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.
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.
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.
The Stripper machine
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.
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.
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.