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Pioneer tales-spinner turns author at age 95

August 8, 2006

Pioneer tales-spinner turns author at age 95

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A woman who saw bullock trains and knew the first New Zealand-born prime minister, Gordon Coates, has become an author – at the age of 95.

Mavis Smith has lived all her life in the historic family homestead, Totara House, on the northern shores of the Kaipara Harbour where her grandmother – an Albertland settler – was the first European woman to set foot.

Mavis Smith’s book, Child of the Kauri, will be launched by another member of the Smith family, Rodney MP Lockwood Smith, at the Matakohe Kauri Museum on August 18.

The Smith family spread through the Matakohe area (Mavis’ father George was one of eight sons) and into every facet of pioneering life, from kauri milling to bullock train driving to farming and raising prize Devon cattle.

They were contemporaries of another Matakohe family, the Coates, and Miss Smith and her siblings played with the children of local MP and New Zealand Prime Minister Gordon Coates.

Now the last surviving of the George Smith children, Miss Smith has gifted her beautiful 110-year-old kauri villa and its historic contents – including numerous kauri artifacts - to the nearby Kauri Museum, which her family was instrumental in founding.

“But this book is what really thrills me so much,” she said. “For many, many years I have been collecting stories and anecdotes in scrap books and folders but the task of getting them into shape as a story was always a bit beyond me.”

Then she met writer Paul Campbell.

“Paul had moved to the nearby village of Paparoa, and discovered, quite by chance, that his mother was born in the schoolhouse there when his grandfather was the headmaster in 1922.

“I heard about this and as I knew his grandfather’s name – he was a contemporary of my own father – I got in touch. And before we knew it, we were beginning to write my book.”

Mr Campbell – a former journalist turned family history author – said that working on the Smith book was an eerie experience, with the connections to his own family and the unusual writing environment.

“There I was, ensconced at a desk in the billiards room in Totara House, up to my eyes in family notes and memorabilia in a dozen folders and scrapbooks,” he said.

“The walls of this room are hung with pictures from the past. I’d find myself looking into space for inspiration on how to start a paragraph or a chapter and I swear the pictures of Mavis’ grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and siblings were all whispering to me. The book started to write itself.

“Even the huge horns of those dead bullocks that hauled the kauri logs out of the bush, now mounted above the mottled kauri panels of the room, seemed to add the odd muted bellow.”

Child of the Kauri, by Mavis Smith and Paul Campbell, is an eyewitness account spanning almost a century.

It is published by the Matakohe Kauri Museum, and is richly illustrated with photographs from the Smith family archives, as well as from the museum collection. It is available from the museum for $35.


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