John George Joseph Hill
It’s been a while since Uncle Joe passed away, but he is often in my thoughts. He was an honest and decent man, and featured prominently in so much of our lives and adventures. From the early days in Te Kinga, and on through the Franklin Street and Power Road days.
Time passes and memories fade, so I’ve been recording some of my recollections of him and how his presence impacted on my life in particular. Others will have different perspectives, stories and memories and they should feel free to share those.
In the Beginning
Te Kinga is obviously where it all began for many of us and life there is indelibly etched on memories. Uncle Joe was always a “larger than life” part of life at Te Kinga. Nanna Hill loved him dearly and may well have spoiled him rotten when he was a small boy, or at least that’s my guess… their bond was strong and clearly evident. Nanna Hill eagerly looked forward to his Friday night arrival on the railcar and always had his tea prepared and waiting for him.
As kids, he made us laugh a lot – he was hilarious on Friday nights! A skinful of beer, striding down the road from the railway station to home with a parcel of steak. He would pretend mightily that he was as sober as a judge, and Nanna would honour the effort by pretending likewise. He would never drink at home where she could see him… and on weekends he would steadfastly stick to cups of tea. I suspect that Bluey (Poppa) Hill might have imbibed a little too much in his younger, wilder days and that Nanna had made her feelings plain on drinking to excess. As a kid, there was always a bottle of Queen Ann whisky in the lounge cabinet at Te Kinga… I confess that I once unscrewed the cap and took a sip! Just one, and after I stopped coughing and spluttering, quickly replaced the cap and put the bottle way! Does anyone else remember it?
He invariably came home with steak… a damned good cook, he loved steak, onions and gravy and there were few weekends that passed without him doing the honours in the kitchen at some point. Curried sausages was another favourite…
Throughout his life, Uncle Joe had a sprinkling of little dark pocks marks on his forehead. For those that don’t know what caused those, or who had never noticed them, here’s how it happened. Growing up, Joe’s mate was Frank Hines, son of the boss of the sawmilling company at Te Kinga. I think Frank’s grandfather may have been the guy who created the scenario for the accident, by giving the boys an old “Long Tom” 303 rifle to play with. Its barrel was buggered, and it would have been cheaper to buy a new army surplus one than replace a barrel in those days. He rendered it “inoperable” by taking out the bolt from the action and tossing that down the long drop. So, Joe and Frank had a rifle to play with, but were somewhat more resourceful than the donor had anticipated. A plan was devised…
- A big bridge spike was found, to fit where the bolt should go.
- A live 303 cartridge was acquired, and slid into the chamber
- Uncle Joe held the rifle to his shoulder and aimed it
- Frank hit the spike with a hammer
The rifle discharged violently, the cartridge blew back and showered Uncle’s forehead with burning gunpowder powder fragments! The miracle was that the bridge spike did not take the side of his head off, and the burning powder did not destroy his eyesight… But boys will be boys… We grew up listening to these stories, and I remember emulating some of them – not THAT particular one though!
A Good Father?
The comment has often been made that he would have been a great father. I agree – and as an Uncle he was always a lot kinder and more patient with me than Dad was. No hugs or any of that nonsense, but he always listened to you and would answer your questions. We had some wonderful expeditions with Uncle Joe, he knew every tram line, clearing, duck pond and lagoon for many miles around. Although he went through life unmarried, that was not a reflection on his lack of interest in the ladies, I’d say. The story I was told was that as a young man he was deeply in love with a woman he regarded as “the one and only one” but she did him wrong. She cheated on him and ended up marrying someone else. He was heart-broken and never again put himself in a position where such misery could happen again. Once bitten, twice shy…
One of my favourite quotes; “Many a man has proposed to a woman in a light so dim, he would not have chosen a shirt by it!”
That’s not a reflection on his judgement of women so much as something that popped into my head about his love of shirts!!!
Uncle Joe had interesting shopping habits – he would know exactly what he wanted, and go on a shopping mission with gusto. He loved nice shirts… his wardrobe at Te Kinga was filled with brand-new shirts, still in their cellophane wrappings… He might find one he liked, and buy 2 or 3 of them at a time. I find that a little disturbing, because I do exactly the same thing! At the supermarket, he would never buy the small-sized items – if laundry powder came in a sack or a drum, then the sack is what he’d buy in preference to a packet…
Loggers and sawmiller’s wages were always modest, and large families the norm. People in logging villages were often compelled to adopt a semi-subsistence lifestyle is based around a fundamental human need. Food – you cannot live without it. How well you ate sometimes depended on how good your vegetable garden was, and on your hunting and fishing skills. The niceties of legal “fishing seasons” and “fishing methodologies” cannot be allowed to stand between the needs of your family and getting food on the table. What the Law says about protected species counts for little when you are poor and hungry.
Being a good forager was part of growing up, if you wanted an apple pie, blackberry pie etc, you had to know where to find the basic ingredients. Supply those and Nanna would make a pie and custard to die for.
Spearing Trout in the Crooked River
Uncle Joe had some experience of fishing, but as far as I know, none of it had anything to do licenses, fishing rods and seasons. Nickel Spinners, yes – of the .303 calibre variety. He explained that it was safe to spotlight trout and use the 22 rifle, barrel poked into the water to shoot them in the head and stun them – but not to try that with a high-powered rifle! Spears were quieter and cheaper… but required good judgement of depth and refraction angles to properly skewer a trout in deep water.
Out along the banks of the Crooked River one night with accomplices, torch and spear in hand, he spotted a large trout in a pool, sitting close into the bank. Leaning over, aiming carefully, he made a mighty spear thrust! Unfortunately, the water was nearer 12 feet deep than 6 feet and he went into the river headfirst!
This was back in the days when river water was crystal clear and free of feacal coliforms, before the dairy industry systematically destroyed almost all the lowland streams throughout New Zealand.
Here’s something that not many people know these days – Miro berries are a wonderful flavouring agent in a stew. Not just any old stew, mind you…. Miro trees are a native tree, growing in abundance throughout the West Coasts lowland forests. They are big trees, not unlike Rimu and their bark has has a distinctive “hammer-marked” appearance. They produce tremendous amounts of berries that are a vital food source for the native NZ wood pigeon (Kereru) who totally gorge themselves in season… Pigeons feasting on a diet of Miro berries rapidly grow deliciously fat and juicy. Uncle Joe (and George Leeming) always knew when it was the Time of the Miro Berry…
Killing and eating pigeons was regarded as a criminal offense even 50 years ago. Uncle Joe and Nanna Hill always said that getting caught was the biggest crime. Posthumous prosecutions are not yet in vogue, so I’m neither speaking ill of the departed, or dobbing them in for breaking the law. I’m simply pointing out that times change and attitudes alter as “civilisation” evolves. Laws about endangered bird species did not mean quite so much when the family was in need of sustenance, or a yearning for a bird stew manifested itself.
Sneaking off up the hill before daylight with the .22 rifle and .22 Short cartridges, backpack with some toast and jam, an orange or an apple… Stalking carefully in the ancient forests, listening intently… Pigeons are garrulous birds, communicating loudly, and their flight is noisy when they are fat and struggling to make it between feed trees. They are not particularly smart or wary either, so getting within 20 metre range was not a huge challenge. The perfect shot was through the head or neck, leaving the plumb body undamaged. It was important to pluck and clean them quickly and carefully conceal the feathered evidence of the crime.
Uncle Joe was always noted as an expert in the art of mischief, from his earliest days… Nanna Hill used to laugh about Joe and Vic and the things they got up to. One of their favourite tricks was….
The Mouse Trick.
- They’d acquire a mouse…
- Tie a piece of fine nylon fishing line to it
- Hide it in the long grass beside the road
- Uncoil the fishing line to their hiding place in the drain on the other side of the road
When a lady or two came walking by to go to the little village store, they’d drag the mouse across the road between the legs of their victim, and take enormous pleasure in the screams and yells that ensued.
As they got older, they got bolder. Bandicooting spuds was a famous trick – when the spuds are fully formed, prior to being dug up, sneak in and dig a hole on the side of the mound. Remove the spuds, replace the dirt, make your escape… Having your spuds bandicooted was a constant threat, one that some proud gardening people took very seriously!
One old chap at Te Kinga was known to have such paranoid concerns, laying himself wide open to exploitation.
The Hill boys tied a rope at ankle height between the veranda posts and then retreated into the gentleman’s vegetable garden. Making some vague “bandicoot” noises, they attracted the attention of the garden owner. He burst through the front door and across the veranda, ready to defend his patch. His boots caught the rope and he plunged headfirst into the garden! Mission accomplished…
Glass over the Chimney
Another trick that required minimal props to perform – just a long ladder and a pane of glass. Picture a winter evening, cold and frosty. All the houses have both the stove and the open fire going, folks are sitting around and talking, having cups of tea after dinner.
The Hill boys are out and about, up to no good… a ladder is placed stealthily against the brick chimney. One boy supports the ladder while his brother climbs quietly up and places a pane of glass over the chimney top.
Inside, the scene changes as smoke begins to fill the room – some people panic as they think the house is on fire, others think its a chimney fire. All are coughing and spluttering, eyes are burning. Doors and windows are flung open to clear the air and the cold comes flooding into the room. Chaos, carnage and confusion….
Pissing themselves with laughter, the Hill boys fade away into the darkness, mission accomplished.
Sleeper Against the Door
Another short-lived trick that required a single, albeit heavy prop, was the railway sleeper trick. A six foot long baulk of hardwood, a New Zealand Railways sleeper was a big unit. Carrying it through the village, propping it quietly up against someone’s front door, knocking loudly and then running was the procedure.
I got the impression that this particular trick may have gone beyond the pale, and that pressure as brought to bear to ensure that this one was never repeated!
Blowing up Hawks and Gulls
In the days before television, entertainment was something you were personally responsible for. Hunting and fishing filled in a lot of time but apparently there were other activities that could pass the time. Uncle Joe was not that fond of hawks – possibly because they could uncover a cache of stashed possums carcasses that were left to cool before skinning, and rip them to shreds. That would piss you off, but his retribution took things to new levels. Setting traps around a skinned possum, he was known to catch the occasional hawk… There were various options that I’ve heard;
- Attaching a tin lid to a leg with a piece of string so that every time the hawk landed, the lid would jingle and scare it into flight again…
- Attaching an inch of Gelly and a long fuse, lighting said fuse and releasing the hawk. The eventual airburst was quite spectacular, by all accounts.
Either way, the hawk was not going to be messing up any possum caches, mission accomplished.
Back in the days before electronic entertainment, recreational opportunities were limited to those you could invent yourself… Compared to a Playstation virtual reality game, some of the amusements the old Uncles came up with were extremely “real” and involved some carnage. At times, animals definitely were hurt in the creation of these stunts…
Landslide at Mitchells
Prior to working for the Railways for 26 years, Uncle Joe was a timber worker – I think he worked in the bush crews more so than in the mills. The Hohonu area, across Lake Brunner, for sure. Staying in a logging camp through the week in a rough hut, working out in West Coast weather, that was not easy work. So the story goes, he had just done a day’s work in very heavy rain, come back to camp on dark and had just come out from the bath house.The camp was in the bottom of a small gully, with low ridges on either side.
The rain was still hammering down as he headed towards the hut he shared with a workmate – but over that he heard a menacing rumble up the hillside. He immediately realised that it was a slip / landslide and yelled at everyone to run like hell up to the ridge. I have no idea how many men there were, but they made it up out of the way in the pitch dark as torrent of trees, boulders, sludge and water ripped through the camp, destroying everything!
That would have been a terrifying experience, and I think it was soon thereafter that the career with the railways began!
The only item that Uncle Joe salvaged from his hut was his .22 rifle – he found it sitting on top of the landslide debris some way away from where the hut had once stood.
Having grown up on a diet of stories, explorations, hunting expeditions and work experience in the Te Kinga / Rotomau / Kopara area, Uncle Joe had an encyclopedic knowledge of the layout of every tramline in the region. He knew where all the best hunting spots were – from duck ponds to clearings that deer always frequented. I do not remember him ever actually shooting a deer – he seemed to have long since retired from that but was always prepared to share his knowledge of where to go! He took me on some extraordinary walks, such as this one;
We left in the early morning and walked out past McCleods to the old Manson’s Tram line that ran from their boundary near Tube Creek, out through the State Farm. Crossing through the bush at the back of Kangaroo Lake, we traversed pakahi and scrub into the corner of Lady Lake where what may have been a branch of the old Ruru Tram crossed into Burgess Bros territory. From there, back a little and then around Whitmore’s Hill and out onto the road near the middle Crooked River bridge. All the while, Joe would be pointing out landmarks, explaining quirks of the landscape and telling stories of previous trips. This was a long time ago… electric fences were only just coming into vogue. The route took us across farm paddocks with the intention of crossing the Crooked River, walking up Tanks Creek to the railway line, and back down the line to home…
The Whitmore farm had implemented a 2-wire fence system Joe had not encountered before. The bottom wire was too low for a portly gentleman to get easily under. The gap between the top and bottom wire was not sufficient to easily accommodate the fuller figure. The top wire was too high to step over… After listening intently for the usual “tick, tick, tick” the early fences put out, he debated to himself whether it was even on… A tentative tap with a finger – nothing. Another couple of wary taps – nothing. “It’s not going” he said, and in one quick move he grabbed the top wire, pushed it down and swung a big leg over. Famous last words! Precisely at the halfway point, the fence have him a mighty jolt – he squealed and let go the wire! The wire whipped up between his legs and gave him a second mighty jolt – this time in the jewelry department, coaxing out another, albeit somewhat more effeminate, squeal… By this time I am giggling hysterically….
Feats of Strength
Comments were often made about Uncle Joe’s strength. One popular story / myth is that he once lifted a full 44 gallon drum of oil off a railway wagon onto a truck deck. Or the other way round… Either way, that’s Herculean… I did personally see evidence of him picking a couple of 100 weight sacks of wheat at the Te Kinga Railway Station, and carrying them over the tracks to the wheelbarrow.
A Big Bloke
Uncle Joe was indeed big of belly – where most of us have at one time aspired to a 6-pack, Uncle had a barrel-pack for as long as I can remember back. I am sure he felt really blessed to be a part of a big and rowdy family environment, and to share in the guiding of unruly little boys and young men. Whilst sometimes seeming gruff on the outside, I believe he was always smiling on the inside. Especially on days where he was caught a nephew picking peas uninvited in his garden – and had the wonderful opportunity to sneak up behind and deliver a swift boot up the bum of the offender!!! He would have chuckled about that for a long time thereafter…
His propensity for mischief was a trait he carried into retirement, and it could be a double-edged sword… At Franklin Street he once instructed a Colbert boy to hide under the sofa and bite the ankle of the next man that sat down…. Having set the trap for the first unfortunate older nephew to take a seat, he headed out to the kitchen to make a cup of tea… No doubt grinning to himself all the while! Something must have distracted him from the mischief he had set in train and he completely forgot about it. Back to the sofa with his cup of tea, sat down, and the little Colbert angle-biter nailed him as instructed!!
Big in stature, and big of heart, he was indeed a man one was proud to call “Uncle” and he contributed a lot to family life and values.