Success is getting what you want; happiness is liking what you get

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Visiting the Foxton Stripper

It was a day out with the boys when the Menz Shed blokes invited their spouses out for lunch in Foxton.  We all met at the Dutch Oven Café, checked out the cabinet display.  Consequently, three helpings of macaroni cheese and one large sausage roll and salad was delivered to our table.

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At the Dutch Oven Café

Lunch over, the team gathered at the Flax Stripper Museum, which opened in 1990.  Volunteer Tony Hunt was extremely knowledgeable about the history of flax in the area.

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Foxton was the only town in New Zealand to develop a large-scale flax industry which lasted from 1888 to 1974.  The production of flax fibre was Foxton's principal source of income and three generations of workers found employment in the swamps and mills of the district.  The invention of a machine (known as a stripper) to extract fibre from the flax leaves could eventually produce 560 pounds of fibre in a day, and led to large scale production. This was draped outside to dry and bleach in the sun.

The invention of the stripper quickly led to the development of a substantial export trade and the establishment of flax dressing factories in many parts of New Zealand.  Flax mills were usually situated in close proximity to a flax swamp and on the banks of a river or stream, for a good supply of running water was needed to wash the fibre after it had emerged from the stripper. Most of these early mills were powered by steam engines, but some utilized water wheels, or were driven by horses walking in a circle.  In the late 1800s there were 50 mills operating in the Manawatu area.

Tony gave us a demonstration of this rather lethal looking machine and fed flax leaves though the stripper.  Whoosh, with a hiss and a roar the leaves were sucked through the machine in a blink of an eye.  

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The Stripper machine

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And came out looking like this

The flax industry went through several boom and bust cycles, disease spread through the plants, cheaper fibre from overseas became available, all contributing to the local decline.  Woolpacks and Textile Company kept the local economy afloat manufacturing wool packs, flax underfelt, hardwearing  matting, and in  1955 the 100% sisal carpet, cordella, was introduced.  But tastes and times were changing and the factory was closed in 1980s.

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Examples of hard wearing sisal matting

Of course, before all this mechanization, the Maori people knew all about flax, weaving it into baskets and mats, and using the fibre to make ropes, footwear and clothing.  The nectar from its flowers made a sweet drink. The crushed roots made poultices for skin infections, and produced a juice with disinfectant and laxative properties. The gum from the base of the leaves eased pain and healed wounds, especially burns. The leaves themselves could be used as bandages and to secure broken bones.

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Clothing utilizing flax

The “Keep Foxton Beautiful” group were instrumental in securing the last remaining flax stripper for the museum.  And what a good thing it was rescued, a very important piece of Foxton’s heritage.  Many thanks to Tony Hunt for an interesting afternoon.

2 comments:

Janice said...

That would have been the most interesting museum to visit. I've heard of New Zealand flax and knew the Maori used it, but had no idea how it was processed or what it was used for in more recent times. How fortunate to have a machine saved and a museum established. Thanks for sharing.

Marilyn McDonald said...

That was interesting, Jenny. We have travelled through Foxton on SH1 numerous times - I'd say hundreds - and we knew that flax had been the major industry but had never ventured in to have a look. That will be rectified!

I am pleased to see that you and Robin have slowed down since your return from Oz - David and I are looking forward to doing that too! I reckon I will be so tired by the time we leave the UK that I will sleep most of the way home!

Cheers, M&D