Thursday, 22 August 2013

Peter McGruther Bell

                                    PETER (MAC) McGRUTHER BELL
                                                        Written by David Bell

MAC BELL was born 24 September, 1939, the first child of Peter and Jean (McGruther) Bell. He was born in a cottage at Puketotara, the family farm carved from the bush by his pioneering great-grandparents, Arthur and Mataire (Matilda) Ormsby. After Peter and Jean had married they moved to Puketotara and occupied the tiny two-roomed farm cottage comprising a kitchen and living area with a small space at the far end partitioned off by a curtain which served as their bedroom. Baby Mac slept in a little cot in the living area warmed by a small coal range in the kitchen.

When World War Two broke out in 1939 and his uncles Jock and Colin left Puketotara for their postings in the Middle East leaving only his grandparents, John and Daisy, in the big homestead. It was decided that Jean and Peter and the baby should move into the homestead for the duration of the war; in those trying times it was important that families stuck together. Jean and Peter gladly accepted the invitation as it would be a good situation for everyone and certainly better for the health of their baby, the cottage being damp and the coal range smoky.

Mac was delivered by Mrs Beatson, the local midwife, with the assistance of his grandmother, herself a qualified and highly experienced nurse. 

                        Vera Beatson, the district midwife and prolific deliver of babies

He was strong and healthy and as was customary back then his placenta was buried on the grounds of the homestead; in the soil of his birthplace. To commemorate his birth and always remind him and his generations to come of their ancestral land, a sycamore tree was planted over the spot which is still there to this day.
Whilst the tree remains, Puketotara has long since gone and with it the old notion of family land.

Mac and Colin with their mother during the war years.
Mac's great-grandparents, Arthur and Matilda Ormsby, had laboured with their bare hands to carve their farm from the bush, and by the end of their lives (Arthur died in 1926 and Mataire in 1935) they left behind enough (probably around eight hundred acres, if not more) for all their sons and daughters to have farms and land of their own. After a lifetime of backbreaking labour they would have felt they had the right to believe these lands (especially Puketotara) would remain with the family forever. But barely a generation passed and Puketotara and all it represented passed into the hands of others. In time all the other farms he had wrested from the bush went the same way.                

Arthur Sydney Ormsby, also referred to as Waati.
A special event occurred shortly after Mac’s birth as related by his mother:
Not long after Mac was born we took him to Kawhia with his grandparents to visit his Ngati Hikairo whanau. Mac was dressed in beautiful clothes especially made for him by Ngaro, an old aunt. Mac was taken away for a while, somewhere near Waipapa, and was returned to me wrapped in a shawl with no clothing. I wanted to ask where his clothes were and what they had done to him but my father gave me that intense look that suggested I shouldn't. As much as I wanted I didn't."

His mother was never told what customary rites were performed over him and what happened to his clothes and we still don’t know to this day. That even his own mother had no idea is indicative of that time where the more 'progressive' Maori, believed the Pakeha way was the road to the future. Jean's parents were very much of that mind, yet the old traditions still had some pull.
Matire (Wright) Ormsby.

Mac was raised with little or no connection to his native roots, yet something must have stuck because later in life he was drawn to his Maori side which took him on a long and fascinating journey that has become his legacy to us all. More will be written on this important part of his life later in this article.

As mentioned earlier Mac was born just before World War Two and was six years old when it ended in 1945. During the war years the family resided at the Puketotara homestead where there was more room due to the absence of his  uncles, Jock and Colin. It was also a lot better than the cramped conditions in the little cottage and indicative of how families clubbed together for mutual support under such trying circumstances. This communal kind of living was a matter of necessity because all the essential commodities were subject to rationing: bread, flour, butter, sugar, tea, meat, eggs, to mention a few. It was better for families to group together and share resources.

Mac's grandparents John and Daisy McGgruther.
However, despite the shortages Puketotara was a blessing, supplying all their basic needs with the orchard and gardens providing vegetables and fruit. The chicken coop provided them with eggs and poultry and from the small dairy herd they obtained their milk and cream. Meat was never a problem. War or no war, wild rabbits, ducks, pheasant, pukeko, quail, eels and trout still roamed the land and filled the rivers and become an integral part of the menu. Additionally, dry stock such as pigs, sheep and steers were raised and killed for meat. It was only the luxuries we take for granted today that they missed; like ice cream, chocolates, bananas, oranges, new clothes, and so-on.

Cash was also in short supply, so it was necessary to live with less and look after what you owned. You couldn't toss things out and scoot down to the shop to buy new ones. The old adage; eat it up, wear it out, make do or do without, rang true during those war years.
Mac was five when Jock, his uncle, was killed by shellfire in Italy. His memories of Jock are dim, he being a baby when his uncles went to war. His uncle Colin thankfully survived the war and returned in 1945. His father Peter, being a family man, was not called to arms until late in the war when he went to fight the Japanese in the Solomon Islands. He also returned in 1945.

After the war, things slowly got back to normal and in time the family left Puketotara and went to live in Pirongia where his father found employment as a truck driver delivering coal and other goods. After a number of years at Pirongia they moved onto an hundred acre farm at Ngutunui - probably about 1950. It was situated at the top end of a dusty gravelled track called Parihoro Road.
The farm was purchased through the War Veterans Scheme, a government program to help returned servicemen onto land. It was situated higher up and had a compelling view over all the farmland Arthur and Mataire had cut from the bush; the Tautari farm to the north with Noel Ormsby's property to the west. Directly across the main road that ran past the Ormsby farm was Puketotara, then owned by Colin McGruther and also purchased under the scheme. Not far from the Parihoro farm was Syd Ormsby's farm. Looking today at those hundreds upon hundreds of acres of rolling green pasture, it is hard not be impressed at the strength and fortitude of our pioneering grandfolk. Yet, back then, I doubt anyone gave them the credit they deserved.

Mac attended the Pirongia Primary School and then Te Awamutu College. Despite his grandparents being well educated and always encouraging learning, he wasn't the best of students and left with nothing much to show for it at the end of 1954. In later years he confessed he was a lot brighter than his high school years suggest and regretted putting so much of his energy into mischief, sport and trying to be tough. It wasn't until a lot of life had passed he realized that he had buried talents and abilities that could have been harvested much earlier. But one must consider how different life and attitudes were back then. Country kids were expected to be tough and one had to live up to those expectations. He had lived his infancy and early childhood through the war, a time that required resilience and toughness from everyone. Toughness and resilience, more than brains, were the order of the day. It was these very two qualities of character that got him through life and made him who he is today.

One trait that stood out was his tough attitude toward work. During the school holidays he worked at a menswear shop in Te Awamutu. He hated it but nonetheless did it thoroughly and well. The pay was paltry, the hours long and he quickly realized that folding shirts all day and saying, 'May I help you sir?' was not what he wanted as a career. He preferred a more physically demanding vocation.

When he turned fifteen he left school and went to work as a farm boy on a sheep farm at Arohena. Even though the work was more to his liking than the retail business, the hours were even longer and the pay less.

He quit the Arohena job a year and a half later when some friends told him about jobs beg advertised with a contracting company that offered exceptional wages. The company, Brown and McShane, had contracted to the New Zealand Power Board to get electricity into the remote communities of Hautaru, Kinahaku, Taharoa and other places around Kawhia. This was a vast area of rugged bush and mountainous terrain. No experience was necessary. They were looking for strong young men willing to work hard and able to endure being in remote locations for long periods. Training on the job would be provided. It sounded right up Mac's alley so within a short time he found himself, along with some friends, laying power lines over some of the toughest terrain in the country. It was hard, dangerous work requiring skill and care. They were dealing with high voltage electricity in the middle of nowhere, so an injury or accident could have had serious or fatal consequences; especially when health and safety back then was more your own concern than that of the company.

Mac loved the job and quickly learned all the required skills to become an effective linesman and key member of the team. The team numbered between six and seven men led by an older foreman. Before moving to a location they would scout about in search of a place to live. Their residences were invariably old farm cottages in various states of repair. They would first clean the place up to make it habitable, allocate bedrooms, then hook up some electricity (which was no problem since they were all linesmen) and get a hot water heater operating and build a makeshift shower. Few, if any, of the cottages had hot water as there was no power as yet, so they took their water heater whenever they moved to a new location.

After setting up house they got to work laying lines. This included clearing bush, digging deep holes for the poles; most of it by hand because it was too rugged to get mechanical diggers in, and then the laborious tasks of laying the lines and rigging them to the tall poles.

Unlike on the farm, work hours were regular; from eight in the morning to five at night. At the end of a day he often went down to one of the many rivers or streams to catch eels or wildfowl, or the nearby ocean for flounder and other fish. Most of all he loved the bush. There was something about it that drew him into its embrace. In the weekends he would ride home on his pride and joy, a BSA motor cycle.

A hired cook took care of their meals. Mac's younger brother Colin soon after came to work with him as a linesman. At one time Colin was also the cook. The old man who was the permanent cook was known for his grumpiness and eventually had a disagreement with the foreman and informed him that he refused to be the cook any more; it's possible the boss complained about his cooking.  The boss asked Colin if he could fill in as cook, which he agreed to do. As it turned out he was a pretty good chef. He enjoyed it because he knocked off work on the lines at about three in the afternoon to go back to the house to get dinner ready.

It was exceptionally good money for young men. Mac would have been in his eighteenth year when he started and the wages came to forty pounds and fifteen shillings per week, far more than the three pounds a week his girlfriend Patricia Brown and his brother Colin were earning working in shops in Te Awamutu doing double the hours.

The contract ended after four years when the job was completed and Mac became unemployed. He was twenty-two by then.

His career as a linesman at an end, he returned to Parihoro Road to figure out his next move. A few weeks later he was about to take up an interim job at the freezing works (abattoir) when he was approached by an old family friend who had a farm on the Kawhia Road not far from Pirongia that wasn't paying its way. Bill Payne proposed that Mac work for him on the farm, and as it was covered in ragwort and gorse and in need of a lot of attention, if he could clean it up and have it paying for itself, he would gift him a small herd when he was ready to become a share-milker. Share-milking is effectively a partnership where the farmer owns the land and the share-milker owns the herd with the costs of running the farm split between the two.

It all sounded good but from the start Mac had his doubts. Having tasted a more cash-oriented occupation, he wasn't sure he wanted to be tied into a lifetime of milking cows and sinking money into the land. He sought advice from older and what he believed wiser heads - his uncles and other established farmers in the district - and they all told him it was a great opportunity and the best and surest way to get a farm of his own. It was how they all did it and a process he should accept as the right way. He somehow bought into their philosophy and took their advice, yet he still had reservations.

Then someone threw him a lifeline. Ruta, and old aunt, got wind of his pending move onto the Payne farm and quickly phoned him, "Mac, I have a farm that I want to sell. You take it for six thousand pounds!" It was an exceptionally good price. He had the cash, but he didn't yet have a herd and the farm had no cowshed. He was tempted and hesitated but made the mistake of asking others again. They all told him to take the Payne offer because it was the process he should go through to learn the ropes. In his own words: "Like a fool I once again took their advice and turned down Aunt Ruta. Even after that she phoned me two or three more times saying, 'Boy, take my farm. Don't go down that path. This is much better!' In hindsight, aunt Ruta had more brains than me and all my old uncles put together! My life after that was just one big round of hard labour. It was a mongrel of a life and I wouldn't wish it on anybody!"

If anyone thought Mac loved dairy farming they would be mistaken. He had no qualms about farm work in general; he loved being out on the land. It was the drudgery and monotony of milking cows that he quickly grew to hate. In later times of reflection he thought that if he had taken aunt Ruta's offer he could have easily built up a dry-stock farm and done just as well as dairying with time even to do some contract work. Instead, he accepted the Payne proposal and locked himself into decades of milking cows.

With his career path set, he married Patricia Thirza Brown at the Pirongia Anglican Church and before long their first child was due. These events and the need to provide for his new family further deepened his commitment to the vocation he had chosen. 
Left: The marriage of Mac Bell and Patricia Brown at St. Faiths Anglican Church, Pirongia, 21 June, 1962.

The Payne farm was a mess. The cowshed was an old walk-through and nearly derelict. The house was set in the worst location (the nearby hill blocked all the afternoon sun), had a pathetically pokey fireplace, and was uninsulated. Needless to say it was freezing cold in the winter. Looking out over the land one saw what appeared to be a giant ragwort, thistle and gorse garden with a few patches of grass struggling to catch some sunlight. He had no option but to roll up his sleeves and go to work. Day after day he sprayed or grubbed the noxious weeds until a few years later a farm finally emerged from the chaos.

Bill Payne was true to his word and gifted him a small herd and his share-milking career began in earnest. To say they were tough times is an understatement. Mac and Pat worked long tortuous hours and because the farm needed so much attention, most of their money went back into the farm as their portion of the expenses. For years they lived on the smell of an oily rag, as the saying goes.

Eventually it came time to step up a level and buy a farm of their own. He had two choices for obtaining finance - the Government lending body called State Advances or the Department of Maori Affairs. State Advances was where most people went whereas Maori Affairs was set up to help Maoris, supposedly. The unspoken rule was that Pakehas went to State Advances and Maoris went to Maori Affairs. He once again sought advice and got varying opinions both ways. He decided to try State Advances first. He duly went into the Hamilton office with all his paperwork and was met by an elderly gentleman who listened to him and then told him he ought to go to Maori affairs because their interest rates were much lower. He got the distinct impression the man was trying to fob him off.

Annoyed at his treatment (the State Advances man showed no interest in even considering his case) he went across the street to Maori Affairs where a Maori official promptly told him he should go to State Advances. He was just about to blow his stack when, as chance would have it, his uncle Dick Ormsby came hobbling down the corridor on his toko (walking stick) and recognizing his nephew greeted him with, "Hello boy, what are you doing here?"

Mac replied, "I've come to get a loan for a farm and this joker won't talk to me."

Uncle Dick glared at the official and said, "This is my nephew. You take him inside and process him!" Mac had his loan within the hour. A lot of people over the years said negative things about uncle Dick, and he was a tough, rugged, and sometimes unscrupulous old rascal, but if he had not shown up at that moment Mac would not have got the money. His problem was most likely that to the Pakeha at State Advances he looked too Maori and to the Maori at Maori Affairs he looked too Pakeha!

With his finance secured he soon found out that getting land through Maori Affairs had two serious problems; Maori Affairs didn't have a lot of farms on their books and what they had were leasehold rather than freehold. This was probably because of the multiple ownership of Maori land. Lacking the business savvy to back out and strike a better freehold deal through State Advances, he stayed with Maori Affairs and accepted a farm at Waimiha, deep in the rugged hills of the King Country. When later asked why he continued with Maori Affairs he said he didn't fully realize the long-term implications of leasehold farming and once in the system he felt trapped. The result was that yet again he found himself on a rundown farm covered in weeds. It was back to spraying ragwort and gorse.

They were hard, arduous years at Waimiha but prosperity began to arrive in trickles. Despite the hard work, Waimiha had its rewards, one in particular; the farm backed on to a huge forest full of pigs and deer. He spent many happy days hunting with his neighbour and friend; an angular, bony, backcountry character called Clive McClean. Also, he attended some basic wood carving lessons at the local marae and began to realize he had an artistic streak he never knew existed. From then on, when he went into the bush, he would bring some wood home to practise carving. Little-by-little he got better and better; walking sticks being his stock item at the time.

With four children and some money in the purse, he and Pat eventually left Waimiha for another Maori Affairs farm at Parawera, south of Te Awamutu. Here again he landed on a place in need of work. In a single day soon after arriving, he applied eight forty-four gallon drums of weed killer on the ragwort infested pastures. Despite the ragwort it was still a much better farm than the previous two. It had a decent house, the location was good, the land was better, and while there was plenty of ragwort, eradication was not so daunting.

Being closer to Te Awamutu and Pirongia, it became the family focal point and visitors were plenteous. Many happy Christmases and school holidays were spent there. Mac became the family Kaumatua (Patriarch) and Pat became everyone's ‘Aunt Dolly’.

A tipping point (an event that collides with your current course in life and sends you off in a new direction) occurred while at Parawera; a fortuitous meeting with a master carver named Paki Harrison. Observing Mac's interest in carving and some of his works (simple walking sticks and patus), he saw potential and promptly offered him a temporary paid job as a carver; further training to be given. He explained that the Te Awamutu College was about to build a school marae and had engaged him to carve it. He was having trouble finding skilled carvers and he believed that with help Mac would be up to the job. He jumped at the opportunity.

Paki Harrison, Mac's great friend and whakairo (carving) mentor.

After much discussion between the town council, community, school, and contractors, the project got under way and when it was finally completed Mac knew that this was the career he wanted for the remainder of his life.

His new vocation was not yet established enough to completely quit dairying so he and Pat worked out a compromise; they would keep the farm operating but cut the herd in half. He would work as a full-time carver and part-time farmer and she would be in charge of milking the cows and the day-to-day running of the farm.

The plan worked well. After the outstanding success with the college marae, Paki Harrison's carving business experienced a meteoric increase in contracts. This also meant a permanent position for Mac. As the work flowed in it became necessary to expand the operation in a more professional manner. Other experienced administrators joined the team and it was determined a parent body be established under the title, Te Waipa Kokiri, with Paki Harrison, Mac, and Rongo Wetere the founders and directors. They rented a suitable premise adjacent to the big dairy factory and set up shop with Paki as the head of carving, Rongo over business operations and Mac the office manager. Besides being a carver his duties included human resources (hiring and firing), accounts, and other office administrations as needed.
Rongo Wetere, the other friend and fellow founder
of the Te Awamutu Kokiri Centre.
The Kokiri started off very small but within a short time grew beyond their expectations. This was because it fitted a critical niche in the job market by taking on unemployed Maori youth. When the word got out the Department of Labour were quick to seize upon the opportunity and sent them more applicants than they could handle. These youth were highly unskilled and had to be taught from scratch the physical arts of carving and weaving. Just as importantly, they had to learn and understand about the intangible elements essential to these skills; the intellectual, spiritual, historical and cultural values upon which wood carving and weaving is founded. They could easily show them how to shape wood, but to truly succeed they needed to develop a special mental and spiritual connection to their material and subject. This often proved to be the hardest part to teach and those that failed to grasp it invariably lost interest.

Nevertheless, many proved to be great carvers and Te Waipa Kokiri soon became the jewel of the community. Around the same time the dairy factory which owned the property Te Waipa Kokiri was using, gave notice that they required the space for their own expansion, but recognizing the good work the Kokiri was doing allowed them to take anything they needed from the interior to build a new place of their own. The material and equipment in the building was substantial and using the students they duly stripped it clean. Most of it was later used in the construction of a new and larger building on a site on the bottom field of Te Awamutu College which became the Apakura Campus.

While the new building on the Apakura site was being constructed, the Kokiri operated from a temporary site where the work still kept pouring in. They managed to do the carvings for fourteen meeting houses in that small facility.

When Te Waipa Kokiri moved into the new premises the business expanded exponentially and Mac became increasingly more involved in business affairs. He was spending long hours on site and days away visiting maraes with Rongo. It seemed he was becoming some sort of roaming ambassador enduring an endless round of long meetings and long speeches. All he wanted to do was carve and he was increasingly doing less of it.

The new career was also getting tough on Pat who was shouldering the burden of running the farm, so in time the decision was made to finish their days at Parawera and find a smaller property near Pirongia where Mac could pursue his career full time and Pat could run a few cattle. By now the business was thoroughly established and Mac was doing what he loved and pulling a good salary.

Under the leadership of Rongo Wetere Te Waipa Kokiri went on to become Te Wananga Aotearoa, the biggest Maori institute of learning in the country, even rivalling the established universities. It eventually fell victim to its own success - aided by management problems - and was put under government control. Today, the three founding fathers have all departed the scene and the amazing institution they established from such humble beginnings is in the hands of others. Earlier, Mac, sensing the company was getting too big for his liking, left and set up his own contract carving business with partners Tane Taylor and Keith Cairns. As for the other two, Paki Harrison later passed away and Rongo Wetere was forced to resign. They are no longer part of the Wananga but one should never forget how three ordinary men dared to follow a dream and make it into a reality that went on to become something great. Te Waipa Kokiri helped scores of youth off the streets and into meaningful work. One would hope that history will one day recognize their contribution and the legacy they gifted their fellow beings.

At this point in the story we catch one of life's ironies. The fifty acre farm Mac purchased for over three hundred thousand dollars at Pirongia turned out to be a farm that was selling at the same time as his Aunt Ruta’s property for the same price of around six thousand pounds, about ten thousand dollars in today's money. In his own words Mac exclaimed, "What a bloody fool I was. I listened to other people and went on this ridiculous hikoi (long march, trek) of hard labour I wouldn't wish on anybody! Every farm I went on I was up to my neck in ragwort and even after cleaning them up I never owned any of them! My advice to any young ones is to not ever get anything on lease. Always get freehold ownership. Leasing is nothing both trouble from start to finish! And I hated the endless drudgery of milking cows. I hated it! I should have bought Ruta's farm in the first place and done what I'm doing now. We would have been much better off! I paid three hundred thousand dollars for something I could have got for ten thousand. What a bloody fool!"

The Waiari property at Pirongia, purchased from its current owner, Twiss Knight, was a delightful little farm with clean flat pastures and the Mangapiko Stream running through it. Pat ran pedigree Charolaise cattle on it and Mac worked private carving contracts and as a carving instructor at the Waikeria Detention Centre. Being busy getting settled at Waiari he at first declined the Waikeria offer, but their persistence and the mention of thirty dollars and hour and a three day week caught his interest and he took the job. The permanent and steady income from the Waikeria job was a boon and he proved to be the perfect person to instruct the inmates, some of them hardened criminals. He became valued and respected by staff and inmate alike.

Meanwhile, his private business was booming, aided significantly by the Kokiri giving him the contract to carve the Purekireki meeting house on the Hikairo marae a couple of miles south of Pirongia. He had three carvers under his supervision and when the job was completed, he produced a marae that is now a permanent repository of the knowledge of all our Maori ancestors, carved in wood. Along with this he and his partners produced works for hundreds of corporations and private clients. One would be surprised if they knew where all his works sit today. The carvings you next glimpse in a company boardroom or foyer, above an executive desk, in a government building or in some obscure private garden, may well be one of his.

They were great days at Waiari, made even greater by its ironic but apt location; it was the place where his ancestors lived. The great Waiari pa was the home of Hikairo 2, the eponymous ancestor of our Maori tribe, Ngati Hikairo. Along with that, the farm was good, the house comfortable, and the money kept rolling in. Also, the sale of the Parawera farm proved extremely profitable which made life even better.
Some of his Purekireki works.
Then, in the year 2003 he spotted an opportunity to live closer to something that was part of his soul; the bush. A property at the foot of Pirongia Mountain came up for sale, and if they could sell the Pirongia farm they would be able to buy the mountain property. It was a hard decision; Waiari was a great spot with ancestral connections and, furthermore, they were happy there. It was a choice between being 'sensible' and 'practical' by remaining where they were, or taking the chance and follow the dream. The dream won and without too much trouble the Waiari farm sold and they purchased the sixty acre block on the mountain. After a year living in a shed while a new house was being built, the dream was completed and they moved in.
His home on the mountain was as near to his paradise on earth
as he could get. He loved the bush and delighted in the tuis, pigeons,
bellbirds, and other native birds that abounded there. The occasional
pig and deer also wandered by.

The view of the Waipa valley from Mac's mountain home. 

The house on the mountain became a gathering place for family and friends from far and wide. The location was spectacular. Tucked into the foot of the mountain it offered a sweeping frontal panorama down and across the whole Waipa valley, and out the back, only a few steps away, was the bush. It was as near to Mac's idea of paradise as one can come to in this world. The forest abounded with native bird life: wood pigeons, tuis, bellbirds, bush robins and more. Even the odd wild pig and deer occasionally appeared.

Age and illness ruined the dream. Pat's body was showing signs of wear from all the years of stress and physical toil most other women would have crumbled under, and Mac got cancer. Selling their mountain paradise and moving to the village became their only option.

In 2012 the farm left their possession and they took up residence at 553 Ross Street Pirongia. It is expected that this will be where they see out their days.     

Written by David Bell, 14 May, 2013.

Sources Used: 

1. A taped interview with Mac Bell recorded at his home on    the Waites Road farm at the foot of Pirongia Mountain.      

2. Personal memories.

3. Sharon (Tautari) Paewai. From an assignment for the Iwi and Hapu Studies entitled Te Wananga o Raukawa, "Interviews with two Kaumatua", February 2001.



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