The Raetihi Inferno

Recently we saw the 100 year anniversary of the Raetihi Fire. It started with a customary scrub burn-off which gale-force winds fanned into a devastating inferno that transformed the landscape, and memories, of the local people.

Doris Wallace remembered the events of 19 March 1918. She woke to a strange stillness and a dark sky and thought she could smell smoke. She recalled that the wind was so strong she was afraid to let go of her son’s hand in case he was whipped away from her. Her husband Bert returned from gathering rams and told her “Raetihi was burning”. Around 10.00pm the night before, a red glow had been seen on the horizon, and that glow had evolved into a massive fire stretching from Mangoihe to Makaranui, about 26 kilometres wide, burning everything in its path.

1. Letter exerpt

Letter from Charlotte Barron to Annie Montgomerie. Charlotte was looking after Annie’s property while she was in the UK with her sons during the war. This part of the letter reads, “You would read in ‘Auckland Weekly’ the account of that awful fire, we had doors blown in and windows blown out and the house was in an awful mess, leaves and twigs everywhere, the fire would have been through here too only for the rain coming when it did, that hill of Fernie’s (over from Brass’s flat) was blazing and the sparks had set fire to some of the trees on this side of the river so that the fire had only to get into this bit of bush on the track in front of the house and the whole thing would have gone, I cannot describe to you how awful it was we had got that basket of silver out of the sitting room and clothes and a few other things and were preparing to go to the shearers where when down came the rain”.  Ref: 2017.35

The autumn had been long and dry with little rainfall, and fighting the fire was very difficult. Some families had been evacuated, while others had tried to get out on their own, but the smoke was so thick that they were driven back into their homes. The Wallaces decided to stay at home on their farm, their young son lying on the floor so he could breathe better. While the phone lines still worked, neighbouring farms rang each other intermittently to see how they were faring.

At midday the smoke was so thick it nearly blocked out the sun. Bulls School was closed because of the smoke covering the town, and even Wellington was affected by a smoke pall forcing motor car drivers to put on their lights.

Like many families in the region, the Wallaces started to patrol their house and douse the many sparks that tried to take hold. Then finally, relief. The wind changed direction and the rain began to fall. Despite the rain, the fire continued to flare up throughout the night so that, according to Doris Wallace, “the hills twinkled with a myriad of lights and darkness was shot with showers of golden flowers”.

Doris also remembered trying to make a simple cup of tea to settle everyone after the awful events. The water in the tanks, however, was smokier than a ham, and the river was full of dead fish and ash. She put out milk pans to collect rainwater over night, but found her son swimming in them the next morning!

Stories about the fire are filled with near misses and close calls. The very heavily pregnant Mrs Sopp was at home with her two children when the fire hit their property.  They escaped the house and had to crawl along the fence line to get away from the flames and smoke. Dr Crawford of Whanganui sent his Model T Ford up to the farm to rescue the family.

2. Bags of potatoes

 Bags of potatoes harvested from the Kowhai Park gardens, ready to send to Raetihi as a gift after the fire. Ref: 1802.3160.

Another man ran from his house holding his baby but slipped into a culvert and three feet of water. He somehow managed to hold the baby above the water, and his wife was able to rescue them both.

The devastation was huge. Thousands of acres of farmland were destroyed and nearly sixty homes and businesses were burnt. The Akersten family became the only human casualties. They were found in their house dead, the mother and the father shielding their baby in a vain attempt to shelter it. While most cattle sought refuge in the river, thousands of sheep perished in their paddocks and were found piled against fences or hiding under logs, and many of those that survived were so badly burnt that they had to be destroyed. The smell affected the area for weeks.

Government loans helped to alleviate the suffering, and allowed for crops to be replanted and new stock purchased. Families lived with friends and relatives or in tents until their homes could be rebuilt, which was difficult as much of the milled timber had been destroyed in the fire.

But the optimistic spirit of the region persisted. When government and local authorities visited, the women insisted on making them lunch while the men showed them areas where the grass was already beginning to grow again.

(Ref: The Generation Gap: Unimportant People and the Parapara. Wallace, Doris; 1973)

Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Halloween tradition Spooktacular

Love it or hate it, it’s Halloween season and the shops are full of ghosts and witches to celebrate. This version of Halloween is a relatively recent event on New Zealand’s calendar, but is gaining in popularity every year. Like Christmas and Easter, Halloween decorations are appearing on the shelves earlier and earlier, and more and more community events are held to get the public into the spooky spirit. The origins of Halloween are, however, a little darker than our modern LED candles and holographic ghosts.

What we call Halloween started with the ancient Celtic festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in), celebrated at the end of the bountiful summer and autumn harvest and before the cold, dark and potentially fatal winter approached. It was believed that All Hallows’ Even was the time when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its thinnest and it was possible for the recently departed to come back in search of a living body to take over for a year. In order to try and repel possession, the Celts would extinguish the fires to make their homes cold and unwelcoming, then dress in ghoulish costumes and loudly parade around their townships to scare away any spirits.

2. Witch doll

A witch doll, a familiar figure at Halloween. Ref: 1982.1.30

By the time the Romans had conquered the Celtic lands in AD 43 they had merged two of their own festivals with Samhain; Parentalia was the commemoration of the dead culminating with the Feralia Feast, and the festival for Pomona, the Goddess of fruit and trees, symbolized by the apple.

Christianity spread, and in 835 AD Pope Boniface IV declared 1 November as All Saints’ Day to honour the saints and martyrs.  Around 1000 AD the Christian church made 2 November All Souls’ Day to honour those who had died within the last year.  These events were celebrated with bonfires, parades and donning the costumes of saints, angels, and imps.

The Celts would leave offerings of wine and food for passing ghosts to take rather than livestock and crops, but the Church encouraged offering soul cakes instead. The practice of “going a-souling” was when the poor and homeless would beg for food and be given soul cakes in exchange for their prayers for the dead.

By the 16th century this practice was known as mumming or guising. Participants would dress up in costume and go from door to door collecting apples and nuts, food, or coins in exchange for performing a trick such as reciting a poem or song. Some believed wearing a ghoulish costume would offer protection from the spirits they represented, while a household offering food would bring them luck. To not offer anything was to invite bad luck, and this soon became the excuse to play pranks on those who didn’t contribute.

1. Halloween dress-ups

 “Guising” has been a Halloween tradition for centuries and can take many forms. These school children have chosen clowns, babies, soldiers and nuns, amongst others. Ref: SCS-MISC-054

The three days of All Hallows’ Even, All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day were collectively referred to as Allhallowtide, or Hallowmas. The term “Halloween” first appeared in reference to the festival in 1745. Other older customs were still practiced, including hollowing out turnips and carving faces on them to use as lamps, and telling fortunes or playing games with apples and nuts.

The idea of Halloween was introduced to America by Irish migrants in the 1840s and continues to grow in popularity around the world. In 1875 the Wanganui Chronicle reported on the Halloween celebration held at Balmoral Castle, where servants and tenants carried lit torches in procession to a bonfire and then had an evening of dancing reels with Queen Victoria joining in.

By 1910 Halloween concerts with a distinctly Scottish feel were held in Whanganui featuring nights of songs, stories and dancing while pipes and drums provided the music. The feature performance was a recitation of Robert Burns’ poem Halloween.

The superstitious aspect of Halloween has, in most circles, died away, but many of the practices still remain and are carried out around the globe, the emphasis being on having fun rather than fending off ghosts and goblins.


Sandi Black is the Archivist at Whanganui Regional Museum.

Marvelous marrow

4.Pupils from Central Infants School in Whanganui are gathered around a stall of garden produce and jams and chutneys at Harvest Festival. The photograph was taken on 18 March 1921. Whanganui Regional Museum Collection ref: SCS-CI-003

Pupils from Central Infants School in Whanganui are gathered around a stall of garden produce and jams and chutneys at Harvest Festival. The photograph was taken on 18 March 1921 (SCS-CI-003)

Autumn, time of changing colours, falling leaves, crisp mornings, and the harvest. Many casual and professional gardeners will now be looking at their crops and working at bringing in the rewards of their hard work over summer.

2. On the vineThe marrow is a cucurbit (Latin for gourd), a vegetable family that includes the melon, cucumber and squash. Cucurbitaceae had been cultivated in the Americas for around 2,000 years before being brought to Europe. The vines produce yellow or orange flowers which can be male or female. The male flowers produce pollen and the females produce the vegetable. In New Zealand they are best planted between October and December and will be ready to harvest after 3 or 4 months.

1. Home-grownA marrow is a courgette (or zucchini if you prefer) which has been left on the vine, rather than picked when small. A good marrow will be about the length of your forearm; any larger and they can become bitter to the taste. Like a courgette, the flesh of the marrow is white and creamy and the skin and seeds are edible. They are a good source of vitamin A, vitamin C, niacin, folic acid, and iron, and have no fat or cholesterol.

They are mild in flavour and offer themselves to be livened up with stronger flavours. A read through the recipe books in the museum collection reveals a treasure trove of marrow recipes used over the last hundred or more years – boiled or fried, stuffed and roasted, made into soups, jams and chutneys. It is a wonderfully versatile vegetable, its potential limited only by culinary imagination.

Margie Beautrais, one of the museum educators, has gardened most of her life with a focus on vegetables. Margie grows hue (hard-shelled gourds), kamokamo, pumpkins, beans, garlic, brassicas, lots of herbs, onions, yams, potatoes, and courgettes and marrows. Her secret to a good marrow crop is lots of manure or compost and lots of water when it gets dry. She recommends picking courgettes when they are young as the seeds haven’t developed and the entire fruit is edible, and likes grating them into mince dishes to add moisture and texture.

Harvesting potatoes at McGregor Park in Whanganui,1919 (GG-WB-009)

Harvesting potatoes at McGregor Park in Whanganui,1919 (GG-WB-009)

Margie’s green thumbs have got the better of her this year and she has a glut of marrows – so many she has generously decided to give them away! The marrows will be available to the public in the foyer of the museum from Saturday 28 March (today) during open hours of 10.00 am to 4.30 pm.  Visitors will be able to take home a marrow and a sheet of recipes, including ones taken from the cook books in our collection, and some more modern dishes too. Koha would be appreciated with all proceeds will be going towards relief in Vanuatu after the recent hurricane. This will be managed through UNICEF. Others who have a surplus of vegetables and don’t know what to do with them are welcome to add them to the collection at the museum to give away.

Here’s one to be going on with:

Radiation Cookery Book printed in 1931


6 lbs. marrow

6 lbs. preserving sugar

Rind and juice of 3 to 4 lemons

2 to 4 ozs bruised ginger.

Cut the marrow into 1-inch cubes. Place in bowls: alternate layers of fruit and sugar in each bowl. Leave in a cool place for 24 hours. Pout into the preserving pan. Bring to the boil slowly, stirring carefully to avoid breaking the marrow. Before boiling, add the juice of the lemons, and the rind and ginger ties in muslin. Boil rapidly for 30 to 35 minutes, skimming when necessary. The jam, when ready, will not set, but the marrow will sink in the syrup and the scum will stop rising. Pour into heated jars, cover and label.

Interior of the Fordell Presbyterian Church at Harvest Festival (B-CHW-013)

Interior of the Fordell Presbyterian Church at Harvest Festival (B-CHW-013)

While researching marrow recipes, the museum archivist came across this poem in the Unity Lodge Cookery Book printed in 1907:

A Ballad of Vegetables

by Joseph Meehan

A potato went out on a mash

And sought an onion bed;

“That’s pie for me!” observed the squash,

And all the beets turned red.

“Go ‘way!” the onion, weeping cried;

“Your love I cannot be;

The pumpkin be your lawful bride –

You cantaloupe with me.”

But onward still the tuber came

And lay down at her feet;

“You cauliflower by any name

And it will smell as wheat;

And I, too, am an early rose,

And you I’ve come to see;

So don’t turnip your lovely nose,

But spinachat with me.”

“I do not carrot all to wed,

So go, sir, if you please!”

The modest onion meekly said,

“And lettuce, pray, have peas!

Go, think that you have never seen

Myself, or smelled my sigh;

Too long a maiden I have been

For favours in your eye!”

“Ah, spare a cuss!” the tuber prayed;

“My cherryshed bride you’ll be;

You are the only weeping maid

That’s currant now with me!”

And as the wily tuber spoke

He caught her by surprise,

And giving her an artichoke,

Devoured her with his eyes.