The Mill House, Waianakarua: Constructed in 1879 by a German immigrant, Ernst Diehl, the massive building is now an accommodation-restaurant complex. Born amidst treachery and tragedy, the mill stands as a symbol of both continuity and change in the Herbert-Waianakarua District.
THERE ARE PLACES where history wraps around us like a warm blanket – or a winding sheet. Sometimes, like both at once. The Mill House, located 25 kilometres south of Oamaru on State Highway One, is one such place.
Originally a flour mill, it was constructed in 1879 by a German-born immigrant named Ernst Diehl – and it was built to last. According to a contemporary report in the North Otago Times: “The foundation is laid on solid rock, and is 9 feet in depth, the walls being 3ft 3in in thickness.”
Alas for Herr Diehl, his mighty structure had hardly been standing a year when it was beset by treachery and tragedy.
In the words of local historian, Dorothy McKenzie: “A considerable amount of money was held in the mill safe over the summer, so that farmers could be paid out as they delivered their bags of grain. At the height of the first season of operations, the mill was burnt out and as the local story has it [Diehl’s business partner] Davidson had disappeared, leaving an empty safe behind him.”
The Mill may have been burnt out but it was not burned down. Under the management of the appropriately named Phoenix Milling Co., the refurbished mill continued to grind flour for another 60 years, finally closing its doors in 1939.
Growing up in the neighbouring village of Herbert in the 1950s and 60s, I remember the mill as a mysterious industrial ruin. Massive and seemingly indestructible it guarded the graceful span of the Waianakarua stone bridge like some misplaced medieval castle. Its blank windows shedding less and less light on a story that fewer and fewer people could remember.
Now an “accommodation-restaurant complex” the Mill House wraps its 3ft 3in walls around visitors from all over the world. New stories are daily being added to the old.
For me, also, this past week has been a mixture of new and old stories. One-hundred-and-fifty years ago, on 15 March 1864, the contemporaries of Ernst Diehl founded Otepopo (Herbert) School. Aging adults, who, when last I saw them were children, came from as far away as Sydney, to greet the geographic, architectural and human strongholds of their youth.
From them I learned how many of the farms of the original settler families had already passed – or were passing – into the hands of faceless foreign corporations. “Bewley”, the property my father farmed, I was told, had gone with them.
The great forest that the State had spread over the hills above Herbert in the 1930s is now in the hands of an American forestry firm.
Herbert’s beautiful Presbyterian church, St John’s, stands forlorn, its future uncertain. Spiders’ webs seal its padlocked wooden doors.
This is not, of course, a tale familiar to North Otago only. All across New Zealand the solid signposts of the past are being dismantled. The family farm, which for 150 years has given this nation a foundation as solid as the Mill House’s, is rapidly fading away.
Only a handful of the children I attended Otepopo School with remained in the district. Most were scattered, like gulls blown on a boisterous wind, to Sydney, London, the North Sea, Wyoming. Or simply to places in New Zealand with more to offer than a sleepy North Otago township.
But those children did not leave Herbert empty-handed. The values imparted by the teachers of Otepopo School and the ministers of St John Presbyterian Church went with them.
And not just with them; because the same values were also imparted to successive generations of New Zealand children by thousands of equally caring rural teachers and clergymen, farmers and farriers; railwaymen and road workers; shopkeepers and country GPs.
And now those New Zealanders, rural no longer, are imparting to their own offspring a core of values not so very different from the ones they learned in little places like Herbert up and down the long length of Aotearoa.
Thus does history wrap us warm in its blanket, and bind us tight in our winding-sheet.
And thus did my thoughts run as I looked down from a window set in the Mill House’s 3ft 3in walls. Listening to the Waianakarua River chuckling in its sun-dappled bed, and the bell-birds tolling the hours.
Thinking about where New Zealand has come from – and where it is going.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 21 March 2014.