Ashley Smith

You are here! Small towns with big ideas.

“World famous in New Zealand”—who doesn’t immediately think of an outsize soft drink bottle and the droll TV ads that have fixed Paeroa in the national consciousness? More than a few small towns, struggling for viability, are experimenting with ways of staking a claim on the passing visitor’s attention and custom. Large roadside objects—such as Te Kuiti’s giant shearer—are becoming a popular way of dispelling rural anonymity.

Written by       Photographed by John Lyall

Three life-sized black-and-white con­crete draught horses stand at the edge of Highway One atClinton, 44 kilometres east of Gore in South Otago.

Why would someone decide to build three concrete draught horses?

Their builder was very clear about this. Without hesitation, he ex­plained: “I wanted to do something for Clinton. This is such a nice little place, and years ago it was very busy. It was famous then, because the train used to have a ten-minute refresh­ment stop here. Everyone knew where Clinton was. Now no-one has heard of it, and no-one stops here. I thought if we just had something to make people stop, we could put Clinton on the map.”

So David Mackie, a member of the local Lions club, set to work and built the horses. He was particular that they be replicated in exact detail, with harnessing to match. They are hitched to an authentic antique plough.

“Originally it was going to be two horses,” he said. “But with that sort of plough they’d have had three horses. So I had to build three. I wanted it to be accurate.”

The Clinton draught horses do compel people to stop, look, and take photographs. There is even a ladder, thoughtfully provided to enable visi­tors to hop up and be photographed sitting on a horse.

The draught horses at Clinton are but one example of an apparent epi­demic of roadside constructions in towns throughout New Zealand. Te Kuiti has a giant shearer, Ohakune the world’s largest carrot, Kaikoura a crayfish, Te Puke a kiwifruit, Riverton a paua shell.

At Mossburn a concrete wapiti supports the claim that this little Southland town is the “deer capital of New Zealand.” Along the highway at Gore, visitors marvel at a giant leaping brown trout—”the place where fish fantasies come true.”

“We’re miles from anywhere, re­ally,” the organiser of the trout project told us, “and we needed something to be proud of. This brown trout gives Gore an image: it means we are famous for something. And it gives people a reason to stop, to take a closer look. The trout really is a work of art. It has been brilliant for the town.”

The mega-fish was dreamed up by local visionary David Ogg (“He al­ways likes things on a grandiose scale,” we were told), but building the 6.5-metre-tall trout was no small undertaking. Over 860 hours of la­bour went into constructing the fi­breglass monster, with skills enlisted from people representing 17 differ­ent trades including steelworkers, carpenters, electricians, plumbers and painters. Eminent angler Sir Robert Jones unveiled it in 1989.

Gore isn’t content with just a fish, though. Plans are afoot to build a replica still, and thereby immortalise the region’s association with bootleg liquor during Prohibition earlier this century, when moonshiners hid their whisky stills in the nearby Hokonui Hills. The revival of this colourful piece of Southland’s past is another deliberate attempt to promote the town. This time, it is hoped that visi­tors won’t just take their photographs and then leave. If they stop for a drink or two, they might buy a bottle (or two?) and make viable a new industry in the town.

Local graphic artist Erroll Allison designed the trout from a plaster cast of a real fish. “We solved the prob­lems as we went,” he explained. “We weren’t sure what to do for the eyes. In the end we used woks as moulds. You’ve heard of sockeye salmon? This is a wok-eyed trout.”

Imaginative projects such as these are attempts to draw attention to towns, and to help them prosper in difficult times. The recession of the 1980s hit hard at many small towns. A “rationalised” economy cut farm subsidies, reduced rural income, and “restructured” many traditional serv­ices away from small towns.

The demise of local post offices was particularly damaging. Without a post office a place might literally disappear off the map. People had to travel further afield for banking and mail services, and in doing so by­passed the local grocery store, garage and other small businesses. As these changes took place—causing some small centres to all but vanish—nearby bigger towns were also feel­ing the pinch. With aging populations, and young people mov­ing to cities for employment, educa­tion and excitement, a gradual de­cline seemed inevitable.

What could local people do? Many communities believed that they still had a lot going for them. Diverse agricultural produce, worth­while natural attractions and a loyal population made up a viable package, didn’t they? Maybe if a town spelt out its identity for all to see, it could stake a claim on motorists as they zipped past. Arresting their attention with a giant three-dimensional ob­ject seemed a sure way to snare pass­ing travellers.

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Roadside Goliaths have their origins in Depression America, particularly the mid-west during the 1920s and ’30s. Car ownership had extended the distances people could travel to look for work. Small settle­ments, otherwise anonymous in that vast landscape, wanted to claim at­tention and persuade motorists to stop for their gas, food and lodging. Massive objects were constructed, objects that would enter the motor­ist’s vision first as dots on the hori­zon, then become clear as the vehicle approached: an announcement that something different and special was going on. A place with a giant road­side object could not be overlooked!

Favoured representations were of giant fish or Paul Bunyan (the legen­dary lumberjack with beard and axe). Sometimes the objects were more than just ornaments. A giant octopus served as a drive-in hamburger bar, and a coffee shop was built in the shape of a bear. One memorable object was a massive elevated tea cup, with real steam emerging above the rim. Much of this vernacular archi­tecture has since disappeared.

In New Zealand, the roadside ob­jects tend to be less fanciful, and re­fer more literally to local produce and local claims to fame. Almost every­one photographer John Lyall and I spoke with who had been involved in building a roadside Big Thing told us their inspiration had been the giant pineapple in Queensland. This over­sized fruit identifies a horticultural theme park, with an adjacent shop selling every conceivable product to which one could attach the idea or image of pineapple.

North of the pineapple, a gigantic smiling cow high above the motor­way invites motorists to take the driveway up to the Big Cow shop, one of the largest antique shops in Australasia. Elsewhere in Australia we’ve come across, or heard about, giant bullocks, earthworms, shells, fish, sheep, assorted fruit, a crocodile and, in Adelaide, “the biggest wooden horse in the world.” These blatant edifices apparently work across the Tasman, so why not here?

Pride in local achievement feeds the appeal of big objects. We inhabit a world in which international mar­keting encourages a homogeneity of product. Consumers can buy identical hamburgers in Paris or Paraparaumu; drink the same soft drink in Moscow or Mosgiel; and wear the same sports shoes and cloth­ing as their peers everywhere.

The trend within local producer boards in New Zealand is to use trademarks that exclude specific local reference. ENZA apples are simply New Zealand apples, with no ac­knowledgment on the label of the particular regions where the fruit was grown. Kiwifruit are simply kiwifruit; not from Te Puke, Kerikeri or any other place. Growers and their lo­calities are anonymous.

The reverse is true in France, where the appellation controlee system ensures that the local delicacy or product is registered and celebrated, and provides an official claim-to­fame for both grower and locality.

Parochial pride inevitably wants outsiders to know of successful local produce. Outside the main centres, especially, there is a strong feeling that urban people do not appreciate the contribution made to the economy by rural growers. Their ef­forts do not hit the news very often. Newspapers and television are more interested in crime than in crops, in dramatic floods than in successful harvests. If the media won’t celebrate success in the hinterland, then local people must announce it themselves.

And so at Te Puke a road sign wel­comes us to the “Kiwifruit Capital of the World.” Te Puke became famous in the early 1980s as the place with the largest concentration of asset mil­lionaires in New Zealand, their for­tunes dropping from the vines. Kiwifruit was a horticultural gold­rush, with entrepreneurs stampeding to cash in on the glamour crop.

Just out of town to the south, a gigantic roadside kiwifruit slice—one of the country’s earliest Big Things—reinforces the town’s claim. Inside the kiwifruit a staircase takes the visitor to a lookout at the top, for a view over New Zealand’s only horticul­tural theme park and the kiwifruit kingdom beyond.

Kiwifruit also feature at the an­nual Te Puke Festival. At a “stackers and strappers” contest workers dem­onstrate their ability to heft boxes on to pallets, and win prizes in the proc­ess. Like the oyster opening contest at Bluff (the current record holder Mike Razy can open a hundred oys­ters in two minutes and twenty sec­onds) and the coal-shovelling contest in Huntly, this contest gives status and adds a competitive and entertain­ing element to an otherwise mun­dane task.

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Glistening mt ruapehu, dramatic and snowcapped all the year around,dominates thenorthern skyline of Ohakune. The winter season brings thousands of visitors to the area to enjoy the ski slopes, and Ohakune is proud to of­fer its hospitality.

But Ohakune’s carrot growers also want to be recognised. Ohakune pro­duces two-thirds of all North Island-grown carrots, including most of the 7000 tonnes of carrots exported from New Zealand annually.

Some years ago an advertising agency had a very large carrot built as a prop for a bank’s television com­mercial. Thanks to the bank’s inter­est rates, the advertisement prom­ised, investors could watch their sav­ings grow like . . . well, carrots.

Someone at Ohakune watching the advertisement thought the star carrot should be rescued from post­ promotional oblivion and relocated in the town. With no further use for it, the bank happily surrendered the prop, which was ceremoniously trucked up from Wellington with hu­man “rabbits” tossing bags of com­plimentary carrots to wayside on­lookers as a marketing exercise for enterprising Ohakune.

Ohakune now builds its winter festival around carrots, reminding skiers that there is more to Ohakune than snow and cappuccino. A street parade and carrot-centred competi­tions fill the programme. Shop win­dow displays feature carrots; there are carrot sculpture contests and carrot throwing. In this way the town’s icon is affirmed in an annual ritual that has quickly established itself as a lo­cal tradition.

For the casual visitor, there is no doubt at all about what is going on. Here is a town that actively celebrates its achievements and demonstrates a strong community spirit. Local play centres, schools, sports clubs and civic organisations all benefit from the funds raised in Carrot Day street stalls, sausage sizzles, raffles and games. The festival is as much an expression of positive, co-operative community relationships as it is an affirmation of place.

Carrots and kiwifruit—just two horticultural products sufficiently highly valued in their communities to form the basis for expression of identity and celebration.

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North of Oha­kune in the King Country it is the worker who is honoured as the roadside icon. At Te Kuiti a road sign informs us that this town is the “shearing capital of the world.” If curiosity causes us to detour into town, it is hard to miss the symbol of this claim to fame: a seven-metre-tall concrete shearer removing the fleece from a concrete sheep.

At the time of the statue’s con­struction, local shearer David Fagan was world champion, shearing 702 sheep in one working day (since over­taken by Dion Morrell of Gore, with 716 sheep). In a town suffering an economic downturn, leaders thought that such a visible expression of local pride would be great for community morale.

George Hanratty, a wood carver ­from Eketahuna, crafted a shearer from wood, which Hawkes Bay sculp­tor Dennis Hall used as a maquette for the giant version. “He is authen­tic in every detail, right down to his footwear,” Dennis explained. “He looks a bit clean and tidy, though. I did suggest sweaty armpits . . .” Dennis is very keen on building big things. “Now they’ve seen the shearer, does any town out there wanta giant axeman, a sheep musterer or a team of bullocks? I’d be pleased to build it.”

The shearer took nearly two years to complete, as funds had to be raised to pay for the construction and the town had to figure out just where to site this “colossus of roads.” Two novel forms of fundraising were used. The promotions committee bought 120 young calves and asked local farmers to raise them free of charge. They were fattened, then sold to lo­cal freezing works. “Probably about 80 per cent of the money for the statue came from the farming popu­lation,” I was told, “because they could see that the big shearer was representing their industry.” Further funds were raised by selling spaces in time capsules which were enclosed within the sheep’s feet. People were invited to leave a message to their descendants in the capsules, to be opened in 30, 60 and 90 years’ time. For $5, letters and photographs were accepted for the capsules.

A spokesman for the project said that the giant shearer had been a great morale builder for the town. “Te Kuiti had no identity at all,” he told us.

“Isn’t it the home of the Prime Minister?” we enquired.

“Yes, but who cares about that? We wanted something the town could be proud of. The shearer doesn’t necessarily generate much in­come. It’s more like a monument. But it is one people want to see. They detour down into the town, and hop out for a closer look. Its been terrific; something everyone in Te Kuiti can be proud of.”

Neighbouring towns have been impressed, too, and have invited the organisers to suggest ways to pro­mote their towns. “But it’s a long haul,” our contact lamented. “It’s hard to get everyone on side, and then you have to raise the money. Most towns simply can’t afford it.”

Large objects are not always the work of a town. Not infrequently an individual is the driving force. Kaikoura was once a whaling station, but in recent years it has become al­most synonymous with whale-watch­ing, swimming with dolphins and other forms of ecotourism. The town’s Maori name, however, means “eat crayfish,” and Kaikoura has long been known by travellers as the place to stop and buy a cooked crayfish at a roadside stall or eatery. Annette Paterson, proprietor of the Suntrap Restaurant and Takeaways on the Main North Road, resented the eclipse of the district’s traditional in­vertebrate by larger mammals and decided to mounted a giant crayfish made of fibreglass, papier ‘niche and reinforcing mesh over the entrance of her restaurant.

The Bushman’s Centre at Pukekura in Westland shows what a (declining) number of Coasters do for a living, and makes its presence con­spicuous with a giant sandfly sus­pended above the entrance. A  storyboard (with photos) provides an account of the trophy specimen, said to have been shot by hunters in a remote West Coast valley. Pteradactyl legpullus is described as a relic from the dinosaur era, when food came in bigger packages. Apparently, only a few breeding pairs of adult P. legpullus remain, though the Coast is infested by their juvenile offspring, the eradi­cation of which is the “sworn duty of every West Coaster.”

The text warns that heavy feeding of the juveniles (especially on the blood of overseas visitors and Aucklanders) could allow some sandflies to reach mature giant size, making the region uninhabitable.

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Large roadside ob­jects are not the only way of going about declaring identity to passers-by. Colourful road signs with slogans spell out local character and distinction. Taihape announces itself to the world as “New Zealand’s One and Only Gumboot City.” Edendale in Southland is “Home of New Zea­land Cheese.” Pokeno is “Bacon Country,” Te Awamutu is “Rose Town” and Katikati is “Mural Town.” Amidst the masses of signs familiar in any small town—petrol stations, ice cream brands, the local newspaper—statements of local identity stand out in the semiotic landscape.

Taihape’s claim to gumboot fame is based on the Fred Dagg farmer persona of comedian John Clarke popular in the 1970s. Dagg claimed he had been educated at the “Univer­sity of Taihape.” That was before he burst into the song that became a slogan for preschoolers across the na­tion: “If it weren’t for your gumboots, where would you be?”

I was told by Taihape locals that they did not want to look like coun­try hicks, but Fred Dagg had made the town famous, so why not try to capitalise on this? While the town has not opened a gumboot theme park, it does have a highly popular gumboot throwing festival every Easter Tuesday, and last year it won the national prize for the Most Unique Event in New Zealand. It is also mentioned in an international Coca-Cola ad: “London, Paris, Sing­apore, San Francisco, Taihape . . .”

Eventually, some Taihape resident might make it into the Guinness Book of Records for throwing a Perth men’s size 8 (long) gumboot further than the current world record, set in Eng­land in 1978 with a throw of 124 feet. That really might put the town on the map—a few minutes of fame achieved, and the town’s name re­corded for posterity.

At Katikati, the Open Air Art Committee is covering every possi­ble wall in town with murals depict­ing Katikati’s history. As well as beau­tifying the town, this project is a way of resisting imminent change. A planned motorway will eventually by­pass the town, and having the murals in place well before the bypass opens is a way of establishing that this is an attractive, go-ahead town, and one sufficiently interesting to warrant a detour.

Already Katikati has won several Best Small Town awards since it es­tablished its painting programme.

Local identity symbols take on ex­tra meaning in the context of world tourism. Over 525 million people each year take holidays outside their own countries, and, by and large, they want to see something unique and unlike home. Small, charming, interesting places can, with a bit of ingenuity, entice tourists in, and have a share of the travellers’ largesse.

The irony is that for those who live away from the main centres and want to hang on to the local way of life, accommodating local culture to tourism may be a way of keeping that culture viable. More than half of all farmers now depend on off-farm in­come for support. Farm-stays and ecotourism are two of the new in­come-generating enterprises.

Tourism is about the consumption of place and identity. At Gore and Te Puke, “place” is packaged in an ar­resting way that will hopefully pique the visitor’s curiosity. Gradually, lo­cal entrepreneurs add in commercial attractions: a moonshine still at Gore, a horticultural theme park at Te Puke, garden tours and river cruises at Katikati.

For travellers, landscapes often blur and become “that place where we saw . . .” If New Zealand is re­membered as something beyond “clean, green and beautiful,” then it may be with reference to roadside icons. Giant shearers, draught horses, kiwifruit and paua shells can become symbols in the visitor’s consciousness that stand for the whole.

Last century, promotional pro­grammes to get people to come to this fertile new land of opportunity and abundance were aimed at set­tlers, not tourists. Arcadian descrip­tions of the colony were used to boost immigration and capital investment, thus stimulating development. Pam­phlets presented glowing accounts of a faraway paradise. Lithographs of sublime landscapes fed imaginations, just as postcards advertise travel des­tinations today. Settler agencies for each region promised that theirs had the most to offer.

Areas with successful agriculture or rich mining strikes were guaran­teed popularity. Oamaru achieved fame when the first refrigerated cargo was loaded on to the ship Dunedin in 1882. Murderers Bay was renamed Golden Bay after gold was discov­ered there in the late 1850s. Reefton put itself on the map by being the first New Zealand town to have elec­tricity, in 1888. Such events created local identity and found their way into the history books.

Roadside objects are a contempo­rary expression of the same desire to create and assert a local identity. They show that small towns are not dead; they are enterprising and pio­ductive, they have something to cel­ebrate, and they have a sense of hu­mour. In the face of growing marginalisation and loss of amenities, communities are showing they can be authors of their own uniqueness, and perhaps their destiny as well.

In the way that churches, war me­morials and community halls were once proud statements of locality, Big Things reflect current moods and as­pirations. The novel objects, signs and events sprouting up around the country are landmarks, not just for the motorist or the tourist, but for a nation as it continues to construct its identity.

The catch-cry of the 1990s may well turn out to be a revival of the discredited economic theory of the 1970s: Think Big!

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