Each year on the Sunday nearest to June 29, Puhoi celebrates. From around the country, the descendants of the Bohemian settlers of this area come together to relive their European heritage and to remember the struggles of their ancestors who carved farms out of the dense New Zealand bush.
Puhoi, a traditional morning tea stop for travellers heading north from Auckland, is as quiet a country village as you could wish for. Turn off the main highway, traverse a small hill and you enter another world. A crucifix shrine on the side of the road sets the scene; this is a place where the Catholic faith still guides the lives of those whose families first settled here.
The village follows the twists of the mud-yellow Puhoi River on one side and nestles into grass-covered hills on the other. Many of its important buildings, particularly those that the community laboured to build co-operatively, still stand. Foremost amongst them is the white wooden Church of Sts Peter and Paul, which was dedicated in 1881. Next door is the convent school, which closed in 1964 and has be come the community museum.
Set back from the road are verandaed villas standing in paddocks dotted with sheep and the occasional clump of arum lilies. There is a tiny one-room library, a community hall and the imposing Puhoi Hotel, its public bar thick with photographs showing the life of the pioneers.
Many other buildings, which lined the riverbank, have disappeared. Martin Rauner’s smithy, the bootmaker’s, two more hotels, the public school and the sale yards have all gone—their passing marked only by the occasional sign.
The river, once the main artery to the village, has silted badly since the bush was cleared, and only boats with a very shallow draft can now make their way down to the sea at Wenderholm.
Come to Puhoi on that special June Sunday and you will find the streets full of people in European peasant dress. The women wear white blouses with immense puff sleeves covered by bodices emblazoned with great panels of embroidery or brocades. These run right down the back and blend with the colourful swinging skirts.
Men wear the black knickerbockers and short brown jackets of their ancestors. Hand-knitted socks cover the skin from shoe to knee.
The smells of kochen (cheesecake) and arbrentz (gravy) waft from country kitchens, while from the hall come the strains of what sounds like Bavarian oompah-music, though if you listen carefully the cadences and the rhythms are different. So are the instruments: here the Bohemian dudelsack bagpipes and the button accordion blend with the fiddle. The music may not have a wide range of notes, but it has verve and life.
After morning Mass and the saying of the rosary, lunch is served in the community hall and the band strikes up favourite dance tunes—first the stately umadum and haamichl, then increasingly up-tempo dances such as the schot- tische and the sprightly polka. The colourful dresses swirl. The panels of brocade and embroidery swing out as the boys twirl the girls off their feet. Toes point and hemlines float up to show the beautifully knitted socks.
For a moment, sleepy Puhoi sways to the rhythms of yesterday.
The first group of Bohemian settlers arrived in New Zealand on June 29, 1863. They had come literally half-way around the world from their villages in what was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, now the western part of the Czech Republic. While they all spoke a German dialect similar to that found in North Bavaria, they did not regard themselves as German. They were Bohemians—descendants of a people who had settled in the area in the 12th century.
Interestingly, the word “bohemian,” as it is applied to adventurers, vagabonds and non-conformists,is a misnomer, deriving from the mistaken notion that gypsies and the natives of Bohemia were one and the same. The true Bohemians were farmers, not nomads, and their main reason for coming to New Zealand was the desire to own land.
“Farms in Bohemia were small, often little more than 35 acres,” says local historian Judith Williams, “and many landowners had to supplement their income by working in the mines or the forests. It was becoming increasingly difficult to subdivide the land amongst family members. There just wasn’t sufficient to go round.”
Others who made the decision to emigrate were craftsmen: blacksmiths and cobblers. In their homeland, their chance of getting any further than toiling for others was slight.
News filtered to Bohemia that the New Zealand government was offering 40 acres free to any adult and 20 acres free to any child who could make their way to New Zealand. For those who could afford to pay the passage, this seemed an offer too good to refuse. In short order, 83 Bohemians of all ages enrolled in the immigration scheme.
There was excitement in the air as the group assembled at Staab railway station, 80 km south-west of Prague, on a snowy February night to set out on the first stage of their long journey to a new homeland. They saw themselves as future landowners—people of substance. They boasted to their families and neighbours who were staying behind of a land where there was no winter, no poverty and no hunger. In their minds’ eye, many would have envisaged a New Zealand laid out in the neat well-cultivated fields of Bohemia.
They were in for a shock.Leaving Staab, they travelled to Prague, where they had an audience with the Archbishop, Cardinal Schwarzenburg, who encouraged them to give full allegiance to their new country and to remain faithful to their Church.
With his injunction ringing in their ears, the company travelled across Europe by train to Hamburg, then by sea to Gravesend where they boarded the War Spirit for the 106-day journey to New Zealand.
For all of them, this was the first time in their lives that they had seen the sea. Many must have felt apprehensive as they looked out on the cold, grey waters of the North Sea and thought of the horrors of seasickness, the very real risks of disease and shipwreck, and the certainty of months of discomfort which lay ahead.
The voyage had privations in plenty, but only one immigrant died—tragically, when the destination was almost in sight. It was during a storm in the Tasman Sea that a load of timber on deck came loose and crushed Lawrence Turnwald, a married man with five young children. It was the only death on the voyage out, but two Bohemian babies were born.
A further accident, but of a humorous kind, also took place in the Tasman. As the War Spirit reeled on a big swell, the rope tethering the ship’s cow broke, and the hapless animal was hurled in a shower of spray down a hatch and into the young men’s quarters. First they thought a whale had crashed down on them, then a mermaid, before realising it was just the cow.
The bohemians looked with despair on Auckland. Had they left a Europe of beautiful cities like Prague and Hamburg to come to this crude colonial town—this raw collection of wooden shacks and muddy pavements? Worse, the tensions between the colonial government and the Waikato Maori were escalating, and within a few days (July 12) General Cameron would cross the Mangatawhiri Stream and invade the Waikato. Auckland must have had the uneasy feel of a city on the verge of war.
Worse was to come. Within two days they were on their way north to Puhoi, travelling by cutter to the mouth of the river.
It was late on Monday evening when they arrived. The local Maori who lived in a pa at the river mouth took them upriver by canoe.
Nothing could hide their horror at the country they travelled through. In the gloom they could see they were surrounded by steep bushclad hills. This was a far cry from the rich well-tilled fields of Bohemia; it was going to take them years to create the hoped-for farms.
The party was dumped at a small clearing on the banks of the river. Here, instead of the houses they expected the provincial government to have provided for them, they found two small nikau whares—utterly insufficient for a party of 84 in the depths of winter.
Their first nights must have been dreadful—worse than anything they had experienced on the ship. Unable to sleep, many spent the dark hours in tears. One settler reportedly said that if she could have walked on the sea she would have gone home.
But there was no way back. Most had exhausted their resources coming to New Zealand, and now they desperately needed money for food, tools and guns.
When they came to examine their allotted land they found that there was scarcely a flat acre, and all of it was covered in dense bush. This bush was their great enemy, sapping their strength as they struggled to fell and clear—but it also offered sustenance. For the first few years many of the settlers lived on native birds, particularly wood pigeons. They found that the nikau palm was edible—its centre tasted like cabbage when cooked—and they also ate the pith of ponga ferns, caught eels, crabs and fish in the river, scooped wild honey from tree hollows and hunted pigs in the bush.
Te Hemera Tauhia, the Maori chief who had organised their first trip up the river, saved them from starvation. He brought canoeloads of food: melons, peaches, kumara and meat. He taught them what was edible in the bush—taraire berries, for instance, which look like small prunes (though they tasted like turpentine). They made tea from bidibidi leaves, and, once their gardens were established, burned corn to make something resembling coffee.
Gradually life improved. One of the settlers wrote, “Towards the end of the second year we had destroyed some of the bush and prepared some small patches of soil for potatoes and wheat. The latter, when reaped, was ground into flour with steel mills and turned out splendid bread.”
But it was a slow improvement, and life for women, particularly, was full of drudgery. Biddie Orr, who gave last year’s 130th anniversary address, reminded her listeners of the daily routine—a 16-hour day, mind: “Many got up about 3 A.M. to clean their little shanties, to wash,to light the fire and to cook breakfast. At 6 A.M. they were ready to take their axes and spades and go to work with the men until 11 A.M. Then they hurried back to the shanties to prepare a midday meal. They worked hard all afternoon and were again home just in time to cook the evening meal.” In the midst of all this work they also had to care for their children, sew and wash and cope with numerous pregnancies.
For years, many families lived close to starvation. Even such a staple as milk was hard to come by. One family bought a cow for 12 pounds on credit, but it took three years to pay it off, with the father making regular trips on foot to Auckland to hawk eggs and fowls in the streets.
Then there was the mud—in winter, a sea of mud that threatened to maroon the settlement. In her book From the Heart of Europe to the Land of the Southern Cross: A Story of Puhoi, published for the settlement’s centenary, historian Kathleen Mooney writes, “Puhoi mud has a quality all its own. It is said that it can be used for glue in winter and cement in summer. It is also recounted that, in the middle period of the settlement, when Mr Joseph Wech was thrown from his buggy into the mud, he didn’t know whether to burrow up or burrow down to get out.”
Despite their woes, the settlers must have written home enthusiastically about their new land. In 1866, they were joined by a second group of 28 Bohemians led by Lawrence Schischka.
Mooney records that when one of the settlers met the new arrivals as they landed he called, “What tempted you to come out here into this wilderness? You have come from the frying pan into the fire!”
“Your letters,” Schischka replied tersely.
Vincent Wenzlick wrote of his arrival in this second wave: “A reception of tears, not of joy but of despair.. As we looked at the members of the first batch assembled to meet us, we could easily discern the three years’ misery written on their faces.”
But the situation improved. Against all odds, the community had survived and was starting to find ways to earn a little money to pay for the costs of developing the land.
One of the most important sources of cash was the sale of wooden roofing shingles. It was the men’s job to cut these to their correct shape while the women tied them in bundles of 100 with supplejack and then carried or hauled them on a sledge down to the river, where they were loaded on a punt and taken to the river mouth.
Here they were stockpiled until collected by a passing coastal trader. The locals never knew when such a ship was likely to call, so they had to check the pile every day. If the shingles had been collected, then one of the community would hurriedly walk the 30 miles to Auckland, hoping to arrive before the cargo was dumped on the wharf, where it was in danger of being looted or sold by strangers.
At first, the community earned merely a pittance for the shingles,but the end of the land wars and the discovery of gold in the Coromandel created a demand for building materials, and the price rose rapidly. At the height of the boom the Bohemians were getting 20 shillings a thousand—money they badly needed to buy livestock and implements.
The settlers also shipped totara logs to Auckland for use as wharf piles. Kauri was cut up for house blocks and palings, while rimu was turned into firewood and its bark burnt for charcoal. In later years, wood ear fungus was collected from dead trees and sold to the Chinese.
The young colony offered other opportunities, too. Many of the single men joined Captain Martin Krippner’s militia and fought in the land wars. They were rewarded with grants of land at Ohaupo, near Hamilton, and most chose to settle there, depleting Puhoi of much of its young blood. Others tried their luck at digging for kauri gum; others joined the gold rushes to Thames.
But the best opportunities for earning extra money came with the Vogel borrowing boom of the early 1870s. Prime Minister Julius Vogel proposed to borrow lavishly and to spend the money on new roads, bridges and railways.
When his policies became known, Krippner, on whose initiative the Bohemians had come to New Zealand in the first place (see box, page 82), exerted all the pressure he could to get a share for the Puhoi people. So vigorous were his efforts that local newspapers described him as “a torment in the side of the provincial government.”
Not only would roads end Puhoi’s isolation, but the settlers could earn money by joining the roadmaking gangs. The Bohemians were quick to see the advantages. The men formed co-operative parties, tendered for government contracts and divided the payments amongst themselves. Wages of four to five shillings a day opened the doors to a much better standard of living.
And still more Bohemians came.
A further group of 18 arrived in 1872, another 12 in 1875 and a larger group of 31 in 1876. There was no doubt that by this time the community had made a great deal of progress. The Weekly News of July 1, 1876, wrote glowingly of the “thriving, busy-looking German settlement” where “cattle, horses and sheep are grazing comfortably on the rich pastures and the hill lands which have been reclaimed from nature by well sustained perseverance and industry.”
It was during the early struggling years that Puhoi acquired its spirit. Writes Kathleen Mooney, “To ask the older residents of present-day Puhoi how they achieved [their desperate struggle for survival] is to be given, over and over again, the same two reasons . . . ‘they had the Faith and they helped one another.'” The close bonds forged by these factors were strengthened still more by the fact that the settlers were isolated from the rest of New Zealand by language and location. (Indeed, there is a suggestion that the slang expression “up the boohai,” which means someone is lost or completely wrong, is a corruption of the word Puhoi, suggesting the remote nature of the settlement.)
Many of the original Puhoi settlers found it difficult to make contact with the English-speaking community in Auckland, and the language barrier put them at a distinct disadvantage when it came to business dealings. Writes Mooney, “A man selling turkeys on the streets could only cry his wares by making turkey noises as he went; two women who wanted to buy vinegar wasted half an hour in a shop making sour faces and doing all they could to mime vinegar . . . A young man from Puhoi, unused to the city, went into a shop to buy a reel of cotton. He addressed his request to a life-like dummy modelling stylish clothes. Not unnaturally, she didn’t answer him. After repeating his request, he left the shop in a fury and told his friends outside in most expressive pure Bohemian just what he thought of the manners of Auckland shop assistants.”
The Bohemians were determined that their children would master the local language, and opened their first school in 1869 in one of the nikau whares which the government had built for the first settlers. When this proved unsatisfactory, classes were moved to the newly built Presbytery, and eventually a government school was built in 1872.
The building also served as the church until 1881, when the present Church of Sts Peter and Paul was dedicated.
Coming to church in those early years was no easy matter; everyone had to struggle through the mud. The bell was rung as a warning 15 minutes before the service, but in rainy weather the 10.30 A.M. service was often delayed until 12 noon so that everyone could get there.
“Inside the church,” writes Mooney, “there was strict segregation . . . men on the Epistle side, women on the Gospel, absolutely no family groups.”
All was not austerity, though. Weddings were a time for real jollity and fun. After the formal service the newlywed couple found their way barred by a rope strung across the road. The young men who held it refused to let them past until the groom had shouted. Then the couple had to face the older women, who took away the bridegroom’s shoes until he had provided them all with wine.
The wedding banquet which followed was provided by the whole community, and the newlyweds were not allowed to go home until they had danced at least three rounds of dances. And sometime during the evening there was the ceremony of breaking the plate. A plate was dropped on the floor and the pieces counted to see how many children the young couple would have.
Social life was important, not only in giving the hardworking pioneers a break from their tedious work, but because it was a time when the music and dance which they had brought from the faderland could be enjoyed.
Great stories of those early parties have survived. A traveller wrote in 1883: “I have witnessed dancing in many countries . . . but nowhere have I seen dancing so thoroughly gone into and enjoyed so heartily as in Puhoi. All from seven to seventy assemble in the dance room and as long as the fiddler is able to wield the bow or the piper squeeze out a note, so long do they tread to the measure of the Reichstachel, Dumadum etc. It is no uncommon thing to have dancing continued unceasingly night after night for a week, especially at times of their great national festivals . . .”
Lawrence Schischka: “I remember on one occasion our little shanty was packed to the doors, leaving but scanty accommodation for the dancers. It was on a Saturday night, and it commenced to rain heavily, coming down in torrents and lasting until the following Wednesday. On Monday some who had not far to go and who could make their escape across the river left for their homes and for a sleep .. . The dance started again on the Monday afternoon and continued until the afternoon of Tuesday; they then lay on the floor and slept for a few hours, the musician played up again and the dance continued until the Wednesday . . . although they left on Wednesday they all returned the following Saturday night and the dance went on as usual.”
Bar burst on the world in August 1914, and for the people of Puhoi there was no question where their loyalty lay. The young men joined the Expeditionary Force, and all the settlers contributed to the Patriotic Fund.
But within the country there was a general revulsion against anything and anyone who had connections with Germany. Insults were traded and loyalties questioned. In 1917, it was even suggested in parliament that all of Puhoi be interned. Massey, the wartime Prime Minister, swiftly quashed that idea, vouching for the settlers’ industriousness and patriotism in a stirring speech.
By the 1920s and 1930s, the struggles of the pioneers were long over. Many had converted their properties into dairy farms and, except during the worst of the Depression, they were reasonably prosperous.
Those decades were also a time when outside influences gradually started to impinge on the community. Many of the younger members were sent to secondary school in Auckland, after completing their primary education in Puhoi.
While many of this generation may still have had some understanding of the dialect—even spoken it at home—they were primarily English-speakers. Those who excelled academically went on to attend university and to pursue professional careers. Some married outside the community, and this brought families closer to other New Zealanders.
Despite these changes, Puhoi remained very much a Bohemian settlement until well after World War II. Judith Williams estimates that even as late as the 1960s only about a quarter of those living in the district were of non-Bohemian descent. Such people were still referred to as “outsiders”—particularly if they were Protestant or had more education than the locals.
“Now,” says Judith, “the balance has altered completely. Probably only a quarter of those who live in the district have Bohemian blood.”
With that change has come a diminution of the influence of the Catholic Church—so central to the early settlers. “But still,” says Jenny Schollum, “there is a feeling that God’s presence is paramount in the village. It comes through the sense of community and the feeling that here people still care for and help each other. It may take some time for newcomers to feel at home, but they become a valued part of the community.”
In the 1980s the Puhoi families were rediscovered by their European cousins, the Egerlanders. This German-speaking minority in Czechoslovakia was expelled after World War II, and had to make a new home for themselves in West Germany. Many battled to keep their language and their traditions. “They were delighted,” says Judith Williams, “when they found a New Zealand group, some of whom still spoke the original dialect, often in a purer form than they did themselves.”
“They were also fascinated,” adds Jenny Schollum, a leader of the dance group, “that we had kept the traditions of music and dance alive. It was they who helped us design and make many of the wonderful costumes we now have. They sent us pattern books and the brocades and ribbons, which are impossible to buy in New Zealand.”
Jenny Schollum is one of the present generation of Puhoi residents who, spurred by the contact with the Egerlanders, is determined not to let the story of Puhoi fade.