Getting rich quick at Pio Pio
In the early 1950s, the word was that you could earn big money scrubcutting on contract. So my friend and I went to Wellington Public Library and searched through the "scrubcutters wanted" columns in the newspapers.
We decided to answer one particular advertisement and went to the post office to make a toll call to Pio Pio. Two days later, we arrived by train at Te Kuiti, then by bus to Pio Pio – the last part of our journey in the amiable atmosphere of Fred Breadenbeck's mail bus. He dropped us off at Cliff Pethybridge's farm. Wow! This was really wild country. We had made it to the heartland of New Zealand.
"My name is Joe Zawada and this is Stan Manterys."
The names obviously baffled him.
"Where do you boys come from?"
"Oh, we are Pahiatua Poles, you know, from the Polish Children's Camp that was in Pahiatua in the late 1940s."
"Have you had any scrubcutting experience?"
"Yes, of course we have!"
"Have you got your slashers?"
We then got organised. The hills to be cleared of scrub were a fair way from the homestead, so we decided not to stay in the whare (house) but to live in on the job.
Cliff gave us a haystack cover, a horse cover, an old iron bed and two bales of straw. We made a tent using the haystack cover. I slept on the bed, my friend on the straw, wrapped in the horse cover. At night, the cattle gathered around our camp. Our kitchen consisted of a tripod made from sticks and billies suspended by wire. We used manuka for fuel. It was a lovely spot with a stream and small lake nearby.
We hired slashers, axes and sharpening stones from Cliff. He showed us around the block and said there were about 35 acres of scrub to be cut. We were absolutely "green", full of energy and enthusiasm, with hopes of big savings. We were going to be rich for Christmas and the New Year 1954.
Our working day began at 6am. At 8am, we had an hour off for breakfast, which usually consisted of a huge plate of porridge and condensed milk. We then worked until noon when we had the main meal of the day – meat and page 203vegetables. We rested and started working again at 2pm, worked through to 5pm, had an hour off for the evening meal and worked until dark. Preserving our food was a real problem and we often had to throw stuff away because of mildew or maggots.
We soon discovered that most of the manuka scrub was too thick for the slashers, so we had to use medium-weight axes. In the humid climate we were constantly sweating. Our soft hands were shortly covered with so many blisters that we ran out of Elastoplast. In some spots on our hands it was literally one blister over another.
The terrain, gently rolling country, presented unsuspecting problems. It was boggy, even on hillsides, with dense moss holding a lot of moisture. The fairly thin but tall manuka at the bottom of the gully became shorter but thicker as we cut up the hill. We worked with determination for several weeks but as Christmas approached we realised we would not finish, no matter how hard we worked. We told Cliff that we would not be returning after Christmas. He estimated, and was very surprised, that we had managed to cut 13 acres. At a contract price of £6 10s per acre, we received a cheque for £84 10s.
The hardest-earned money of my life was at Pio Pio.
Józef Zawada takes a lunch break at high noon during a hard day's work in Pio Pio