one line going east, and the other going south. The latter went down to McLeavey Rd, and the former to Gladstone Rd via Queen St. When all these milling logs which were cut out of the bush, the tram was shifted on to make shorter haulage to the tram head.

These was no rivalry or animosity between the Bartholomews and the Prouses - if one wanted to go across the other's property or tramways, they just went. If one couldn't supply a certain grade or kind of timber, it was passed over to the other, and vice-versa.

Interviewer: Allan - did both firms use the same tramway tracks?

Allan: No they all had their own tramway tracks, Dave, but they used to cross one another, if you understand - they never seemed to run together, they went across, and if they wanted to go across, they just went across.

The employers worked together in harmony 44 hours per week, from half-past seven till half past four on the ?average - even daylight saving was in practice in the mills in those days, in 1890. The wages were eight shillings a day or a shilling an hour. The foreman got 8s 6d a day. All these men had families, and the prices of clothing and groceries and boots etc were all in keeping with the wages. A week's rent of a house was a day's wage - eight shillings.

Saturday afternoons and Sundays in a lot of the homes were spent filling the larder with a few extras. There were wild pigs and most of the game birds, pigeons, fish, rabbits, hares, ducks, swans, etc - I have eaten pigeon stew, and then you're so full that you can't get up from the table, it's so nice that you can still suck the bones.

In both the Bartholomew and Prouse mills there was a nightwatchman employed, and if a fire broke out anywhere within sight of the mill, the mill whistle was sounded, and as a child, I was more frightened of the sound of those whistles than thunderstorms or earthquakes. Every available man of both mills would turn out at any hour of the day or the night to fight these fires in those days which was no easy task. The only water available was out of wells 50 to 80 ft deep, hand-pumped which was slow - buckets and windlass or bucket and rope.

Interviewer: Allan, were there any serious fires in either mill, do you remember?

Allan: Well, the mills were never burnt down Dave, but I have seen and heard of quite a few fires - it wasn't so much in the mill where the nightwatchman was employed, it was out where the bush had been felled and hadn't been burnt off. And you get some very high winds from a particular easterly quarter as you already know, and to see a fire swept by those and to see red-hot coals off the stumps..

Interviewer: It would be very terrifying

Allan: Oh, I should say. I think at this stage - there is a picture in the Levin Jubilee souvenir publication that shows the old mill hands that worked in the mill at Weraroa, and their names are on the back. In Mr Selwyn Simcox's book of Otaki there was a picture of the mill and its workers in Prouses' mill which was at Hautere, south of Otaki.

I think at this stage it would be unfair if I didn't mention the part my mother played in the welfare of the mill in general. She used to travel to Wellington once a fortnight and cash a reasonably big cheque for the men's wages.

Interviewer: That would be by train?

Allan: That was by train - that was the only means of transport in those days - no bank in Levin then, and the train was the only means of transport. I cannot give you the time of departure or arrival on return, but I have heard her say that she only had 21 minutes to get to the Bank of NZ and back to the Thorndon railway station to catch the train back to Levin. She had a standing order with a (?cabbie). I think it was about 1895 when Palmerston North opened a branch of their Bank of NZ at Manakau, and my mother used to ride down there for the men's wages, and it wasn't until 1897 that there was a Bank of NZ started in Levin.

The nearest doctor in those days was in Foxton - no telephone - if you required the services of a doctor well you just had to ride over to Foxton to get him and both ride back again. There was no bridge over the Manawatu river - you and your horse had to swim it. And it was quite a few years before a doctor came to Otaki. Broken legs, arms, and bad cuts were all taken over to the boss's Mrs, which was my mother, and she fixed them up and made them as comfortable as possible until they could be put on a stretcher and slung up in the guard's van of the train and sent to the nearest hospital which was in Wellington. So I think it's just about time that Levin had its own hospital. I can remember my mother relating little episodes of men who had actually - one man in particular who had actually chopped off his toe. After she had attended to it, he unwrapped a dirty piece of ?rag with his toe and asked her if she could stick it back on again. Another old chap was brought in to our old home with the D.T.'s and she took his pants and put him to bed and gave him a pair of one of my small sister's boots, and told him that when he had got his both boots on she would give him his pants back and he could go home. He was better in 36 hours, and I believe he spent 12 hours trying to get those boots on before he went to sleep. A man got onto the train at Ohau one morning, and he had gone totally blind fire-fighting the bush fires. His mates put him in the carriage and he was heading for Wellington hospital. My mother enquired what was the trouble and she put his head on the windowsill and licked his eyes. The roughness of her tongue removed the smokescreen, and he regained his sight immediately. He got off the train at Manakau and walked back to Ohau. Many and many a time I have seen my mother removing steel filings from men's eyes with a sharp magnetized pocket knife.

There were all the babies she helped into the world, the sick children she saved their lives and they lived a full life. There were ( ?? ) in an old house in Wilton St, where three children coming home from school had crossed the old pit and had been eating the wild tutu berries, down on their way home from school. They started with convulsions, and by the time my mother arrived they were very sick children. She started with an emetic and made them sick to find out what they had been eating. Then she tied their hands and feet and put corks in their mouths to stop them biting their tongues, and rolled them in hot (?soapy) blankets and sweated all the poison out of their systems. They had sent to Foxton for the doctor and when he arrived at 4.30 am he had a look at the children and said she had saved their lives, which I don't think I could have done better myself. Those were the mill foreman's children, and they all grew up and married and had families of their own

In conclusion I would like to say that both my father and my mother were good God-fearing people and they set an example to others, and I hope I have inherited some of their teachings.

Interviewer: Could you tell us when your mother and father died, and what age they were?

Allan: Not off hand, Dave. My mother died in 1951 at the age of 92, and my father died in 1921 at the age of 66.

Transcription done by Doug Bolitho.