On the straight and narrow.

Written by       Photographed by Aaron Smale

The Foxton is more than just an unremarkable small town is due to the enterprise of some of the locals, such as Dutchman John Langen, who brough up the notion of a windmill in 1990 and saw it to completion in 2003. Here he is furling a sail on one of the vanes.
The Foxton is more than just an unremarkable small town is due to the enterprise of some of the locals, such as Dutchman John Langen, who brough up the notion of a windmill in 1990 and saw it to completion in 2003. Here he is furling a sail on one of the vanes.

Goldie’s, on Main Street, is one of the hubs of Foxton, a good place for a cuppa and a lamington and to hear the gossip as half the town pops in to buy lunch. The bakery, with “C.F. Goldie” scrawled across the roof, occupies the building where the irrepressible artist–forger Karl Feodor Sim plied his wine-and-antiques trade. Behind the scenes, Sim was busy turning out convincing imitations of the works of famous artists, most memorably paintings by Charles Frederick Goldie. After his trial and conviction in 1981, Sim changed his name by deed poll to Carl Feodor Goldie, allowing him to sign his copies with impunity, and has since moved to Orewa.

With customers, tradesmen and friends of proprietors and staff coming and going, the front of the shop is like a living room at the start of afternoon tea. The walls are hung with photocopies of Goldie the faker’s art: pictures of the All Blacks; the artist’s own self-portrait, grinning at the wisecrack of life; Maori portraits; and much more. The originals are in owner Tony Stott’s keeping, waiting to be framed.

Out the back, the kitchen with its big ovens and trays of pies, custard squares and other Kiwi tucker has a family feel, while the table and chairs in one corner have been party to many a political discussion fuelled by bakery fare—a tradition begun by Sim.

“Sometimes there are more people out the back than in the front,” confides Tony. He and business partner Raymond Harding, burly bakers both, reminisce about Sim, who was born in Himatangi, which is close enough to make him a local.

“Karl was a weird little fox, a gentleman rogue,” says Raymond. “He was always telling the same stories, like how he was doing his forgeries right in front of the police station, and the time he slowed down the judicial process to give his lawyer time to create a case for his defence. He jumped through the ceiling to injure himself so he couldn’t go to court, but nothing happened so he had to climb back up and jump again. On the second attempt he broke some ribs and was in bed for two or three months.

“He used to put pieces of drawing paper under the floor, where the damp would get to them and make them look really old. Then he’d do his drawings on them.”

Tony and Raymond have retained the signature on the roof and name “Goldie’s” at their landlord’s request.

“The name was a bit of a pain at first for advertising the bakery but it’s worked out OK,” says Tony. “I’ve got quite a few sketches Karl’s sent down to me and we’re looking at putting a few of them onto cakes for a bit of a laugh. These are his own and he’s signed them Karl F. Sim and C.F. Goldie.”

They have just opened a gallery for Sim’s work in the shop next door.

“Karl has always been part of the place,” says bakery assistant Trish Corney. “He left a big gap when he went. He’d always say ‘Hi girl’ when I went past, and I still miss his smart remarks and his wig and hats. Karl had charisma, and he always had the last laugh.”

But there is much more to Foxton than the memory of Karl Sim. Trish, now aged 57, with grey curly hair and eyes that twinkle behind glasses, arrived in Foxton aged two weeks. Her mother had been born and schooled in Foxton, and her grandfather was the undertaker and cabinet-maker for many years. Her great-grandfather, “the fisherman”, had also lived in the town.

Goldie's bakery capitalises on the notoriety of Karl Sim, who forged Goldie paintings while operating a wine and antiques business from these premises. Today, copies of his masterpieces adorn the walls of the shop while bakers, including co-owner Tony Scott (foreground), labour out the back.
Goldie’s bakery capitalises on the notoriety of Karl Sim, who forged Goldie paintings while operating a wine and antiques business from these premises. Today, copies of his masterpieces adorn the walls of the shop while bakers, including co-owner Tony Scott (foreground), labour out the back.

Trish is pretty familiar with life in this small Manawatu town of (according to the 2001 census) 4016 inhabitants. Her parents worked at the New Zealand Woolpack and Textiles (now Feltex Carpets) factory.

“Just about everybody worked there at some time,” she comments. “The whole town used to run on the whistle. A whistle went at 7 o’clock, one at 10 to 8.00 and another at 8.00 a.m. The 10-to-8.00 one meant it was time to go to work. Others sounded at 10 o’clock and 12.00. When the whistle went at 10 to 5.00, it was time to get home before your parents did.”

She recalls stealing cigarettes as a child (she has smoked since the age of eight), raiding the well-known Burr family’s fruit trees, and playing pranks on Old Man Burr. “On the way home from Thursday sports, we used to wait until he got in the bath—you could see the light on—and go and knock on the door. He’d come out with a towel wrapped around him and we’d all stand there laughing our heads off.”

Foxton is a close-knit community that tends to act collectively. “The whole town got head lice in the 1950s,” she laughs, “and they dipped everyone’s heads at the school. They had heaps of ripped-up old sheets and buckets of kerosene. We had to dip our heads in the kerosene, then wrap a sheet around it. All the factory workers came over, and there were hundreds of people sitting around with sheets wrapped round their heads.”

The whole town used to walk out to the cemetery for funerals, she continues. “Even now when a funeral goes past my house I still shut the curtains. You used to have to do that as a mark of respect.” People are sorely missed in a small community when they die.

Another nearby attraction is Christina Little's Gallery of Dolls, featuring thousands of dolls she has dressed.
Another nearby attraction is Christina Little’s Gallery of Dolls, featuring thousands of dolls she has dressed.

It is time for Trish to take the school lunches over to Foxton Primary. We stroll past Seaview Gardens, which brings other stories to mind.

“My mum used to tell me that when she was little, every full moon a naked man would go up Union Street pushing a wheelbarrow with a candle in it. He’d stop and relight the candle every time it blew out. He’d go up to the water tower [at the far end of the street] like that and walk round and round it.”

At the school she knows all the children and makes some spell their names before handing them lunch. A grandmother, she looks out for the kids in the community, delivering a telling-off when she thinks it is needed. She sees an advantage to living in a small town where everyone knows everyone else and looks out for each other.

[Chapter Break]

Feltex Carpets and Turk’s Poultry Farm are major employers in the area; but businesses can come and go. In the mid-1980s, the Chamber of Commerce decided to diversify and invigorate the local economy. The Foxton Tourist and Development Association was formed and Anne Hunt took the helm of a committee of five. Anne was senior reporter on the Manawatu Herald for 20 years before the paper closed in 1997, and since 2004 a member of Horowhenua District Council.

“I thought, ‘This idea isn’t bad, let’s pursue it.’ The town needed a bit of a push,” she says when I find her at home at Foxton Beach, where she has lived with her husband for 30 years.

“We developed a plan that would value and promote the fact that Foxton’s main street wasn’t on the state highway, as a result of which many of the older buildings had been preserved. They were built in an era, almost a century ago, when Foxton was quite prosperous from the flax industry.”

The windmill—named de Molen—is a working replica of a classic Dutch windmill and grinds grain into flour using wind-powered grindstones.
The windmill—named de Molen—is a working replica of a classic Dutch windmill and grinds grain into flour using wind-powered grindstones.

In Foxton you muck in and get things moving or nothing happens. Anne did a lot of groundwork, studying the history and physical condition of the town.

“I was on my hands and knees at times, measuring pavements around the shops and the width of the main street. Some of the surfaces were pretty shabby and needed replacing.”

She wrote up her findings in a 50-page report, from which sprang a programme of renovation and development for areas such as Main Street. In the course of her research she discovered that in the 1860s a horse-drawn “tram” service had run between the town and the port that used to operate near the mouth of the Manawatu River, carrying passengers on their way to and from Palmerston North. The railway followed in the 1870s and ’80s and provided an important service for decades. One of the tracks ran down Main Street, and the line was discontinued only in 1959. The tram has now been resurrected, drawn by a team of draught horses, and gives rides to tourists during holidays and on special occasions, such as the Spring Fling in September.

Main Street, which is unusually wide, retains an “olde worlde” feel. Recently, however, a Mitre 10 store has muscled in next to a popular café, the flax-stripping museum and what is probably the town’s most eye-catching structure—an operational replica of a 17th-century Dutch windmill. As some locals have pointed out, the new store does little to enhance the town’s historical ambiance.

Whyte’s Hotel façade is more in keeping, and for the past two years a New World supermarket has plied its trade relatively unobtrusively behind its Victorian features. Whyte’s was part of the Moutoa Buildings complex and was rebuilt following one of Foxton’s frequent conflagrations, in 1918. The fire destroyed the hotel’s heart-totara structure, which, erected in 1876, had withstood three previous fires. Those were the days of bucket brigades and lumbering fire appliances that were easily outstripped by cyclists, sprinting firemen—and flames. A mural opposite the façade, one of several around town, graphically illustrates the burnt-out shell of Whyte’s. The murals illustrate significant aspects of Foxton’s history, and I enjoy coming across these windows into the past, even if they fall short of the Goldie standard.

A wind of about 15 km/h is required for milling but stronger winds yields finer flour which is more desirable. The novelty of the milling process pulls in thousands of visitors a year, including this class from Ohau, south of Levin.
A wind of about 15 km/h is required for milling but stronger winds yields finer flour which is more desirable. The novelty of the milling process pulls in thousands of visitors a year, including this class from Ohau, south of Levin.

Traffic along Main Street is light. Retired horse trainer Alistair Good rattles up in the pony trap he uses to give visitors rides, so I hop in for a short ride.

Ian Little’s ambulance and trolley-buses are parked across the road from his transport museum and wife Christina’s doll gallery. When Ian became a Foxton “import” in 1989, he was looking for somewhere to house his fleet of old buses and other vehicles. The town was happy to accommodate the ex-Dunedin solicitor and radio announcer, and so the Foxton Trolley Bus Museum was born. Overhead cables were installed for the electrically powered vehicles, and Ian runs a weekly diesel-bus service for elderly folk living out near the beach so they can do their shopping in town.

“C’mon, I’ll take you for a spin around town,” he calls out in his sonorous, sing-song broadcaster’s voice, and climbs into the driver’s seat of one of the trolleys. The 74-year-old’s words move more quickly than his legs, and the bus is festooned with a spindle of spiders’ silk. “If you can use a sewing machine, you can drive this bus. Would you like a go?” he offers as we meander along the river loop.

Ian also runs Radio Foxton, which has three studios fitted out with equipment he has recycled from National Radio. We call in, and Ian gets behind the microphone with one-time deer farmer Ivan Johnson, one of 28 volunteers, all retirees, who take turns to pep up the airwaves with him every Sunday with banter, local news and the strains of golden oldies. “Things come and things go but we rattle on forever,” he quips. The radio plays numerous requests: today, Christina has lined up a programme of Dean Martin, Bing Crosby, Maria Dallas and others.

Here John Langen adjusts the settings of the stones, guided by the sound they produce.

At the Foxton Doll Gallery, Christina gives me a tour of her collection of 500 hand-made dolls. “I’m not into wizards, witches and fairies,” she confides, although, with a cloud of curly hair, red lipstick beneath a slightly hooked nose, and wearing a long black dress, she has something of the air of a gypsy fortune-teller.

“When I was three I learned to sew. I’m a lace junky and I loved dolls. It’s wonderful to make old-fashioned clothes and dress the dolls up. I’m more of a princess person, into fluffs and ruffles and cascading ribbons”. She has been dressing dolls for 15 years.

It is no surprise to see Princess Di dolls wearing miniatures of some of the princess’s most glamorous evening wear. Christina met Princess Diana when she came to New Zealand in 1983, and saw many of her gowns when they were exhibited more recently.

“When she died I did a series of gowns. I had to bead them—they’re so heavy they stand on their own. Sitting down in the gown with pearls we admire so much would be like sitting on little dried peas. It has built-in panties and bra, so to go to the loo you would have to take the whole thing off.”

Among Christina’s antique dolls are a 115-year-old French wax doll, a tin doll and a papier-mâché doll a local woman made at school in the 1940s and left to Christina in her will.

[Chapter Break]

Foxton Beach lies four or five kilometres west of Foxton town, on the north side of the Manawatu estuary. Young people hoon around the dunes on bikes and beach buggies, locals and visitors swim, fly kites, stroll, and run or walk their dogs. When the whitebait are running, Whitebait Creek is crowded with fishermen.

“People like the naturalness of the beach,” says Anne Hunt. “It may not be the prettiest, but there is a feel about it, like this is an old-fashioned holiday place. I hope we don’t lose the genuine fishermen because if we do we’ll lose part of the character and appeal of the place.”

During her research, she was surprised to learn from the Royal Ornithological Society that the Manawatu estuary was renowned for its variety of bird species.

“The society said people don’t appreciate that. I live just down the road and I didn’t know, so we started promoting that side of the area. I love the bird life. To see a heron on my front lawn is not unusual, and ducks wandering around are just part of everyday life. The spoonbills—well, I just take them for granted. You only realise later that they’re unusual.”

The river estuary is indeed alive with birds. I go down to a viewing platform in the evening and watch the sun set over the mud flats. Pied stilts, reef herons and oyster-catchers peck intently. On a descriptive panel I read that the area is also frequented by banded dotterels, bar-tailed godwits from Alaska, Pacific golden plovers, red knots and royal spoonbills.

Retired solicitor and broadcaster Ian Little operates the Foxton Trolley Bus Museum and overhead cables have been installed to run the electrically-powered vehicles, many of which are still in working order.

But change at Foxton Beach, as in the town, is gathering momentum and threatens to alter the character of the place. Anne was moved to stand for Horowhenua District Council to advocate for trees and the natural environment at the beach, and to stem the tide of building proposals that threatened the surroundings enjoyed by locals and visitors. She says that weekenders own a third of the properties and that the quality of the homes is changing.

“Flash homes and little beach baches still exist side by side, but the development goes on. More houses are being built, prices are rising and soon there will be demands for storm-water drains and other infrastructure.”

John Story, one of Anne’s neighbours, is a big man with a slow smile. A fire-fighter and volunteer par excellence, he has lived at the Beach since 1944, when he was a nipper of two. He remembers sitting in Block K, the only classroom block in Foxton High School, while the train they called the Whitebait Express thundered by the administration block on its weekly run.

John’s family has its roots in Horowhenua, and his grandfather helped smooth the way for road transport, grading the road between Palmerston North and Shannon with a team of draught horses. The bus that took him to a glazing apprenticeship in Palmerston North, however, cost him 26 shillings a week, out of a weekly wage packet of £3.

John became a volunteer fire-fighter at Foxton Beach at the age of 15 and later entered the professional fire service, for which he worked for 33 years. When he was a boy, fighting fires was very different from today.

“The fire truck at the Beach was an old ex-army vehicle that couldn’t do more than 30 miles an hour, top speed. My job was to wind the hand siren. We used to pile all the gear into a V8 because it went faster, and they’d leave me with the driver. We had no water supply then either and had to rely on cans and septic tanks, or water from digging holes in the sand on the waterfront, to put out fires.”

While the fire-fighting capacity at Foxton Beach has improved, the same could not be said of many other things, including the fishing. John’s father was a fisherman, and in the 1940s and ’50s, says John, whitebait was abundant.

“We used to bury excess in the garden. When I was a kid of 10 or 11 years old, my dad and I would start around 5.30 a.m., and by 7.30 a.m. we’d be back in the truck with 13 kerosene cans full, and there were 30 or 40 kg of whitebait to a can. We’d drive straight into Palmerston North, and I’d sit in the truck while he went around all the fish shops. He’d get about one shilling and sixpence a pound for it, but by evening you couldn’t get more than threepence.”

Today, an ice-cream container of whitebait is a good catch, while commercial trawling has markedly reduced stocks of larger fish and forced the many smaller fishing enterprises that once existed in the area to shut down.

“In those days you used to see 45 commercial fishing vessels moored in the river. It was all long-lining then, no trawling. I used to catch snapper off the point at the river-mouth as a kid but that hasn’t been done for a number of years. All that has gone now with trawling. The river has silted up a lot, too.”

But John can still bring home a catch of flounder when his wife, Ginette, persuades him to take the net out.

Ian encourages would-be drivers, such as Renee Sloane, to take the wheel.

John has volunteered his time and energy to a number of community organisations. He was involved in bringing the St John Ambulance Service to Foxton in the mid-1990s and has served as chairman of the Foxton Medical Trust. He was a member of the school committee for many years, and has been helping to stabilise the ground at the new Foxton Beach school, which has been built on a sand-hill. During a recent trip to Japan, he and Ginette researched a possible solution to the problem of sea erosion along the beach.

Before I leave, he shows me his collection of model fire engines and suggests I talk to Cyril Thomas, who makes Foxton flatties (flat-bottomed river boats).

Cyril, now in his eighties, is a stocky sea-dog-cum-builder-cum-engineer with a warm smile. Despite fragile health, once launched, Cyril talks with the confidence of a man who can make anything. A 5.6 m jet-boat he built sits in his garage, along with a still for making spirits and a 1928 blue and black Olds-mobile he rebuilt from scrap. In the garden is a flatty he made 13 years ago. The cost of building a flatty in pine has leaped from $100 to $900, he says. “Flat bottoms don’t take much water to float in and are very stable to fish from. I’ve rowed one like that from Palmerston North twice in a 60-mile river race.”

The sea has played a major part in Cyril’s life. “I was on the Hurunui during the war. She was a topsail schooner. That’s her up there in the painting. My brother was chief engineer, and they were looking for somebody to go down the engine room and give ’em a hand because she stood a six-hour watch. So my dad said, ‘Why don’t you go?’ It was the start of the war and I was 17. So I did a couple of trips, and when I went to be paid off the manpower stepped in and said, ‘That’s where you stay.’ And that’s where I stayed for three years.”

Foxton is generously endowed with museums, including the Courthouse Museum, a history museum, the MAVtech AV Museum (dealing with broadcasting) and the Flax Stripping Museum, seen here. Fifty flax mills once functioned in the Foxton district and Gordon Burr, who once worked in the flax industry, shows how the machinery operated. His demonstrations produce fibre for Maori weavers around the country.

Cyril brings out a reference from that time, dated 10/10/1942. The referee declares, “During that time I have at all times found him to be of strictly sober habits and of excellent character, skill and ability.”

“I didn’t drink back then,” he says with a grin. Later he gives me a bottle of home-distilled rum to take away—40 per cent proof (although he can do up to 70 per cent).

“There were nine of us in the crew, and they were all old chaps in their sixties and seventies. The cook was in his eighties. Port a Bit, we called him—he had a list to one side. Falling timber had smashed his shoulder and he used to get around with a list to port, you see. They were all old Danes and they’d served their time on the wind-jammers. You’d go anywhere at sea with them, but when they went ashore, you’d go the other way. Nine times out of ten the police brought them back to the ship. The cook come back from the pub one day in a wheelchair he’d stolen. He was so drunk he couldn’t walk.”

Cyril takes me out in the Oldsmobile and points out all the houses he has built, including the one he put up for himself and his wife, Dawn, when they got married.

“Just a few weeks back it sold for $178,000. It’s virtually still the same, with a little bit of knicky-knacking done. Another one I built up by the caravan club and got $13,000 for sold the other day for $378,000, without a sea view.”

[Chapter Break]

For all that the times are a changing at the Beach, it is in Foxton town that recent developments are most noticeable. Tony Hunt—no relation to Anne—who edited Foxton 1888–1988: The First 100 Years, is president of the Foxton Historical Society and secretary–treasurer of the Foxton Flax Stripping Museum. He was also secretary of the 150th Committee, which organised the celebration, in 2005, of the town’s 150th anniversary. He supports the move to exploit the town’s history as a means of attracting tourists.

“Foxton’s not what you’d call a country town, or a farming centre like Patea, Dannevirke or Feilding,” he tells me. “It’s been a flax centre and a working man’s town and no one has had a lot of money. But recently people have become interested in the history of Foxton and it’s been taken up as part of the tourist activities.”

The town has also decided to promote good old-fashioned hospitality and to do up shop frontages, concentrating on Main Street. “We got the shops tidied up and the Memorial Hall painted,” Anne Hunt adds. “That lifted spirits.”


Wool—in the form of Feltex Carpets—has nowadays replaced flax as Foxton's most important fibre. The plant employs 150 and produces 25 km of carpet each week.
Wool—in the form of Feltex Carpets—has nowadays replaced flax as Foxton’s most important fibre. The plant employs 150 and produces 25 km of carpet each week.

Another boost to the tourism profile of Foxton came in 2003, when the vanes of the octagonal smock windmill began turning in the air above Main Street and producing flour. Local Dutchman John Langen had put the idea of a windmill to the Foxton Community Board in 1990, and the Foxton Windmill Trust was formed to build the mill, named de Molen. The cost, met through fundraising and donations, was $850,000. John researched and translated the Dutch plans for Foxton Beach carpenter Cor Slobbe. The mill opened in April 2003 and has been drawing thousands of visitors ever since.

De Molen is picturesque, inside and out. There are displays explaining milling traditions in New Zealand and Holland, and visitors can view the mill machinery in action—once they have climbed the almost vertical stairs.

Foxton joiner Dave Seavers made the hoppers and surrounds for the two sets of massive millstones. The pair on the west side, called An, measure 1.4 m in diameter, while the pair on the east side, Moshe, are composite stones 1.3 m in diameter made in the Netherlands. The stones are cast in a pattern of ridges and grooves. The grain is ground by the upper stone of each pair as it rotates over the stationary lower stone. Both moving stones are weighted by ballast and driven through a spur-wheel arrangement by the wind-powered vanes.

John Langen, now one of the mill’s many volunteer workers, grumbles about the lack of wind on this fine Foxton day as he sets sails on the vanes. De Molen’s miller, Bert Meinders, is employed to grind the wheat, rye and maize that sells kibbled or as flour as far afield as Auckland. John pours grain into one of the hoppers, from where it slides onto the turning millstones below. The flour, warm from the friction of grinding, shoots out into a sack, and John tests its texture by hand. He also tunes in to the sound of the stones and adjusts the settings accordingly: a deep tone indicates fragments of stone are breaking off and getting in the flour. Stone grinding heats the flour less than commercial processing and retains more nutrients and bran.

Visitors who are unable to climb the stairs to the upper levels can watch the inner workings of the mill on television screens on the ground floor, where they may also purchase souvenirs and freshly ground flour. Further attractions under consideration are a Dutch museum and bakery.

Long-time resident Cyril Thomas (here with a 1928 Oldsmobile he completely restored) sees houses he built decades ago for $10,00 now selling for thirty times that figure.
Long-time resident Cyril Thomas (here with a 1928 Oldsmobile he completely restored) sees houses he built decades ago for $10,00 now selling for thirty times that figure.

Around the mill and nearby Manawatu River, a boardwalk threads its way through flax, or harakeke (Phormium tenax), and other natives, planted to enhance the natural environment. The Keep Foxton Beautiful group was a prime mover behind much of this landscaping and the eventual establishment of the Foxton Flax Walk. In the heydays of the flax industry—from 1869 (when the first mill was established) to well into the 1870s, 1888–89 and 1914–18—Foxton was New Zealand’s Flax Town. The story goes that when botanist and TV personality David Bellamy passed through the area, he commented on the lack of memorials to such a major feature of the town’s history. Daphne Hunt, Tony’s mother and president of Keep Foxton Beautiful, heard about this and set out to explore the possibility of creating a museum.

The Foxton Flax Stripping Museum opened in 1990. Since then visitors have been able to watch Gordon Burr strip the fibre out of flax leaves on the Sutton Decorticator—the same machine he helped to build when he was an apprentice fitter and turner at the New Zealand Woolpack and Textiles factory in 1948. (The first such machine, designed by Mr E. Sutton and built in 1930, was capable of stripping 16 tonnes of flax leaf in a day.) The fibre is washed and spread outside to dry and bleach in the sun. Gordon then puts it through a late-19th-century scutcher, a huge drum with rotating blades inside that beat it out, giving it a smooth finish.

“Block your ears,” he warns, as he prepares to operate the stripper. “OSH hates me doing this.”

The machine screeches into action, and seconds later has reduced a bundle of thick leaves to a handful of thin strips. The stripper does in three minutes what used to take three weeks by hand.

Foxton Beach, in common with much of coastal New Zealand, is being overtaken by modernity, although the changes are not yet as wholesale here as in some areas.
Foxton Beach, in common with much of coastal New Zealand, is being overtaken by modernity, although the changes are not yet as wholesale here as in some areas.

Maori scraped harakeke with mussel shells to remove the fibre, which they used to make mats, rope, kits (or kete—baskets) and clothing. The European flax industry boomed in the late 19th century, the fibre being used to make woolpacks, binder twine, fibrous plaster, lashings, upholsterer’s tow and carpet, but declined as synthetic fibres took over in the 20th century.

Gordon says his forbears were living in the area in 1867, which pre-dates the official establishment of the borough.

“There’s always been a male Burr living in the area,” he states with the confidence of strong, pioneering stock. The millinery and dressmaking business of his great-grandmother, Lydia Burr, is mentioned in a listing of 1889 enterprises in Foxton 1888–1988: The First 100 Years.

Gordon worked for 26 years in the New Zealand Woolpack and Textiles flax mill until its closure in 1973, “when we transferred to wool and carpet-making under Stevens-Bremner”. The stripper was later moved to Bonded Felts, which closed in 1985. Man-made materials had become the cheaper, preferred option. Feltex Carpets remains a major employer, and, despite economic diversification in and around Foxton, closure of the factory would put several hundred locals out of work.

The flax-stripping museum is close to other working tourist attractions, and Gordon maintains good relations with de Molen on one side and the Maori Arts and Crafts shop on the other, occasionally giving the latter a koha, or gift, of fibre. He also supplies weavers throughout New Zealand with fibre. Flax could almost be booming again on a modest scale.

“At the moment, if I felt like it and I was 30 or 40 years younger, I could work 40 hours a week producing fibre for the Maori folk alone. There’s quite a demand for several types of plant that give different fibres. You can use two or three different plants for making very fine cloaks, or kuruwai, and I can produce the fibre very quickly for them.”

Maori presence in the area, of course, pre-dates that of Pakeha by centuries. The land that missionary Reverend James Duncan named the Borough of Foxton in 1848 surrounded Te Awahou, on the banks of the Manawatu. Te Awahou was the home of Ihakara Tukumaru, leader of Ngati Ngaroro and Ngati Takihiku, hapu of Ngati Rakawa. Moa and shellfish remains indicate human habitation from at least 1400 AD.

While some elements of old Foxton have probably gone forever—such as the port on the broad Manawatu River and the railway that once serviced the area—much remains, albeit in altered form. While today’s Spring Fling on the first Saturday in September has replaced earlier celebrations such as the Queen Carnival Parade and this parade at the end of WWI, a horse and trap can still be seen carrying visitors around the town.

Two simple white, wooden Anglican and Presbyterian churches on Main Street look much as they would have done when they were built over 120 years ago. St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church has been home to the Foxton Little Theatre since the theatre society bought it in 1971. During the town’s 150th birthday celebrations, the company made a hit with its production of Fiona Farrell’s social satire Chook Chook. For a town in which poultry farming is a major industry, the setting—four feather-strewn cages in a hen battery inhabited by variously neurotic, recalcitrant and conformist fowls—was particularly apt. The production was named overall winner at the Manawatu District New Zealand Theatre Federation’s one-act play festival in Feilding, and also picked up a special award for costume and set.

The Little Theatre celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2005, a year when many other Foxton clubs and groups had major birthdays. Tony Hunt suggested they all join in the borough’s 150th celebrations and turn them into a year-long event.

“I wasn’t keen on doing it in one weekend where you kill yourself,” he says, grinning from experience. “Quite a few groups were having different celebrations—the Rugby Club 125 years, the Lions 40 years, the Women’s Institute 75, the racing Club 150, and the Foxton Surf Lifesaving club 75 years. If we’d just had one event it wouldn’t have got out there so much. This way it’s been more in people’s faces, more have heard about it and more have participated.”

[Chapter Break]

For a small town, Foxton is endowed with an astonishing range of museums: not only are trolley buses, dolls and flax-stripping on view, so are pottery, glass, local history and the old courthouse. The largest museum, however, is the MAVtech AV Museum—the National Museum for Audiovisual Arts and Sciences—housed in Coronation Hall on Avenue Road. It comprises a collection of audiovisual technology for which Te Papa has no room, much of it in working order. A local resident, Peter Edwards, founded it in 1987, basing it round a personal collection he had accumulated over many years.

Retired electronics expert Terry Bicknell is the chairman of the MAVtech trustees, volunteering his time like so many skilled Foxton retirees. He offers to conduct me on a quick tour of the museum before shooting off to rescue a collection of antique radios from a deceased person’s estate.

Visitors pose in front of murals depicting aspects of the town's history. Foxton is developing its past and adding a few embellisments—such as the windmill—to increase the number of visitors, a key, it believes, to a prosperous future.
Visitors pose in front of murals depicting aspects of the town’s history. Foxton is developing its past and adding a few embellisments—such as the windmill—to increase the number of visitors, a key, it believes, to a prosperous future.

There is a functioning sound studio where visitors can listen to such old-time delights as the first recorded session of the popular Australian Radio serial Dad and Dave. One glass case contains a display of painted records. (The painting of vinyl discs was an early advertising strategy, soon superseded by sleeves.) George VI, Queen Elizabeth (the future queen mother) and Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret smile from a record of God Save the King, while a lovelorn swain promotes The Marriage of Figaro. In another case, historic coated paper and steel wire recorders can be seen. Elsewhere there are phonographs with horns and wax cylinders that still play, carved organs, a pianola, and bellows cameras, Box Brownies and tiny “spy” cameras also in operational nick. A massive Dictaphone compares in size with a sink table. In a corner stands a cinematographic projector dating from the 1920s.

MAVtech also houses a vast archive of film from the Department of Defence (with offerings on such helpful topics as how to fire a gun, tie shoe laces and march in straight lines) and screens popular movies from the 1960s and ’70s on the fourth Friday of the month. The council has just renovated the building, which dates from 1926.

“Initially what we proposed to do in Foxton was controversial,” Anne Hunt explains, “but because we valued the views of the older people and respected what the older generations had done, it has been generally accepted. There were things about the past worth preserving, and we are using those as a springboard for the future, which is why people feel comfortable with it. They see we are working for all generations.”